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Cooper, Cohen Split on Israeli PM’s Congressional Address

Tennessee’s only two Democratic legislators in Washington have taken divergent positions on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pending speech to Congress Tuesday.

Memphis Rep. Steve Cohen, a Jewish American and self-described “supporter of the state of Israel,” has announced his intention to boycott because he believes “the speech is political theater” for Netanyahu’s re-election efforts.

Cohen also took umbrage with Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to the Israeli leader in light of the Obama administration’s ongoing negotiations in the Middle East. He accused House Republicans of “giving a foreign leader the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives as a forum to present a counterargument to the foreign policy peace efforts” of President Barack Obama.

“My lack of attendance does not mean I will not be aware of the content of the speech nor does it mean I won’t follow the commentary both pro and con but I will not be part of the spectacle,” Cohen said in a release.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, on the other hand, plans to attend, as he said he always does when a foreign leader addresses Congress. Cooper’s also planning to bring along the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Nashville to the speech as his guest.

According to a media advisory e-mailed late Monday, House Democrats, led by Cohen, will make a response to Netanyahu’s speech early Tuesday afternoon.

Dozens of Democrats from both chambers of Congress — the count has fluctuated over the past month from 54 members of congress to 34  — have announced that they will not attend Netanyahu’s speech.

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Press Releases

Cohen, Other Dems Call on Boehner to Postpone Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress

Press release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis 09; February 19, 2015:

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Keith Ellison (D-MN), and Maxine Waters(D-CA) sent a letter today to Speaker of the House John Boehner urging him to postpone Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress. The letter was cosigned by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), André Carson (D-IN), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Danny Davis (D-IL), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), Henry “Hank” Johnson, Jr. (D-GA), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), James McGovern (D-MA), Jim McDermott (D-WA), Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), Donald Payne (D-NJ), Chellie Pingrie (D-ME), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Mark Takano (D-CA), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Peter Welch (D-VT), and John Yarmuth (D-KY).

The lawmakers expressed concern about the invitation’s proximity to Israel’s elections and the use of a close foreign ally as a tool in a domestic political dispute.

The text of the letter is below and a PDF is available here.

The Honorable John Boehner
Speaker of House of Representatives
H-232 Capitol

Washington, DC  20515

Dear Mr. Speaker:

We write to urge you to postpone your invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March. Israel is a valued ally and Israeli Prime Ministers have a long history of addressing Congress. As members of Congress who support Israel, we share concern that it appears that you are using a foreign leader as a political tool against the President. We very much appreciate that Prime Minister Netanyahu has twice had the honor of speaking before a joint session.

However, at this time your invitation is contrary to the standards by which our Congress operates and has the potential to harm U.S. Foreign policy.

The timing of this invitation and lack of coordination with the White House indicate that this is not an ordinary diplomatic visit. Rather this appears to be an attempt to promote new sanctions legislation against Iran that could undermine critical negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran. At the State of the Union President Obama made it clear that he will veto new Iran sanctions legislation. The invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu enlists a foreign leader to influence a Presidential policy initiative. We should be able to disagree on foreign policy within our American political system and without undermining the presidency.

Aside from being improper, this places Israel, a close and valued ally, in the middle of a policy debate between Congress and the White House. We should not turn our diplomatic friendship into a partisan issue. Beyond threatening our diplomatic priorities, the timing of this invitation offers the Congressional platform to elevate a candidate in a foreign election.

A visit from Israel’s Prime Minister would normally be an occasion for bipartisan cooperation and support. Our relationship with Israel is too important to use as a pawn in political gamesmanship. We strongly urge you to postpone this invitation until Israelis have cast their ballots and the deadline for diplomatic negotiations with Iran has passed. When the Israeli Prime Minister visits us outside the specter of partisan politics, we will be delighted and honored to greet him or her on the Floor of the House.

