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.


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 on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

Press Releases

AG Opines On Former Clarksville Mayor’s Hiring as CDE Lightband Superintendent

Press Release from Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams; March 25, 2011:


NASHVILLE – State Senator Tim Barnes and fellow members of the Montgomery

County Delegation received a supplemental opinion from Attorney General Robert Cooper on Friday regarding former Clarksville mayor Johnny Piper’s hiring as superintendent of CDE Lightband.

The opinion states that the power board may not be legally composed if it was formed under a 1935 state law creating municipal power boards, but it also states that the AG’s office does not have sufficient information to determine if that is the case.

At the time of Piper’s hiring, the CDE Lightband board was composed of seven members – all Piper appointees – who were to serve three-year terms, as laid out in the Clarksville charter. The state law provides for a different composition than the requirements in the Clarksville charter.

The opinion also addressed a request regarding how to bring the board into compliance, should it be found to be improperly composed. The opinion states that neither the 1935 state law nor the charter provides such a remedy.

Cooper earlier opined that the 1935 state law supersedes a Clarksville city law prohibiting elected officials from interviewing for a local department head position for one year after leaving office. Piper accepted the $140,000 superintendent job days before his mayoral term expired on Dec. 31, 2010.

Barnes, State Representatives Curtis Johnson, Joe Pitts, and Phillip Johnson

requested the supplemental AG opinion on behalf of current Clarksville mayor Kim McMillan.

Press Releases

Montgomery Co. Lawmakers Ask AG for Opinion on Johnny Piper Hire

Press Release from Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, Jan 13, 2011:

Former Clarksville mayor takes $140,000 job as utility superintendent

NASHVILLE – State lawmakers representing Montgomery County have requested an opinion from Attorney General Bob Cooper concerning former Clarksville mayor Johnny Piper’s hiring as superintendent of CDE Lightband, a $140,000 job that he accepted while still mayor of the city.

“Clearly there are questions here that need answers: legal questions, governing questions, and most important, ethical questions,” State Senator Tim Barnes said. “When an elected official agrees to take a six-figure government job while still in office, there should be all kinds of questions.”

Barnes, State Representatives Joe Pitts, Curtis Johnson and Phillip Johnson issued the request Thursday on behalf of current Clarksville mayor Kim McMillan. The request asks the AG whether the city can impose the same ethics regulations on CDE that it imposes on other city departments.

“We have a responsibility to seek some clarity of these recent events in response to the hundreds of citizens who have contacted us expressing outrage regarding this matter,” Pitts said.

Piper accepted the $140,000 superintendent job days before his mayoral term expired on Dec. 31, 2010. Clarksville ethics laws state that elected officials cannot interview for a department head in local government for one year after leaving office, and cannot interview for any government position for three months after their term expires.

CDE lawyers have argued that the city laws do not apply to the utility because it was created under a 1935 state law that does not contain the same regulations. Barnes and other lawmakers point out that the state law allows for local governments to create additional ethical safeguards like the ones in the Clarksville city code. Without them, mayors could appoint people who could later turn around and hire them as soon as their term expired.

“Our ethics regulations were created for scenarios like the one we’re facing now,” said Curtis Johnson, appointed Thursday as the House Ethics Committee Chairman. “The minute we create exceptions, we open the floodgates for abuse.”

Business and Economy Environment and Natural Resources Liberty and Justice News

Republicans Energized about Nuclear Power; Democrats by Green Jobs

All four Republican candidates for governor expressed support Wednesday for ramping up nuclear power as part of the state’s energy future in a forum before the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.

Two Democratic candidates spoke in a separate session with members of the organization prior to the Republicans taking their turn at a downtown Nashville forum Wednesday. The Democrats were not asked about nuclear energy, but they addressed green energy as a vital part of the state’s economic future.

Republicans were asked specifically about coal and nuclear power. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, from Blountville, said the nation took a wrong turn on nuclear energy decades ago.

