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Party Leaders Plotting 2012 Strategies

State lawmakers may have officially begun their seven-month vacation away from Capitol Hill this month, but top legislative leaders are already evaluating this year’s performance and mapping out their plan for next year’s session and the subsequent election.

Republicans spent the just-concluded session of the Tennessee General Assembly muscling through the kind of legislation that had long been blocked when they sat in the minority. Bloodied, Democrats limped away but unabashedly promised to continue beating back the tide of GOP bills next year — with the ultimate goal of undermining the majority party’s dominance at the polls in November 2012.

In other words, next year’s legislative session may shape up to look a lot like the one that just ended.

“Tennessee Republicans have talked a lot about what we would do when we took power. Now we are showing what we can do,” Lt. Gov. Ramsey said in a statement he posted on Facebook recently. “This year was just an appetizer. Next year, and in the years to come, you will see the main course.”

Ramsey was celebrating what he dubbed a “Republican Session,” filled with policy overhauls that would have constituted mere pipe dreams prior to the 2010 election.

“With Republicans now in power, I no longer have to focus on trying to mitigate the damage of backward Democrat policies, I can lead the charge for positive change,” declared Ramsey.

House Democratic ringleaders have been making the case that the both-barrels-blazing confidence exhibited by the “cowboy down the hall” will over time misfire and jam the Republican Party’s chances of maintaining their unalloyed superiority beyond next session.

In particular, the GOP’s rough treatment of core Democratic Party constituencies  — public employee unions, trial lawyers, immigrants, gay and lesbian rights activists — will come back to shoot the Tennessee Republican Party in the foot when voters speak their minds at the polls, predicts House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

The minority-party battle plan going forward is to paint Republicans — particularly those of the Senate — as politically irresponsible, too socially conservative and too oblivious to national media perceptions about Tennessee to lead the state legislature, Turner indicted.

“We had an image that everyone is barefoot and bucktoothed with cowlicks on both sides. We came a long way to diminish some of that,” Turner said of his own party’s decades-long reign in Tennessee.

The Old Hickory firefighter specifically criticized sexual orientation-related bills like the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation — which passed in the Senate but never made it out of the House — and the Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act, passed with the support of nine Democrats in the House and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam Monday, which keeps local governments from enacting anti-discrimination mandates on businesses.

“If you look at news clips from across the country, it seemed like we made the paper a whole lot more,” Turner said of the 2011 session.

Turner, whose caucus lost 14 seats in last fall’s election and who barely survived his own tough re-election race, says Tennessee is at its core a politically moderate state, at least by Southern standards. And Republicans fanning the flames of cultural discord by pushing divisive social-issue legislation will translate into Democrats winning back centrist voters’ confidence in November 2012, Turner said.

That is, unless Speaker Beth Harwell and Republican Leader Gerald McCormick successfully pull the party leftward, he said.

“If the Republicans get back to the middle of the road, they can end up ruling for a long time in this state. But I truly believe that if they take the course they’re taking now we’ll be back in power in a very short time,” Turner said.

“Fortunately for us, it appears they’re going to be extreme, and if we can articulate our points, learn from our past mistakes, (we can) hopefully get Democrats back in power in this state,” Turner continued.

McCormick told TNReport Friday he’ll take his chances siding with Republicans of any stripe before he’ll take political advice from Turner. The Chattanooga real-estate broker said he has a hunch Tennesseans as a whole are more conservative than Democrats tend to want to believe.

“He’s always stirring the pot. That’s his job as their caucus chairman,” McCormick said, adding that he feels good about where the Republican Party is at right now. “I’ll be proud to run for re-election on our accomplishments on the first part of this session. We will certainly hold our own in next year’s election.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic Party’s Leader in the House,  warned when he was first elected to his leadership post that if Democrats don’t have a seat at the table, they’ll “be on the menu.”

Things didn’t go as badly as they could have, suggested Fitzhugh. The Democrats did, after all, vote in unanimity with Republicans on a state budget that included an unemployment-benefits extension Democrats lauded as a modest but nevertheless key legislative victory.

“We were at the table, but we certainly didn’t get the same portion as everybody else,” Fitzhugh said to TNReport on the last day of the legislative session. “We stayed at the table for a while, then we were pretty much locked out,” particularly when it came to the collective bargaining debate, which became the Legislature’s capstone bill this year.

But while Fitzhugh, too, characterized some of the Republican legislation as “extreme,” he said Democrats can’t be satisfied with watching the GOP-led action from the cheap seats assuming that come November 2012, their two-year nightmare will come to a merciful end.