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Press Releases

Harwell Urges House Members to Remember Constituents, Respect Each Other

Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell‘s 109th General Assembly Opening Remarks; January 13, 2015:

Judge Bivins, honorable members of the House of Representatives, other elected officials, and the citizens of our great state, welcome to the opening session of the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Members, the voters have given you the privilege of being their chosen representatives. The success of any republic is predicated on men and women, such as you, offering yourselves up for public service. Ben Franklin wrote, “In free governments, the rulers are the servants, and the people their superiors and sovereigns.” Thank you for your willingness to serve.

To our new members, I welcome you to this body as fellow colleagues, and I look forward to working with each of you. You bring fresh ideas, new energy, and diverse experiences and backgrounds to this legislative body. I look forward to you putting these things to work for the betterment of our state.

In the 17th century, physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton spurred the scientific revolution and developed the modern principles of physics. Today, he is perhaps best known for his law of gravity. However, Newton did not take all the credit for his accomplishments. In fact, he stated, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Today, each of us stands on the shoulders of our families, friends and supporters. We would not be here without your love, friendship, unwavering support, and hard work. Let’s give them a hand. Since the 108th General Assembly adjourned over eight months ago, the work of the legislature and the administration has been recognized nationally for improving the quality of life and the economic climate in our state:

  • For the second year in a row, Tennessee was named “State of the Year” for economic development by Business Facilities magazine.
  • In addition, Tennessee was named a top five state for doing business according to Area Development magazine. The Volunteer state was ranked number one for overall infrastructure and global access; number one for distribution and supply-chain hubs; and number one for certified sites and shovel-ready programs.

This is an impressive record for Tennessee, but there is much more to be done. With the business of our state before us, we must seize the opportunities that await us.

To my fellow members, before we begin the people’s business today, I ask three things of you:

First, please remember we are representatives of our constituents who elected us. These seats in the House of Representatives do not belong to us as members. They belong to the sixty-five thousand citizens in each of the districts we represent.

I am reminded of a quote by Roger Sherman, member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787: “Representatives ought to return home and mix with the people. By remaining at the seat of government, they would acquire the habits of the place, which might differ from those of their constituents.”

As a part-time, citizen legislature as envisioned by the framers of our state constitution, it is important that we spend time at home, in our districts, living under the laws we pass. I encourage you to go home each weekend and to stay in touch with your constituents.

Second, please respect your colleagues. I ask members of both sides of the aisle to maintain decorum and to treat each other as you would like to be treated. Members represent different districts and are entitled to their own views. To quote Thomas Jefferson, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics…as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

While Washington, D.C., remains mired in partisan gridlock, our state legislature will work toward building a better Tennessee. At times, we will respectfully disagree, but I am confident that when it comes to creating a better and more prosperous Tennessee, there is more that we will agree on than not.

Finally, let’s all work together for the good of our state. Baseball legend Babe Ruth said, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Forty years ago, Tennessee adopted as our slogan, “America at its Best.” It’s a high standard, but we are just getting started. In the coming weeks, let’s work together to live up to our state motto and work to indeed make Tennessee the best state in the union to start and grow a business, to raise a family, and to retire. The future of our state, and the future of our children like those gathered in the galleries today, depend on it.

Ladies and gentlemen, today we convene a promising new session of the General Assembly. Let’s get to work! Thank you.

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House GOP Votes to Explore ‘Bilateral Session’ with Federal Delegation

The Republican supermajority caucus of Tennessee’s House of Representatives wants state lawmakers to host a get-together with the state’s congressional delegation.

At least some do.

A majority of House Republicans who attended a caucus meeting at the Capitol on Wednesday voted 31-16 to form a steering committee tasked with organizing a joint “bilateral session” to be held in January or February.

As proposed, the meeting would be in the Tennessee House chambers, co-chaired by the speakers of the state House and Senate, Beth Harwell of Nashville and Ron Ramsey of Blountville.

