Target Selection – 64>8

Don't Shoot the Baby
Monday night, the Tennessee State House overwhelmingly voted to restrict a local government’s right to determine the terms of contracts, or that is the ultimate effect.

In reality, the bill was proposed by a guy who was offended that an entity who contracts with a government can’t discriminate at will, something the Federal Government has restricted since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the wake of the vote, there was a lot of anger at the 8 Democrats that voted for the bill. That’s understandable considering both the discrimination element of the bill, and the removal of local control over local contracting that the bill ultimately sustains.

Because none of the Democrats that voted for the bill took to the floor to speak, we can only opine as to their rationale. It’s sad, however that they chose the will of a guy who has been hell bent on increasing discrimination rather than allowing local governments the latitude to decide what’s good for them.

Here are three Democrats who voted against the bill, with 3 similar rationales. I’ll talk more about their message after the videos.

Mike Stewart
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Jeanne Richardson
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Craig Fitzhugh
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The one thing all three of these legislators point out is that this is about a local issue that a group of legislators that don’t live in the county in question didn’t like. Further, they follow the frame that this local issue is well within the purview of a local government to control. From that vantage point, one could and should argue that this action by the Tennessee House is just one of a number of issues where the state has sought to insert itself into a local issue.

While I understand the anger at the 8 Democrats that voted for the bill, I’m more angry at the 64 people who lifted this non-issue to the precipice of becoming Tennessee law. That is not to excuse the 8 for their actions, but to frame the issue more appropriately. Ultimately, with or without those 8 votes the bill was going to pass. It doesn’t make much sense to train our ire at those 8 legislators when there are far more targets on the other side of the aisle that ultimately forced the issue causing a bad bill to pass.

It’s natural to be more mad at people on your side that vote against you. They’re right there. That other side is so far away. But to what effect? Do you really think any of those 8 Democrats are going to listen to you after you throw them under the bus? Probably not. So the question I ask myself before I start, “what is my intended outcome?”

More often than not, my intended outcome is to change the way the conversation is held, because that’s the root of the problem. On many issues, but social issues in particular, Southern Democrats have ceded the debate to social conservatives using conservatives’ very own words to frame the issue. By giving up on this important part of the debate, we’ve given up 30+ years of rhetoric that has become the conventional wisdom in many areas and political circles, which, in turn, has made it harder for those who represent more conservative areas.

In short, we haven’t consistently made our case to our people using our language. We’ve fallen in line with the screamers on the right because we didn’t think we could drown them out, and that’s a critical error.

I’m reminded of a talk I attended last year. A conservative member of the State House, from a reliably conservative district was explaining his position on women’s issues and described himself as “pro-life”, to audible groans from the audience. But going further into his position, it became clear that his intention was not to restrict women’s access to healthcare options, but one of perception. The term “pro-life” illicits a certain response from people who may not fully understand the issue beyond abortion. For instance, conservative women may not understand that the traditional “pro-life” position includes limiting access to very regular and normal healthcare procedures. From that frame, he puts the issue in the context it should be, “Do you want unrestricted access to safe and reliable healthcare, or do you want your options restricted?”

At that point, he has their attention. No one wants their options restricted, particularly with healthcare. While it may seem like there’s a good deal of nuance required, it’s really quite simple, “I respect your right to privacy and I think you’re smart enough to make your own healthcare decisions. I won’t vote for anything that keeps you from making them, and that’s my definition of Pro-life.”

This does two things; first it changes the definition of what it means to be “pro-life”. Since the 70’s the right has tried to frame choice advocates as “pro-abortion” or “pro-death”. In reality, the choice position is “pro-life” in that it is life affirming. Second, it places the traditionally understood “pro-life” position right where it should be, as “anti-choice” and “anti-woman”.

That is, in effect what Stewart, Fitzhugh, and Richardson were doing, making their statements about the bills ultimate effect, restricting the right of local governments to set a higher bar for their community. And while it didn’t sway these 8 conservative Democrats this time, maybe it will sway them the next time.

Maybe arguing that Nashville is Nashville and Prospect, Sparta, Dunlap, Portland, Clarksville, Dickson, New Johnsonville, and Livingston are their respective cities, and neither can govern the other… maybe that isn’t the most compelling argument. Maybe affirming that this state wants to have the latitude to discriminate against a class of people is really what these 8 legislators wanted. We’ll never know because they didn’t speak on the issue.

Discrimination aside, at the end of the day, this bill restricts the ability of a community to hold itself to a higher standard for the good of the community, and removes a community’s ability to contract according to local standards. This bill restricts Nashville to a lowest common denominator, which is ultimately anti-competitive in a world where community standards are constantly being raised.

I’m certain that if asked, the leaders of these communities would not like to be forced to a lower standard of living for their people. Why should Nashville, or any other city in the state be?

And for me, that’s the question to the 64. Why are you forcing a local government to lower their standards? Why are you hell bent on interfering in a local issue?

That’s why the 64 are my targets rather than the 8. Because it’s easier to hit 1 of 64 that never vote my way than it is to hit 1 or 8 that occasionally do.