“We don’t have much control over what (Republicans) put out. We have to do our best to defeat legislation we don’t think is in the best interest for the state or make it better,” the Ripley Democrat said.

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VIDEO: Haslam Stands Firm On Discrimination Bill

Gov. Bill Haslam reiterated for reporters Wednesday why he is sticking by his decision to sign into law a bill that ultimately reverses an anti-discrimination ordinance in Nashville. The legislation, HB600, prevents any local government from enacting rules on “discriminatory practices” that are more stringent than at the state level.

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‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill Closeted in Study Group Again

A House subcommittee voted last week to put on hold for another year a proposal to ban sex-ed instruction and discussion in public-school grades K-8 that touch on non-heterosexual topics.

Lawmakers on the committee said they want the state Board of Education to take more time studying the issue, even though bill sponsor Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, says they didn’t spend much time examining the issue last year.

And he isn’t optimistic that the board will take his concerns seriously going forward. “If they didn’t look into it last time, I highly doubt they’ll look into it this time,” he told reporters after the hearing.

According to Campfield ‘s proposal, HB821, public elementary or middle schools would be banned from providing any instruction or materials that discuss sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.

“We’re not going to advocate for homosexuality. We’re not going to advocate against homosexuality,” Campfield said. Neutrality is part of the intent of the legislation, he maintains.

Campfield recently blogged about the issue, citing newspaper articles from Knoxville and Nashville that indicated homosexuality had been discussed in schools.

He also pointed to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed after the Knox County School System closed student computer access to web sites that discussed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered issues.

Campfield said he alerted the Department of Education to the issue, but the members don’t seem particularly interested. “I already handed handed them everything on a silver platter,” he said. “I don’t know what else I can do. I can’t make it any easier for them.”

DOE officials say Campfield’s concerns are essentially baseless and warrant little attention.

“The only mention of sexuality is in the context of abstinence,” said Bruce Opie, legislative liaison for the state Department of Education. “We really don’t…in the K-8 curriculum…(get into) any sort of information on sexual preferences.”

Opie said he’s never heard an official complaint about the issue in the 26 years he has worked with the department. The teachers’ association also denied Campfield’s claims.

“Public schools are being attacked for something that is not happening, and I don’t appreciate it,” said Jerry Winters, Government Relations Manager for the Tennessee Education Association. “Teachers are not teaching alternate lifestyles in the classroom. If that was happening, they would be told to stop it. If they didn’t stop it, they would rightfully be fired. This is an attempt to bash public schools, and it is an attempt to bash teachers.”

Fans of the bill said the legislation is a solid preventative measure.

“I don’t feel any threat in this kind of legislation,” said Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver, a Lancaster Republican. “We’re creating a safe harbor here…we’re drawing a line in the sand.”

Republican Joey Hensley, of Howenwald, said he has children in the first and second grade, and he’s worried about what lessons they take home.

“We’re seeing in other states (that) they’re bringing books home that I don’t agree with. I don’t want my child exposed to this. If we don’t have it now, that’s great. We don’t want to have that problem.”

Other lawmakers say passing legislation to address a problem that doesn’t yet exist is unnecessary.

“What we’re doing is we’re dealing with a figment of his imagination,” Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis, said of Campfield. “This is not based on any evidence, and if we start passing legislation based on what a person is thinking (is happening)…we’d be passing stupid legislation.”

Reading from the results of last year’s study committee, Rep. Les Winningham, D-Huntsville, said, “Local education agencies teach what they consider to be age appropriate topics…which does not include homosexuality as a topic. The Department of Education’s healthy living curriculum does not include homosexuality as a topic, which, to me, means it’s not being done.”

Yet, supporters of the bill insisted that the state act now to avoid allowing teachers to discuss homosexuality with students.

“Without any guidelines, it allows teachers on their own to venture off into this area. We should draw a line…and make it clear to teachers…this is some place you don’t go,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.”Just like they’ve probably been told, because of court cases, there are places dealing with religion that you don’t go.”

Winningham asked to send the bill back to the Board of Education for more study. Dunn, Hensley, and Weaver voted against the motion.

Rep. Ron Lollar, who said he served on a school board for 10 years, was the only Republican to vote against the bill.

“I can say unequivocally, and without a doubt, the state never — in any way, form, or fashion — insinuated that anything be taught that I’ve heard in this room,” he said.

The companion bill in the Senate was scheduled to be taken up later that afternoon in the Education Committee, but committee chair Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, announced at the outset of the meeting that the bill is dead for the year.