The discussion would center around topics deemed relevant to Tennessee by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The subjects of discourse would be given to the federal legislative delegation in advance, said Tullahoma Rep. Judd Matheny, who last week announced the idea.

The chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, Matheny wants Tennessee’s nine U.S. Representatives and two Senators to publicly and formally meet with state lawmakers to discuss congressional issues that affect the people and government of Tennessee.

Only two of the state’s lawmakers in Washington are Democrats: Reps. Steve Cohen of Memphis and Jim Cooper of Nashville.

“We need to do something to reach out to our congressmen in Washington,” Matheny said Wednesday. “There’s no reason we can’t have a dadgum good meeting.”

Matheny said the aim of his proposal is to start a conversation that “will leave both levels of government with a clear understanding of each other’s needs and actions while rebuilding public confidence.”

Matheny’s long-range plan is to hold such conferences annually. A seven-member steering committee will be appointed by Speaker Harwell. The committee will have four state senate members, should the Senate Republican caucus choose to join.

House GOP caucus members who attended Wednesday’s meeting expressed a variety of reasons for wanting to hold the meeting. The gist is they want to “open the lines of communication” on a perceived disconnect between Tennessee and Washington. Supporters of the meeting want to discuss what a number of Republicans see as an undermining of state sovereignty by Congress and the federal government.

Not all caucus members were completely sold on the idea, though.

Ooltewah state Rep. Mike Carter worries about opening the Tennessee Legislature’s doors to congressional dysfunction. “If we bring the problems in Washington to Nashville, I will be disgraced,” he said.

Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, likes the idea of a developing a constructive forum for sharing ideas between Tennessee’s members of Congress and the General Assembly, but he suggested moving forward cautiously until all the details of the conference’s aims are hammered out. Haynes said he doesn’t see much point in organizing a meeting doomed to degenerate into an ideological war of words between Democrats and Republicans.

Matheny tried to assuage such concerns. He stressed that the purpose of his proposal isn’t to spark a “political witch hunt,” but rather facilitate a “political business-meeting about issues.”

Matheny said he’s not simply trying to give state lawmakers “an opportunity to vent” at Tennessee’s members of Congress.

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Press Releases

US House to Hold Hearings on Nat’l Park & Monument Shutdowns

Press release from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform; October 9, 2013:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Wednesday, October 16th, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., will convene a joint hearing entitled, “As Difficult As Possible: The National Park Service’s Implementation of the Government Shutdown.”

The hearing will examine the National Park Service’s decision to barricade open-air memorials on the National Mall, which are normally open to the public 24 hours a day, during the current lapse in appropriations. The decision prohibited access to veterans and visitors and is unprecedented in previous shutdowns.

“The National Park Service’s decision to barricade the normally unattended open air memorials on the National Mall, including the World War II Memorial, is only one example of the many drastic and unprecedented steps the Park Service has taken during the current lapse in appropriations,” said Chairman Issa. “Their actions suggest a pattern of decision making based on politics rather than prudence. During sequestration and the current government shutdown, Park Service officials reportedly instructed employees to make fiscal cuts both visible and painful. Caught in the crossfire are innocent Americans – veterans and small business owners – who have a right to expect that even during tough financial situations, government officials are still acting as trustworthy stewards of their tax dollars.”

“Across the country, Americans are deliberately being denied access to open-air memorials and national parks – places that are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” stated Chairman Hastings. “These are sites that were not closed by the Clinton Administration during the last government shutdown. However, the Obama Administration appears determined to make their shutdown as difficult and painful as possible. They are forcing private businesses to close and are selectively choosing which high-profile sites to close off and which to keep open. One park ranger even said that they were directed to ‘make life as difficult for people as we can.’ This is shameful and wrong and we intend to hold the Obama Administration accountable for their actions.”

