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Multiple Fronts in Congressional Primary Title Fight for ‘Most Conservative’

Two state senators running for Congress and campaigning against federal spending are reacting with surprise and fact-checking to claims by an opponent who says they are guilty of “cheap talk” and “expensive votes” in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, their 6th District congressional race involves a hot-button issue over a planned mosque in Murfreesboro that has crept into the campaign with various twists.

State Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, issued a detailed press release Wednesday in response to television advertising claims by former Rutherford County Republican Party chairman Lou Ann Zelenik that hits Black and state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, on spending. The three are considered the top contenders in a crowded field in the Republican primary to replace retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon.

Zelenik has an ad running that says, “Diane Black and Jim Tracy Increased Spending $5.1 Billion Over 3 Years” and that the two lawmakers broke the state budget spending cap.

The ad does not define the spending cap, but the Zelenik campaign has said the reference is to the “Copeland Cap,” a constitutional provision that says the General Assembly may not spend more than Tennessee’s economy grows. The Copeland Cap was enacted in 1978 and is so named for the legislator at the time, Rep. David Copeland, who led the cause.

The Copleland Cap is easily broken in the budget process, however, since it takes only a majority vote to break the cap. The Legislature needs only to muster the same number of votes that approved the budget in order to break the cap.

Efforts have been made in recent years to raise the threshold for breaking the cap from a simple majority vote to a two-thirds majority. Black and Tracy, in fact, have been involved in those efforts. But the effort has failed.

“I voted against breaking the Copeland Cap this year and did not vote for the budget, so I’m not sure exactly what she’s talking about,” Tracy said. “I guess it was the year we put money in the Rainy Day Fund, which broke the Copeland Cap, which I think was the right thing to do.

“We had some money there. We put money in our Rainy Day Fund. I think it may be one of the reasons why the state is in as good a shape as we are.”

Black’s release Wednesday said statements in the Zelenik ad are misleading, saying this year the budget actually decreased by 0.3 percent and that the budget has decreased in two of the last three fiscal years. The release also said Black has consistently opposed breaking the Copeland Cap in her career but acknowledges she broke the cap in 2007 because the money went into the Rainy Day Fund.

The Senate passed this year’s budget bill 30-3. Tracy voted against it with Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, and Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, voted present and not voting. The House passed the budget 94-0.

The Senate approved the measure breaking the Copeland Cap 28-4-1, with the no votes including Tracy and Black. The House approved breaking the cap 82-10.

Black’s statement says Black is a “fiscal conservative, who strongly believes in saving.”

Black’s campaign release Wednesday also took exception to a recent Zelenik campaign statement saying Black is a “closet liberal.”

Zelenik’s statement said Black refused to vote against or lead an effort against honoring Hedy Weinberg (pdf), the Tennessee director of the American Civil Liberties Union, although Zelenik’s statement did not refer to Weinberg by name.

The Black campaign countered that the resolution honoring Weinberg was brought up but that Black refused to vote on the motion because of its political nature, offering a link to video of the Senate proceedings to prove its point. The campaign statement noted that the precise time of the parliamentary move to stop consideration of the measure came at 1:45:20 mark in the proceedings.

Meanwhile, Zelenik has taken issue with a mosque being built in Murfreesboro, which she decries as an “Islamic training center.” The 52,000-square foot facility was approved by the local planning commission, but it has led to a backlash, then a backlash to the backlash.

Demonstrations were held Wednesday in Murfreesboro both by opponents of the mosque and a group defending it on grounds of religious freedom, and the mosque has become an issue in the 6th District congressional campaign. Approval of the mosque appears to fall under the protection of a state law known as the Religious Freedom Act, which included Tracy among its co-sponsors. Both Tracy and Black voted for it.

The issue was ratched up this week when Zelenik’s campaign claimed in a press release it has information that one of the board members of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, Mossad Rowash, has supported the terrorist group Hamas. On Monday, the Islamic center posted on its Web site that it was made aware of allegations against Rowash and that he was being suspended pending further investigation. The center spelled the name “Rawash” on first reference then “Rowash.”

Zelenik was quick to denounce the Islamic center in June, saying in a campaign statement that the center is not part of a religious movement but a political movement. Ben Leming, a candidate in the Democratic primary, defended the mosque, accusing Zelenik of intolerance and complimented Tracy and Black for their support of the religious freedom law.

Yet another candidate in the Democratic primary, George Erdel, who refers to himself as a “tea party Democrat” has been an active opponent of the mosque and helped organize a recent meeting in Rutherford County for a lecture on Sharia law in the Islamic culture.