By Natalie Allison
NASHVILLE, TN — I covered the statehouse for years. It’s been heading in this direction for a while.
The same dynamic is on display at the state Capitol, where former Rep. Eddie Mannis — a John Kasich-Gary Johnson voter in 2016 and a gay Republican — entered the legislature in 2021 with plans of voting like a moderate, in line with his Knoxville district. Last year, he bowed out after just one term, later saying there were “too many people there who are just mean and vindictive,” only caring about “winning at all costs.” Other members live under the fear and dread of a possible primary challenge — the only election that now matters in most districts in Tennessee — if they stray from the party orthodoxy on guns, access to abortion and other issues.
But even for the jaded, Thursday’s expulsions were still extraordinary to watch play out. Longtime political insiders around the Capitol on Monday were stunned to see how quickly expulsion resolutions were drawn up against the three members. Mannis, who now occasionally opines on his former colleagues’ behavior, posted to Facebook: “Today is such a sad day for our State…”
For them and others, the speed with which the Tennessee House acted this week to throw out two young Black legislators must be put into perspective by all the other issues the legislature has declined to act on.
For more than four years, House Republicans declined to expel one of their own, Rep. David Byrd, after he was accused of sexually assaulting three teenage girls, students he taught and coached on a high school basketball team. Byrd was on tape apologizing to one of them, decades later. Even the Republican governor said he believed the allegations to be credible. But House Republicans — some conceding in private that they suspected Byrd may actually have preyed on minors — dug their heels in, saying he was fairly elected.
The debate around removal of the bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest went on for years, even as Black lawmakers pleaded with their colleagues to take down the statue. Republicans punted on opportunities to authorize removal, with many wanting to keep the statue in place. In return, protesters — often led by Jones, one of the expelled representatives — rallied at the Capitol on a regular basis, their shouts outside the chambers carrying through the thick, shuttered wooden doors as lawmakers took up other legislative business. (The bust was finally removed in 2021, with resistance from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, after GOP Gov. Bill Lee whipped votes on the necessary state commissions to resolve the issue once and for all.)
The undercurrent of race is present in many of the Capitol’s controversies.
“Black people are idiots,” Cade Cothren, the chief of staff to former House Speaker Glen Casada, once wrote in a text message during a conversation about Common Core curriculum. It was one of several uncovered prior to his resignation in 2019. Both Casada and Cothren are now awaiting federal trial in a case involving alleged bribery and kickbacks at the legislature. Cothren has since apologized for the racist comment, and more recently has even condemned the legislature’s decision to expel the Black Democratic legislators.
A former GOP legislative staffer told me that in 2020, a member of House Republican leadership in a text message referred to Jones, then an activist, and another Black lawmaker as “baboons.” Former GOP Rep. Brandon Ogles, then vice-chair of the Republican caucus, at the time also recorded the staffer discussing the text. He shared a copy of the recording with POLITICO. The member of leadership in question denies sending the text. The comments were allegedly made while Jones was taking part in protests following George Floyd’s murder by police.
A member presenting a bill about sanctuary cities in 2018 used the term “wetback” while telling a story. On two separate occasions in 2020, Republican legislators publicly cracked jokes about Black people eating fried chicken.
And on and on.
Politics changes over time, of course. It was the Tennessee Democrats who led the charge to install the Forrest bust in the 1970s and who made life difficult for Republicans when they ran the state legislature for decades.
The state’s Republicans may very well transition too. Perhaps — though there is not an ounce of evidence supporting this theory — that bygone era of Howard Baker bipartisanship will be resuscitated.
But we are clearly not living in it now. Instead, the current era of the Tennessee legislature has been defined by a non-stop stream of befuddling scandals and unforced errors by a Republican supermajority that is seemingly insulated from being punished for them. That body has given the state’s Capitol press corps — a fraction of the size it was decades earlier — no shortage of things to uncover and try to explain to readers. Sometimes, the audience becomes global.
When I departed Tennessee less than two years ago to cover national politics — leaving after a whirlwind of a few years at the state Capitol and the ouster of a House speaker — I wondered if the legislative news there would settle down. Maybe things will become boring back in Tennessee, I thought.
I got my answer pretty quickly.