As my fellow Volunteers know, 2010 marked a seismic shift in the state of Tennessee in that, for the first time since Reconstruction, the Republican party took control of the Governorship and both houses of the State Legislature. Prior to that time, there had always been enough of an even distribution of the two parties between and within the executive and legislative branches that, even though Tennessee was reliably red in terms of federal elections, matters at the state level were prevented from devolving completely. (For example, I'll bet many of you don't know that Tennessee actually has a right to privacy in its state Constitution greater than that found in the U.S. Constitution, which is why we don't - at least for the moment - have draconion restrictions on abortions here.) We could always say with pride that at least we weren't Mississippi.
However, within days, minutes even, of the swearing in of the 107th General Assembly in January of 2011, a number of bills were introduced which made it clear that the ALEC-backed extreme conservatives in this state had not been sitting idly by while Democrats held a slim majority in the legislature. As Nancy Pelosi famously said, "Elections have consequences." Those consequences became evident from the very outset.
It was the session that gave rise to hilarious phrases like Don't Say Gay and Gateway Sexual Activity, new ways to restrict the teaching of evolution, and requirements for the online posting of detailed demographic information about women who have had abortions and the doctors who performed them.
It was also a particulary rough session for Tennessee's educators. Teachers saw the repeal of their collective bargaining rights, a substantial decrease in job-security protections, removal of the union's ability to appoint members to the state's retirement committee (instead making those political appointment by the speakers of the House and Senate), and the elimination of payroll deduction for union dues - among numerous other insults. There was even a bill introduced, which thankfully didn't pass, making it a Class C Misdemeanor for any labor organization to contribute to a political campaign - a kind of reverse Citizens United, if you will, but targeted at only one group.
Leading the charge, by either sponsoring, co-sponsoring or supporting many of these anti-teacher bills, was Republican Caucus Chair and House Education Committee member Debra Maggart, who, since 2004, has represented Tennessee's 45th District, which is just northeast of Nashville.
Maggart and her colleagues ended up getting much of what they wanted in terms of weakening the teachers' union, riding that wave of anti-public employee sentiment which swept much of the country in the 2010 mid-term election. And so it looked like clear sailing for all of the House and Senate Republican incumbents heading into the 2012 contests. But just when you think everything's going your way, a fly with an AK-47 lands in the ointment.
The "Safe Commute Bill" (I seriously need to get a job naming bills - you just take what the bill actually is call it the exact opposite) was introduced in March of this year, which would have prevented employers, other property owners and government entities from prohibiting Tennessee citizens from storing legally possessed firearms in the locked trunks of their vehicles, as long as said vehicles are authorized to be on the property. (Think of all the time this will save disgruntled employees, who would no longer have to go home to retrieve their weapons!)
As the National Rifle Association put it, "This would ensure that gun owners are able to defend themselves during their commute. Current parking lot prohibitions disarm good citizens during their entire commute and this is a dangerous injustice that must be ended." The bill would have exempted single-family detached residences, nuclear power generating plants, and science and energy national laboratories operated by the federal Department of Energy. Thank goodness for small favors.
That bill was coupled with the Firearm Discrimination Prevention Bill which - in a state where we still have very real issues with racism, sexism, and homophobia , and in a state which consistently ranks near the top in gun ownership and where gun owners enjoy a clear majority - seems a particularly insensitive form of satire.
And this is where things got interesting in a bad way for Debra Maggart. Not surprisingly, the Safe Commute Act was opposed by the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, which saw it as an infringement on private property rights, and which resulted in the laughable spectacle of the NRA and big business arguing over whose rights were being trampled the most. A battle of the titans was about to ensue. But wait, aren't y'all supposed to be on the same side? I'm confused!
Debra Maggart chose to support her corporate masters, learning the hard way that you need to remain in the good graces of whoever has the biggest checkbook and the most vocal base. It is estimated that the NRA spent $100,000 backing Maggart's first-ever primary challenger, Courtney Rogers, a newcomer to the scene who says she began to get involved in politics when Barack Obama was elected in 2008, and she became concerned about the rise of "totalitarianism". That's $100,000 in a primary election for a state House seat, a race where fewer than 6,000 votes were cast. All that money spent to oppose an incumbent who, in just about every other sense, was a Republican dream come true.
Some say that it was those devious teachers who switched sides and voted in the Republican primary in order to vent their fury on Maggart. Discounting the fact that a sizable number of teaches actually are Republicans, the education policy differences between Maggart and Rogers are likely to be slight. So let's not overthink this.
I'm reminded of that scene at the end of The Howling, where an intrepid investigative journalist, in a last-ditch effort to expose the monsters among us, undergoes a rather radical transformation on the air, and is mercifully blown away by a true friend. The scene cuts to some bar patrons watching the broadcast, and one of them starts talking about the magic of special effects. Another drunk at the bar says flatly, "It was real. She turned into a werewolf, and they shot her."
So it was with Debra Maggart. She turned into a werewolf. (Figuratively, of course. I would never accuse Rep. Maggart of practicing lycanthropy. I believe she's actually an Episcopalian.) And the NRA shot her. (Again, figuratively, of course. I would never accuse the NRA of inciting violence!)
Along with many teachers, I wanted Maggart gone. So did the NRA. And so it is that politics makes strange bedfellows. (Although, like a drunken one-night stand, I don't expect this tryst to be repeated.) It is likely that Courtney Rogers will defeat her Democratic opponent in the general election. You see, the Democratic party in Tennessee is in a bit of disarray right now, especially after it helped to elect Mark Clayton, a candidate for one of our U.S. Senate seats who has ties to an anti-gay hate group, and is actually going so far as to "disavow" its own candidate and urging voters to write-in someone else, anyone else, come November.
No, I won't shed any tears for Debra Maggart. And the sight of Republicans eating their own has been enjoyable to watch. But this whole farce illustrates perfectly what is wrong with politics these days. Single-issue special interest groups with virtually unlimited funds have completely taken the place of an informed electorate, and both parties seem to be fielding candidates who have neither the intellectual depth nor the seriousness needed to address the pressing problems we face, and who, once elected, live in constant fear of angering the wrong lobbying group.
It's a different kind of race to the bottom, one that will result in an increasingly dysfunctional and splintered government.