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Forrester Touts Dems’ TN Victories

He concedes the Democratic party in Tennessee is in a superminority at the state legislature, but state Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester says he put in place a plan to march the legislature back to Democratic control.

Even so, Forrester, the longtime leader of the state Democratic Party, says that won’t happen overnight.

“We’re very, very excited about the four victories we had in the House,” Forrester said. “To defend all of our incumbents, which we did … we’re very excited about those victories.”

Indeed, Forrester counts Democratic Reps. Charles CurtissMark WindleDavid ShepardSherry Jones and Craig Fitzhugh and others among key wins.

“These are the people that represent our future,” Forrester said. “Even though we’re in the minority, we’ve moved the ball down field.”

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He also pointed to the victory of Metro Councilman Darren Jernigan, the Democrat running against GOP incumbent Jim Gotto in the Davidson County House District 60 race.

“We took Jim Gotto, a right-wing Tea Party nut job, out of office,” Forrester said.

Both the Senate and House Republicans hold supermajorities, which means Republicans can pass any law without a single Democratic voice.

Forrester will be stepping down from his post in January.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

 

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Featured Transparency and Elections

@SecTreHargett Beefs Up Elections Site, Twitter Presence

Call him the Secretary of Tweet.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett is hitting the ‘go’ button on a revamped website where voters can see live, up-to-the-minute election results from across the state.

The site, which can be found at elections.tn.gov, will show election results not only by each political contest but by county and precinct, too. Featured races will include the presidential and Congressional elections as well as state Senate and state House.

“One of the things you’ll see this evening for the first time … is the percentages of votes instead of just raw vote numbers,” Hargett told TNReport.

The site comes with some eye candy for political watchers — a map of Tennessee that will show each county flipping red or blue, depending on how the race for President goes.

In addition, Hargett’s team is using the social media site Twitter to tweet out results from races from across the Volunteer State.

“We have several different Twitter handles that people will be able to follow all night long,” Hargett said.

Tonight voters can follow @tnpotus for Tennessee presidential results, @tnsenategen for state Senate results, @tnhousegen for state House results and @tnussenate and @tnushouse for Tennessee’s Congressional races. And you can follow — and tweet at — Hargett at @SecTreHargett.

“It’s a lot of data that comes at people very quickly, but if you’re a political junkie in Tennessee it’s a dream come true to be able to get those kinds of results that quickly,” Hargett said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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Featured Transparency and Elections

Plumbers’ Union Lets Campaign Cash Flow, Racks Up $400K Debt

One of the most politically active labor unions in Tennessee is doubling down on the election this year, doling out more campaign cash than it did in 2010 or 2008, even as other unions have cut back on their political giving.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters Education Committee — the Tennessee union’s political arm — has given out $278,300 in campaign contributions so far in 2012, records show. That already has surpassed the $270,100 the union gave during the 2010 election season and the $245,440 it provided to politicians in 2008.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters union has even taken out hundreds of thousands dollars in loans — largely from Farmers & Merchants Bank — apparently to underwrite the union’s political payouts.

Records show the union’s political action committee has an outstanding loan balance of $398,971. Records show the committee taking out loans steadily for years. The last bank loan was for $70,000 received Oct. 12.

It’s unclear what this nearly $400,000 debt will mean for the union’s members.

And the election isn’t over yet. The campaign finance reports for the crucial last days have yet to be filed, so it’s all but certain that the Plumbers & Pipefitters will have far exceeded $300,000 in political giving by Election Day.

Spending more money on candidates this year was not deliberate, said former Secretary of State Riley Darnell, who serves as the union’s political adviser. There are simply more campaigns this year that the union has an interest in.

“We have a lot of candidates in support of working people,” Darnell said. “The need was greater.”

As far as the bank debt, Darnell said he couldn’t comment and that decisions such as taking out loans are made by internal union officials.

Plumbers & Pipefitters has long been one of the biggest political unions on Tennessee’s Capitol hill, frequently cutting five-figure checks to the state Democratic Party and giving large contributions to union-friendly candidates such as former state Sen. Jim Lewis, a Democrat running for a state Senate seat in District 16, which encompasses Marion, Warren and Coffee counties, and Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan, a former Democratic House majority leader.

The plumbers are priming the political pump as other labor unions in Tennessee have curtailed their campaign donations.

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The Tennessee, later known as Mid-South, Carpenters Regional Council political action committee, for example, doled out $68,700 in campaign contributions in 2010. In 2012 that number has dropped to $28,960.

Tennessee’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers political action committee spread around $102,500 in campaign cash in 2010. This year, its campaign contributions are $80,700.

And the Tennessee Laborers PAC handed out $73,000 politicians in 2010. In 2012 that has shrunk to $45,500.

You can see the details of the Plumbers & Pipefitters campaign records, as well as all Tennessee campaign finance reports, by clicking here and using the state’s online search database.

The vast majority of union giving is aimed at Democrats and Democratic causes, though some union money is starting to trickle to Republicans. The carpenters union, for example, gave $500 to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s political action committee as well as $2,500 to the Tennessee Republican Caucus. The Laborers gave donations to Gov. BIll Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell’s PAC and state Sen. Jim Tracy from Shelbyville.

The Plumbers & Pipefitters’ giving has heavily favored Democrats.

The union’s escalation in campaign spending comes at a time when public employee unions in Tennessee are facing an increasingly hostile legislature. With Republicans controlling the governor’s mansion and both houses, unions have few seats at the bargaining table.