Maybe, by not shooting my own people, maybe I’ll have a chance to change their minds for the next time. Better yet, maybe I’ll be able to help elect someone new to one of those 64 seats that will do it for me. Because at the end of the day, 64 people who always vote the wrong way is a much bigger problem than 8.

You can watch the whole debate here.

See also this editorial in the Tennessean.

6 thoughts

  1. I don’t think I can agree with you here. While the 64 are indeed the larger targets, the Democrats who voted with them deserve scrutiny; they need to be held accountable for their vote. It may indeed be the case that the strength of *our* party, along with our ability to appeal to Tennesseans enough to regain a majority, depends in large part on how our elected members act, not just how the Republicans act. Without hearing any reasons from these (9, by my count) representatives — and that’s a big caveat — we need to hold their feet to the fire. I’m happy to hear legitimate explanations, but the reason I think we got silence from them is because there is no legitimate explanation; they were simply worried that voting against this bill would label them as supporters of homosexuality back in their districts. Like you said, it was going to pass anyway, so they just took an easy out.

    For me, it’s not enough simply to be called a Democrat. You’ve got to act like one too. This is a pretty key issue, as I think you’ve recognized. If we couldn’t count on the support of Democrats here, then we need to think about if we can count on them *period*.

    It’s not enough just to target Republicans. We were going to do that anyway. It’s worth considering if we have the leaders we need in the General Assembly as things stand right now. I’m not advocating internecine warfare for the party, but simply saying “they’re Democrats; let’s keep what we have, for better or for worse, and focus outside” runs the risk of ignoring internal problems that, I think, are connected to our inability to run a successful party as of late. You can’t expand the Empire if you’re crumbling from within.

    Also, by way of transparency, I think we need to at least list the names of the 9 Democrats who voted for this bill:

    Eddie Bass
    Charles Curtiss
    John DeBerry
    Bill Harmon
    Michael Ray McDonald
    Joe Pitts
    David Shepard
    John Tidwell
    John Mark Windle

    1. I don’t disagree with you. I too think that holding elected officials accountable for their actions is important. There are many ways to do this… donations (or the withholding of donations), at the ballot box, opinion pieces, and direct communication are just a few of the means. Certainly any of these are appropriate, and I encourage all of them.

      That said, while communicating on a specific issue is important, judging based on one issue is patently unfair. In making that judgement one needs to be sure they are addressing the full body of work, not just a single issue, which is what happens more often than not in my experience. I know that in this session, the Democratic Caucus has been more united than previous sessions against some of the more heinous bills proposed by the majority.

      Further, as I’m not a constituent of the 8 I speak of (I live in John DeBerry’s district, and have addressed the extent of my continuing disappointment in him privately) there are limits to the level that I can hold any of these members accountable. They represent areas that are far away from me, in a very different environment. I cannot, nor would I claim to understand all the issues going on in their areas. All I can do is hope to provide some perspective that may, in some way, shift their thought process in the future.

      Yes, I’m an optimist.

      At the end of the day, with limited resources, training our sights internally instead of externally is folly, particularly on one issue. We have a much bigger fight on our hands. Regaining seats is our ultimate mission… a mission that, if successful, will ensure we don’t have to deal with ridiculous bills such as this one in the future.

      Cheers, and thanks for reading.

  2. John DeBerry is a real disappointment. Sometimes I don’t know why he doesn’t run as a Republican, since he votes like one.

  3. Mr. Ross:

    I do completely agree with your statement, as far as it goes. I am at a complete loss as to the seeming continuous surrender of democrats when it comes to not only the very strong message we have to offer the voters, and our legislative partners across the aisle, but also by the consistent refusal of the democratic legislative leadership in both houses to lead by framing the message to be considered. It is as if the generation of our representative leadership missed the class!

    I frankly do not know the best course of action. Either we do not have the intestinal fortitude to clearly and simply state our case, or we have forgotten how to do so. It’s also viral; it’s present at every turn, no matter where you look. Locally, state-wide, and at the federal level, we are simply NOT doing the job. Democrats at every level see this, and simply raise their hands, roll their eyes, and continue their march into apathy. This is not what our elected legislators have been tasked to do, no matter how convenient it might be to blame the constituents after the car is in the ditch.

    John H., I do disagree with you. When one point of legislation is the lie covered in 99 truths, the legislation is a lie. When that lie is the true nature of the legislation, it needs to be vigorously challenged until that lie is removed. More often than not, when that occurs, the legislation is abandoned, because the lie has been seen for what it is. Why are we not willing to do this as Democrats now?

    This is a travesty, not merely in the legislation being crammed down the throats of almost 50% of the voting populace of our state. It is a travesty of legislating, the legislative process, and the theory of representative democracy itself.

    The final, sad truth of it is that Republican legislators at every level have been instructed well. Do not fear forcing your philosophical will upon your districts! We have the Courts, where most of these shenanigans will be judged. We’re safe. Go for it!

    I say ENOUGH! I DO hold those Democratic legislators who cannot seem to remember their values, and the values of those who elected them to serve US accountable. If the opposite occurred, there would be recalls, judicial proceedings, outrage without end, and unending gnashing of teeth throughout the land.

    So why do the sheep slumber? I believe it is because those who have elected them sleep. Again, I say ENOUGH!

    Respectfully, of course.

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