Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey criticized Democrats Thursday for using inflammatory language to denounce GOP-led efforts to curb union influence in state government and push education reforms.
“There’s always going to be some partisan barbs thrown back and forth. That’s part of the legislative process,” Ramsey told reporters at the Capitol. “But when we saw Mike Turner stand up on the Capitol last week and call us ‘terrorists’ because we’re trying to get a quality teacher in every classroom, then it has crossed the line.”
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester “called us ‘fascist’ because we passed a bill that simply says that you don’t have to be a member of a union to serve on the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System. He called us fascists over that,” continued the lieutenant governor. “So has the rhetoric gotten out of hand on the other side? Absolutely.”
Last weekend House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, speaking before an estimated 3,000 teachers union protesters on the steps of the Capitol, implored Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to “please stop this terrorism against our teachers.”
In the week prior, the Tennessee Democratic Party sent out a fundraising e-mail declaring that “right wing extremists are pushing Wisconsin-style bills through the state legislature that would strip away the rights of teachers and eliminate their political freedom.”
“Make no mistake about it; this is a political attack on teachers for supporting democratic leaders who have stood up for education in our state,” the TNDP e-mail stated. “If passed, these fascist measures will silence the voice of teachers working to improve our schools, communities and our state.”
In interviews with TNReport this week, both Turner and Forrester defended their rhetoric.
“The definition of ‘terrorism’ is intimidation, political intimidation,” Turner told TNReport on Monday.
“I think that’s exactly what’s happening. If you look up the word, the definition, that’s what it is. Terrorism is associated with politics,” Turner continued. “It’s political intimidation, political bullying. That’s what’s happened here. It’s political retribution, what they’re trying to do, and it’s just wrong. And I think, grammatically, that was a correct, proper word to use.”
Forrester said Wednesday the party’s e-mail — which was actually sent prior to the GOP-led Senate passing a bill to deprive the Tennessee Education Association of its ability to pick members of the state’s pension system board — was meant “to encourage teachers to participate” in last Saturday’s protest rally.
“I think it is a fair assessment of what Republicans are doing — stripping teachers, state employees and unions of their collective bargaining rights, something that has been well established in Tennessee Democratic politics,” Forrester said.
“Those things are draconian and sort of border on being fascist,” he added. “The fact that 3,000 people showed up on Saturday in an absolute downpour in the morning — and it was raining throughout the day — shows how passionate people feel about what the Republican-controlled Legislature is attempting to do to teachers, state employees and union members.”
Forrester also defended Turner’s “terrorism” remark at the rally. The party chairman said responsibility for the harsh turn in the debates rests with Republicans for campaigning “about one thing and doing something completely opposed to that” once the legislative session began.
“I don’t see where these actions to remove collective bargaining rights or taking away tenure creates one single job or does anything to advance an agenda that is critical to hard-working Tennesseans — and in particular those who are not working — which is job creation,” said Forrester.
Haslam earlier this week said he’s disturbed by the spiteful tone at the Capitol lately.
“If you ask me what my concern is the last two or three weeks, it would be that. There has been more of a partisan divide, which I don’t think is healthy for solving problems,” the governor said.
At a tea party rally Saturday held prior to the teacher union march, one speaker referred to Haslam as “Mister Rogers,” after the mild-mannered children’s television program host who died in 2003.
On Monday, Sen Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, urged teachers to work with Republicans to “make public schools anew.”
“I want all of you fellow teachers to join with me, with this cause and with this General Assembly. That choice is yours,” Summerville said. “But make no mistake, the final responsibility is ours, and we are warriors.”
The TNDP posted a video of Summerville’s remarks on the party’s blog under the statement, “Rancorous dialogue on the Hill from his own party has irked Gov. Bill Haslam.”
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told TNReport he took personal offense to Turner’s “terrorism” comment.
“Well, as a former U.S. Army veteran of the first Gulf War, that’s offensive, number one. That’s offensive to everyone who is fighting real terrorists,” said McCormick. “That’s just a silly statement that is hard to even respond to it. I’m disappointed in him in that. I think it is a personal insult to a lot of people and very bad use of language on his part.”
Asked to respond to the “terrorism” and “fascist” usages, Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, says he “certainly wouldn’t use those remarks.
“But each person has to do what they believe and what they think is appropriate,” he added.
“When things are important to people, they’re important to our state, they’re important to our children, we tend to get a little emotional about them and maybe say things in the heat of the moment that we would not say beforehand,” Fitzhugh said. “I’ll count to five and try not to say those things.”
In an e-mailed statement to TNReport Wednesday, Ramsey said, “This type of bizarre, over-the-top rhetoric is one of many reasons Democrats lost so badly last November.”