Education NewsTracker

Summerville Loses Chairmanship After Insulting Black Caucus (Updated)

Updated Aug. 24, 2012 with comments and committee resignation letter from Sen. Jim Summerville.

State Sen. Jim Summerville doesn’t “give a rat’s ass what the black caucus thinks.”

At least that’s what he told Memphis state Rep. Barbara Cooper via email Wednesday in response to her report from the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators criticising the probe of a state university for changing students’ grades.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham stripped Summerville of his chairmanship on the Higher Education Subcommittee Thursday, saying she is “very disappointed in the unfortunate choice of words and tone” of Summerville, R-Dickson.

“There is a standard of courtesy that must be observed by members of the General Assembly, and this went beyond what is acceptable,” she said in a statement.

Summerville is standing by his remark, although he announced his resignation from the Senate Education Committee via a handwritten letter to Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey Friday.

“Which part wasn’t clear? The matter speaks for itself,” he told reporters in his office Friday morning.

“Maybe I could have used a more artful term, like a rodent’s posterior.”

Early this month, the Senate Higher Education Sub-Committee investigated allegations that Tennessee State University school officials changed “incomplete” grades to letter grades for 270 introductory math students without instructors’ permission.

The committee met Aug. 13, and the Tennessee Board of Regents told lawmakers the historically black university did nothing wrong other than poorly communicate with faculty members.

Cooper’s report, on behalf of the 18-member Black Caucus, questioned why the hearing was called in the first place, calling it “much to do about nothing.”

“It seems that the complainants, very competent, high-level experts in their field of educational attainment should honor the greatness of TSU and think about harm to the students first, respect leadership and follow the rules, regulations and guidelines,” reads the report.

“When ‘I Gotcha’ tactics are used, the administration, instructors, staff, students and alumni are affected, greatly diminishing the reputation of TSU,” the report concluded.

Summerville, who is white, responded with one line from his personal email account, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the black caucus thinks.”

Leading House Democrats are demanding Summerville apologize to Cooper and the Black Caucus, saying they are “deeply concerned by the rhetoric.”

“His words show a complete lack of respect and decorum for not only Representative Barbara Cooper, but the entire Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus. There is no place in the General Assembly and the public discourse for this kind of foul and offensive remark,” read the joint statement from House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory.

The first-term Republican attracted media attention this summer when he was served with a criminal summons and cited with a misdemeanor for letting his dogs run loose in his Dickson neighborhood. At some point in the dispute Summerville reportedly put up a sign – “You’ve been warned,” it read in part – which his neighbors viewed as threatening. Summerville was found not guilty for violating the state’s dogs-at-large law Thursday, according to the Tennessean.

Press Releases

House Dems Disappointed in Summerville’s ‘Antiquated Views,’ Demand Apology

Statement from House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, and Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley; Aug. 23, 2012: 

”We are deeply concerned by the rhetoric coming from former Chairman Jim Summerville. His words show a complete lack of respect and decorum for not only Representative Barbara Cooper, but the entire Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus. There is no place in the General Assembly and the public discourse for this kind of foul and offensive remark.

It is disappointing to know that someone with such antiquated views holds any position of leadership in the General Assembly. Given these highly offensive remarks, we are calling on Senator Summerville to issue a full written apology to Representative Cooper and the Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus. Anything short of that is beneath the dignity of this body.”

Press Releases

TNGOP Slams Dems Voting Against Income Tax Ban

Press Release from the Republican Party of Tennessee, Jan. 19, 2012:

Once Again, Tennessee Democrats Stand Up For A State Income Tax

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution by adding language to ban a state income tax. SJR 221, sponsored by Representative Glen Casada, passed the Republican-controlled House by a vote of 73-17-3.

The amendment will now have to be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate in the next session. The amendment will then be placed on the ballot, coinciding with a gubernatorial election, to allow Tennessee voters to approve.  “I applaud our Republican leadership for moving us one step closer to solidifying the unconstitutionality of a state income tax. However, several Tennessee Democrats once again showed their liberal mindset by reinforcing their belief that government should not be restricted from  dipping into your paycheck,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney.

“While Tennesseans work hard to get through this economic recession, Tennessee Democrats are content with duplicating President Obama’s philosophy of raising taxes to meet reckless government spending, instead of reducing government to meet current revenue,” said Devaney.

Democrats Who Voted Against Banning a State Income Tax: Karen Camper, Barbara Cooper, Charles Curtiss, Lois Deberry, G.A. Hardaway, Bill Harmon, Mike Kernell, Larry Miller, Gary Moore, Jimmy Naifeh, Joe Pitts, Jeanne Richardson, Johnny Shaw, Mike Stewart, Harry Tindell, Joe Towns, and Johnnie Turner.

Featured Transparency and Elections

1-2-3, Go! Redistricting Maps Advance

Tweaks to the lines on redrawn Democratic districts in the state House came down to something like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors.

House lawmakers approved the new maps 67-25-3 Thursday. Speaker Beth Harwell said she had politely encouraged Democrats to throw some votes her party’s way for the sake of bipartisanship appearances.

“I said to (Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner), ‘If we are making these concessions for some of your members, I would appreciate votes from your caucus,’” she said.

That left the #1 and #2 Democrats to figure out who would make Harwell feel appreciated.

“I’d like to think it was a little punitive, maybe, because the discussions were pretty hot and heavy,” Turner, of Old Hickory, said. … “I thought it was worth that to save a couple of our members.”

Turner threw down rock to Leader Craig Fitzhugh’s paper in their session to make sure the speaker got at least one leadership vote from their side. Turner was one of six Democrats who voted in favor of the Republican-drawn maps, while Fitzhugh toed the party line.

“Everybody we had that was paired, we tried to do so something about that,” said Turner, who had been one of the most vocal critics of GOP maps. “In areas where it didn’t impact their members, they decided to give us a couple of those back.”

In the final hours before the map was approved by the chamber, Republicans agreed to make these concessions to preserve incumbent advantage:

  • Separate Democrats Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart, who had been drawn into the same south Nashville district.
  • Return Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, to the district he represents now. He had been lumped into the same district as Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah.
  • Adjust the lines in the district represented by Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville.

Democrats pitched a handful of other amendments to the maps on the House floor, mainly attempts to make more Shelby County districts represent a greater percentage of minorities. All those attempts failed.

The maps fell “way short on minority representation,” according to Turner, although he said he wanted to talk to the Tennessee Democratic Party, the General Assembly’s Black Caucus and other “interested parties” before deciding whether to challenge the lawsuit in court.

Harwell said the Democratic votes symbolize that the map has bipartisan support.

“Bottom line is, surely it sends a clear message that a majority of the members in this General Assembly is pleased with it, and I think the people of this state will be well represented by this map,” she said. “No one can doubt that we have drawn these lines fairly, that there’s proper representation from each district.”

In the new map, sitting House members who would have to run against other legislators (unless they relocated) are situated in:

  • District 28 in Hamilton County: Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, and Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga
  • District 31 in Sequatchie, Bledsoe, Rhea and part of Roane counties: Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, and Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap
  • District 86 in Shelby County: Barbara Cooper, D-Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis
  • District 98 in Shelby County: Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, and Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis

The Senate is expected to vote on its maps and OK the House drawings Friday. If approved by both chambers, the maps will go to the governor for his approval.