During the the 2011 legislative session, the Legislature passed efforts to curb union influence in state government and schools. Democratic state lawmakers reacted angrily, but they didn’t have the votes to thwart the measures.

Tennessee isn’t the only place where a union is placing big bets for Election Day.

In Michigan, not only are unions are working toward setting collective bargaining privileges in stone via a provision in the state Constitution, they are also trying to unseat a pair of conservative Justices on the state Supreme Court.

And nationally, the Service Employees International Union has emerged as the top outside spender on Democratic campaigns this year, surpassing even President Barack Obama’s main super PAC.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

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’Tis the Season: Campaign Time on Taxpayer Dime

A Tennessee Senate staffer appears to have been doing political work while collecting a full-time state paycheck, an apparent violation of state law, public records and documents reviewed by TNReport show.

Derek Hummel has been executive secretary for Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, since April of this year, drawing a $30,468 annual salary. Over the past three months, he has also been conducting political activities during state business hours on his state-issued computer, according to phone records and Facebook postings.

Hummel has identified himself as field director for the Phillip North for State Senate campaign. Hummel was paid $625 in September by the North campaign, according to campaign finance filings released last week.

When TNReport visited Ford’s office at the Capitol last week to interview Hummel, no one was present, but Hummel’s desk was strewn with what appeared to be campaign material, and political documents were visible on his taxpayer-funded desktop computer.

During an attempt to interview Hummel today, he accused TNReport of violating state law by calling him on his government-office phone.

“You’re an idiot,” Hummel told TNReport. “I’m calling Bill Fletcher,” he added, before abruptly hanging up. Fletcher is a prominent Tennessee Democratic campaign advertising specialist and political strategist.

A call and an email to the Phillip North campaign have gone unreturned. Attempts to leave a message with Sen. Ford at her Memphis office were unsuccessful because her voicemail box was full.

According to a state law call the “Little Hatch Act,” state employees are prohibited from “engaging in political activity not directly a part of that person’s employment during any period when the person should be conducting business of the state.” The law mirrors the federal Hatch Act.

Examples that suggest Hummel may have been conducting political activities while collecting a state paycheck include:

+Under a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post, Hummel on July 25 at 10:07 a.m. urged readers to sign a political petition. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

+Under an ‘Americans Against the Tea Party’ Facebook post, Hummel on July 26 discussed a Tennessee Democratic Party petition at 11:15 a.m., 11:19 a.m. and 12:51 p.m. Records signed by Hummel show he was working for the state that day, again 8 to 4:30. On one of those posts he makes during business hours Hummel mentioned how an intern for the Democratic Party had drafted the petition dictated by him “because, by state law, we can’t meddle in politics during business hours.”

+During a phone call taken by Hummel on a non-state cell phone — a recording was provided to TNReport from someone who said they made the call on Sept. 24 during work hours — he talked about working throughout the week on ‘get out the vote’ efforts in his role as field director for the North campaign. State records show he was paid by the state that day.

+On a Tennessee Democratic Party Facebook post that links to North’s views on a Nashville school issue, Hummel commented on Sept. 18 at 3:48 p.m. State records show Hummel was paid by the state for working that day.

+On a ‘North for Senate’ Facebook post on Sept. 21 at 4:21 p.m., Hummel’s cell phone number is posted with a message asking volunteers to call. State records show that Hummel was paid for working that day.

+On Hummel’s desk and on web browser tabs on his state desktop computer, TNReport last week observed campaign documents connected to the North campaign and campaigning in general. (TNReport did not open any desk drawers or search the computer other than to look at the tabs that were open on the computer screen.)

It is not uncommon for staffers in the Tennessee General Assembly to participate in political work, but it is common practice for those staffers to provide notice to the Senate’s chief of staff or to Legislative Administration officials saying they are taking hours off, days off, or a leave of absence for that political work.

In the case of Hummel, it appears he did no such thing: The Senate “does not have any correspondence from Mr. Derek Hummel concerning leave of absences,” Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration, said via email in response to a records request from TNReport.

A spokesman for the lieutenant governor’s office, to whom all Senate staff officially report, declined comment.

Charges of elected officials and their staff using taxpayer dollars to boost political activities are heard occasionally throughout Tennessee.

For example, earlier this year, a reception sponsored by East Ridge city officials for a congressional candidate drew questions about how local taxpayer money was used.

The reception, for Scottie Mayfield, a Republican running for Tennessee’s 3rd District seat, took place while employees were on the clock, and about $80 in city funds were spent on snacks for the employees, according to the Chattanooga Times Free-Press.

City Manager Tim Gobble insisted that the reception was not meant to be an endorsement and was an attempt to be “hospitable,” but other city leaders have said it was an inappropriate use of city funds, according to the paper’s report.

And last year, Democrats accused Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, of violating the Little Hatch Act, saying it was illegal for Ramsey to use his publicly funded office to promote his “Red Tape” initiative because it is funded by his political action committee, RAAMPAC.

Ramsey denied doing anything wrong, and soon after, Drew Rawlins, the executive director of the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said he saw no evidence of ethical wrongdoing.

But Rawlins also said his office does not handle alleged Little Hatch Act violations. Because the Little Hatch Act is a criminal statute, that task would fall to Tennessee’s district attorneys, as it did two years ago in Bradley County.

An investigation was launched after Bradley County’s Board of Education chairman and vice chairman sent an e-mail to 800 county school employees endorsing a county mayoral candidate in the Republican Primary, according to the Cleveland Daily Banner.

No charges were filed in that case.