Hearing Details:

Wednesday, October 16th

“Joint Hearing: As Difficult As Possible: The National Park Service’s Implementation of the Government Shutdown”

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Chairman Darrell Issa, and House Committee on Natural Resources, Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA)

9:30 a.m. in House Visitors Center 210 and streaming online at oversight.house.gov

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Press Releases

Dunn Questions Cost-Effectiveness of Pre-K in TN

Press release from the Tennessee House Republican Caucus; August 5, 2013:

(NASHVILLE) — Last week, researchers at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University released findings of their 2013 pre-kindergarten study – a research effort dedicated to detailing the effects of pre-kindergarten on the long-term academic success of Tennessee students.

The findings show that by the end of kindergarten “the differences between participants and non-participants were no longer statistically significant”, except in one case where the children who did not attend Pre-K actually outperformed those who did.

“Tennesseans were told that Pre-K would increase graduation rates and even prevent 80 murders and 6,400 aggravated assaults each year,” said State Representative Bill Dunn (R–Knoxville), citing Pre-K advocate literature. “I truly hope people will recognize this was all very expensive hype.”

According to estimates, the total cost of implementing a full-scale Pre-K program in Tennessee would exceed $460 million per year.

“If you do a cost-benefit analysis on this extremely expensive program, you will come to the conclusion that it is like paying $1,000 for a McDonald’s hamburger,” Dunn continued. “It may make an initial dent on your hunger, but it doesn’t last long and you soon realize you could have done a lot more with the money spent.”

Instead, Dunn called for shifting resources to places that have shown to have a real impact on students, like having a great teacher in front of every classroom.

“Our teachers have stepped up with the new educational reforms that have been initiated and have shown improvement on annual test scores for three years in a row. For all of this hard work, I think they should be rewarded,” concluded Dunn.

Bill Dunn serves as Chairman of the House Calendar & Rules Committee. He lives in Knoxville and represents District 16, which includes a portion of Knox County.

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Press Releases

Harwell Promotes GOP Spokeswoman, Hires Former Desjarlais Campaign Manager

Statement from House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville; Feb. 8, 2011:

I am pleased to announce two personnel moves to the Leadership Staff that will help ensure our team keeps its promise to restore fiscal discipline in Tennessee government, create an environment for growth, and make Tennessee a better place to live, work and raise a family.

First, Kara Watkins joins the Speaker’s Office to serve as Speaker Harwell’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications and Policy. Kara has a breadth of knowledge about the legislative process and a comprehensive understanding of communications that will serve our office well and we are glad to have her on board.

Secondly, I am pleased to announce Brent Leatherwood has joined the House Republican Caucus where he will bring his experience in message development and communications, as well as a unique policy background. Additionally, he served as Campaign Manager for Scott Desjarlais for Congress. Brent will serve as Press Secretary, helping with communications and policy strategy under Chairman Debra Maggart.

I believe both of these individuals will make Tennessee proud with their service.

Beth Harwell

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News

Republicans Scheduled to Vote on House Speaker Nominee

Sweeping Republican gains in the Tennessee House of Representatives resulted from GOP candidates campaigning on conservative principles. And voters deserve someone overseeing the chamber who believes conservative priorities are now the people’s priorities, Rep. Glen Casada said Wednesday afternoon.

Under his direction, the House could be expected to approve or advance only that legislation rooted in core conservative values: reducing government size and spending, keeping state regulators out of the business community’s hair and stopping any new tax increases.

That kind of leadership isn’t for a moderate, Casada told TNReport on the eve of his party’s selection of a nominee for House speaker.

“Some people think that agreement is a greater good than getting your principles passed,” said Casada. “And I feel like getting my principles passed…is of greater value than getting agreement.”

Key party constituencies, like gun-rights advocates and Tea Party activists, have argued, too, that Rep. Beth Harwell, who is running against Casada, would be more likely to settle for compromise on issues of importance to them. Some conservative activists have also called for the caucus House speaker vote to be public, although the chamber’s party members have resisted that suggestion thus far.