“One of the worst mistakes we’ve ever made in this country, in the late 1970s, was turning away from nuclear energy,” Ramsey said. “I had a chance to go to work building one of those plants, yet we mothballed that and we’ve gone backward. We need to look at nuclear energy, coal and natural gas. Green energy is all well and good, but it’s going to be a small percentage. We’ve got to know when you turn the light switch on that the lights will come on.”

Ramsey said the state should continue to rely on coal and find the best ways to obtain it.

“We have to rely on good science. I mentioned that before at a forum and got criticized,” Ramsey said. “I’m opposed to mountaintop removal, but at the same time there are ways of getting to that coal, and we need to do it. Alternative fuels are out there but a lot is down the road. We’ve got 100 years of reserves in the ground, and that’s going to help us be energy independent.”

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam said the approach should be to pursue a policy that includes nuclear power, solar power and wind power.

“But we also need to use less,” Haslam said. “In Knoxville, we looked at our own energy use, not only as good stewards of the environment, but we saved money. As a country, we do have to consider producing more energy domestically.”

Bill Gibbons, Shelby County district attorney general, said a diverse energy policy is needed and said Gov. Phil Bredesen has taken the state in the right direction with energy technology.

“We also need nuclear energy. We’ve got to be realistic about that,” Gibbons said. “It’s a clean source of energy. We’ve got to have that as part of the mix.”

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga complimented the Obama administration for its openness to nuclear energy.

“We need to build another hundred nuclear reactors as a nation in the next 20 years,” Wamp said.

Referring to both President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Wamp said, “I’m frankly glad they realize if they want to meet any of their carbon goals they have to have an ambitious nuclear plan, and I think they’re starting to get that drift.”

Democrats Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, and Kim McMillan, a former state legislator and aide to Bredesen, pointed to the potential in jobs related to new investment in polycrystalline silicon in the state. Hemlock Semiconductor and Wacker Chemie are making large investments in Tennessee. Both Democrats said the focus should be on attracting suppliers for those companies. Hemlock will be in Montgomery County, Wacker in Bradley County.

“We’re all very proud of the work Governor Bredesen has done in green energy,” McMillan said. “That is the job of the future. We need to bring in other satellite industries to feed off them. That’s where the growth will be. We can grow this economy by focusing on the green energy field. I’m excited about the possibility of becoming the Silicon Valley of the South.”

McWherter found a bright spot to talk about.

“In so many ways, Tennessee lags many other states, but I want to brag on Tennessee,” McWherter said. “We’re among the top three states in creating clean energy jobs. They are Oregon, Colorado and Tennessee. That’s a great accomplishment. That’s a position I want to see Tennessee stay in.

“The suppliers that will come in for Hemlock and Wacker will want to locate in a corridor between Clarksville and Chattanooga. What we’ve got to do is go out and actively recruit those supplying industries for those two signature companies. As your next governor, I assure you I will go after those industries very aggressively.”

McWherter said all Tennesseans are invested in those companies, given the tax incentives that attracted them to the state.

“I don’t care where you live in Tennessee, you’ve got an investment in Volkswagen and Wacker and Hemlock. You pay taxes, and we have given tax incentives. You’ve got an investment,” McWherter said.

“The way to get a return is to go out and capture these supplying industries. Once we get those industries in here, they will employ people,” he added. “That makes their employees consumers, and that helps the revenue situation for everyone across the state. It is imperative that the next governor knows to go out and recruit those supplying industries.”


McMillan: Money Isn’t Everything In Dem Guv’s Race

She may not have a lot of money in her campaign war chest, but Kim McMillan says she makes up for it in political drive.

McMillan, a former Democratic majority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives, says she’s not letting modest campaign contributions stand in the way of her winning the party’s gubernatorial primary this August.

“I may not have the most money of all the candidates, but I clearly believe that I have enough to be a viable candidate,” McMillan told TNReport during a visit to the Capitol on Tuesday.

In her latest campaign finance breakdown, McMillan reported thus far gathering $106,931 to fund her bid for governor.

