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||Jeanne Richardson|
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.