But despite her moderate image, Harwell, a a two-decade House incumbent who led the TNGOP for four years, has herself advertised that she has no problem cutting Democrats out of the lawmaking mix for the next two years.

“Certainly in times past, we’ve had this mentality of a Democrat-Republican coalition, understandably so,” she told TNReport last week. “That day is over.”

Casada and Harwell say they would marginalize Democrats on legislative committees to reflect the heavy Republican majority in the chamber. And both pledge to support whomever the caucus nominates for the post — which in Harwell’s case seemingly constitutes an assurance that she won’t seek to leapfrog the party’s more conservative elements and reach out to Democrats for support on the House floor in January.

The new speaker will replace Rep. Kent Williams, a former Republican turned Independent who was elected into the leadership post with the help of Democrats in 2009. Both Casada and Harwell say that kind of backdoor surprise is not in the cards in 2011.

Thirty-three votes are required to win the caucus’ approval. The nominee is expected win election before the whole chamber in January with the entire party’s backing.

The GOP won a 64-34-1 majority at the general election earlier this month, essentially giving the party control of two-thirds of the chamber.

The nomination process was originally scheduled for the second week of December, but was moved up in an attempt to bond the party together sooner behind one central leader, Casada said.

Caucus members seem to know who they want to vote for, “so they might as well get it out of the way,” he said.

“Many, many in the caucus basically felt they had already made their mind up,” Casada said.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner says Republicans have their work cut out for them.

The party will soon realize they can’t keep all the groups that helped them into office happy, he said.

“I think you’ll see a lot of those groups complaining about a lot of things as we go forward, and it just tickles me to death,” Turner said Wednesday.

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News Transparency and Elections

Harwell Promises No-Compromise GOP-Driven House Agenda

Rep. Beth Harwell sees more than just a Republican majority in the House of Representatives — she sees it as a license for the GOP to do what it wants.

And what Harwell wants is be in the driver’s seat.

The Nashville Republican is running for Speaker of the House, a highly coveted leadership post Harwell says she’s earned after a four-year stint running the Tennessee Republican Party and heading up high-profile legislative committees.

But before she can take the wheel, she’ll have to beat out another well-connected contender in House Majority Leader Glen Casada as well as overcome concerns about her commitment to the conservative agenda and her friendliness to Democrats.

“Certainly in times past, we’ve had this mentality of a Democrat-Republican coalition, understandably so,” she told TNReport Wednesday. “That day is over.”

Since Republicans scooped up 14 extra seats in the House of Representatives for a 64-34-1 majority, Harwell has has been positioning herself as a House GOP lawmaker who is strong, experienced and patient enough to handle a massive freshman class of Republicans.

But some say her past legislative votes and actions cast doubt on whether she’ll consistently adhere to conservative interpretations of constitutional principles in the future.

The Tennessee Firearms Association shot off an e-mail to members Wednesday questioning Harwell’s stance on the 2nd Amendment, and beyond that the depth of her understanding of, and commitment to defending, other essential tenets of the Bill of Rights.

Case in point, said TFA Executive Director John Harris, was that Harwell had voted against two major bills expanding gun rights in the last two years.

She was one of only two Republicans in the House who voted not to overturn Gov. Phil Bredesen’s veto of a bill that would allow guns in places of business that serve alcohol. The override ultimately passed 61-30. The other Republican, Rep. Joe McCord, did not seek reelection this year.

“Many see an elected official’s voting history on these Second Amendment issues as a litmus test of the depth of that individual’s core, constitutional foundations,” Harris wrote in the TFA e-mail. “A demonstrated unwillingness to stand by core constitutional principles cannot be lightly ignored as a predictor of what might occur when other constitutional rights are in the balance.”

Harwell, a 53-year-old 12-term legislator, insists her record on gun rights is actually quite strong. She was given a ‘B’ by the NRA.

“In all the years I have been there, I have voted 100 percent with them, except for that one last bill, which was guns in bars,” Harwell said, adding that “alcohol and guns do not mix.”

At any rate, any legislation dealing with guns that is of importance to members of the GOP caucus would make its way to the House floor under her leadership, Harwell said.

As if she weren’t facing enough obstacles, her Speaker Kent Williams gave her an extra one when he endorsed her shortly after the election.

Williams said his backing was an attempt to help in her reach for the speaker’s gavel. However, given that the party is still ticked at him for using Democratic votes in 2008 to steal the speakership away from then-Rep. Jason Mumpower, his vocal support may do more harm than good, said Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

“I think, clearly, that that endorsement was not helpful in any stretch of the imagination. I think he did it thinking it would genuinely help, so I don’t think he realizes some of the feelings that exist for him on the Republican caucus,” said Lundberg, who declined to comment on who he would vote for, although he is angling for a seat as House Republican Leader.

Even though Republicans now make up two-thirds of the House, members of the Memphis Tea Party believe it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Harwell could rally the same troops that won Williams his speakership.

In a recent e-mail, the group called Harwell “damaged goods” and questioned her GOP loyalties to a conservative agenda.

But Harwell says none of conservatives’ worries are warranted. Not only is she ignoring Democrats as she counts up votes in her bid for speaker, but Harwell promises to load up legislative committees in ways reflective of Republicans’ robust numerical strength in the House.

“We have the majority, the vast majority. We are ready to govern in that mindset. As far as I’m concerned, there will be no Democrat-Republican coalition,” she said. “This will be a Republican decision who the next speaker is.”

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Name-Dropping

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey may not be running for governor anymore, but he’s still keeping his campaign-finance fingers in electoral pies all across the state of Tennessee.

The former GOP contender for governor divided $14,000 between House and Senate Republican candidates over the last few months in an effort to lock down his party’s majority in both chambers.

Republicans are hopping to widen the the House’s 50-48 majority and establish solid control of the chamber after narrowly losing the speaker’s office to Kent Williams, a Republican gone independent after he was voted leader in 2008 with mostly Democrat support. The GOP has solid control of the Senate with a 19-14 majority.

“I daresay I’m the only senator that’s actually mailed money to practically every challenger in the state of Tennessee,” he told TNReport last week. “I’ll assure you, I sent out more checks yesterday.”

His philosophy? “This year, in 2010, if a Republican is within the margin of error, then they’ll probably really win.”

Here’s a list of House Republican candidates he said he’s supporting:

  • David Alexander, running against incumbent Rep. George Fraley.
  • Shelia Butt, running against incumbent Rep. Ty Cobb in 64th District.
  • Duane Dominy, running against incumbent Rep. Sherry Jones.
  • Jim Gotto, against Sam Coleman for Democratic Rep. Ben West’s vacated seat.
  • Don Miller, running against Larry Mullins for Democratic Rep. John Litz’s vacated seat.
  • Dennis Powers, running against Keith Clotfelter in Rep. Chad Faulkner’s lost Republican seat.
  • Bill Sanderson, running against incumbent Rep. Judy Barker.
  • Art Swan, running against Marvin Pratt for Republican Rep. Joe McCord’s vacated seat
  • Ryan Williams, running against incumbent Rep. Henry D. Fincher.
  • Charles Williamson, running against caucus chairman and incumbent Rep. Mike Turner.
  • Tim Wirgau, running against incumbent Rep. Willie “Butch” Borchert.

And here are the people he didn’t mention, but to whom he sent checks between July and September, according to campaign finance reports:

  • Sen. Mae Beavers, running against George McDonald.
  • Rep. Stacey Campfield, running against Randy Walker for state Senate.
  • Sen. Bill Ketron, running against Debbie Matthews.
  • Rep. Jon Lundberg, who is running unopposed.
  • Don McLeary, running against incumbent Rep. Lowe Finney.
  • Rep. Tony Shipley, running against Nathan Vaughn.
  • Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, running against James C. Hale.