Both her opponents ended the same reporting period with much more money in their political piggy banks. Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle had $588,042 on hand and Jackson businessman Mike McWherter had $619,999.

But McMillan — elected six times to the state House, and now a political science instructor at Austin Peay State University — says that when it comes to stimulating campaign energy and the passion for her cause, message is more important than money.

In 2002, McMillan became the first female ever to be elected Tennessee House majority leader. She was reelected to that post in 2004.

In 2006, Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed her to his cabinet as a senior adviser.

She worked in his administration for two years and said she’d like to continue with several of the policies and priorities he forged throughout his two terms in office.

McMillan says she’s been particularly impressed with, in her view, Bredesen’s record of responsible adherence to fiscal discipline while adequately funding important government programs and initiatives.

McMillan’s said her leadership style as governor would involve lots of give-and-take with constituencies not often heard from on Capitol Hill.

“A Kim McMillan governorship would be all about listening to the people of Tennessee, responding to their needs, and trying to address those things that are important to them,” she said.

One item on her to-do list as governor is exploring ways to duplicate Austin Peay’s partnership with Hemlock Semiconductor for other universities across the state. Together, Hemlock and Austin Peay are launching a two-year degree program in chemical engineering technology that’s aimed at preparing students for jobs like those offered by the global solar-system component supplier.

“That’s the way we create jobs. Working outside the box, working and partnering with our educational institutions, and we can do it all across the state of Tennessee,” she said.

McMillan lives in Clarksville with her husband and two teenage children.

Andrea Zelinski can be reached at

Transparency and Elections

Wamp Launches Campaign — And More Barbs at Haslam

Republican gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp critiqued the much-discussed early television ad by primary opponent Bill Haslam today as a “Pilot Oil ad,” adding that his own ads will show a candidate running for governor.

“I’m grateful, frankly, that there’s a lot of money being wasted right now, because we’re going to wait and spend our money in a very efficient, effective way,” Wamp said.

Wamp’s reaction to the Haslam ad came in Murfreesboro Tuesday following a morning event at the State Capitol Building, where Wamp formally announced his campaign for governor.

“I believe deep in my bones that we have a great state, the greatest of all states, but I know in my heart we can do better,” the congressman told a crowd while standing with his family in the Old Supreme Court Chambers of the State Capitol Building.

The room was filled with supporters and state legislators. House Speaker Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton — though not on board as a supporter — also poked his head in at the announcement.

Wamp said this is no time for a status quo governor and called for smaller government.

“Government cannot solve all of our problems,” he said. “Ladies, and gentlemen, we’re going to have to shrink the footprint of state government and get through this recession and grow our economy.”

While his Capitol appearance served as his formal campaign announcement, Wamp has been running for governor actively for months.

Wamp offered his take on the Haslam advertising campaign while stopping for lunch today at the City Cafe in Murfreesboro, which just happened to coincide with an appearance by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kim McMillan.

Wamp arrived first, met with many of the diners and had just sat down with his family when McMillan entered for her own interaction with the lunchtime crowd.

McMillan had spoken at Middle Tennessee State University. Wamp’s entourage had made its way into town after being at Capitol Hill in Nashville.

Two storylines have dominated the Republican primary race in recent days.

One is the effort by Wamp and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons to hold Haslam accountable for refusing to disclose his personal income from Pilot Corp., the Haslam family business known for the Pilot Travel Centers along highway roadsides. Over the last week, the two have peppered the Knoxville mayor with public comments calling for him to release his private records.

“Mayor Haslam’s running in a Republican primary,” said David Smith, Haslam’s campaign spokesman. “But it sounds like he’s running against a bunch of California liberals attacking capitalism.”

The other hot topic is Haslam’s early statewide campaign television ad buy. The move is drawing attention not only for its early timing but for the $5.7 million in campaign contributions Haslam has collected– giving him a decided financial advantage over his opposition.

“This is a big week in that we’re kicking it into the home stretch,” Wamp said. “But this is also a momentum week because while one candidate is spending a lot of money branding himself on television, I am out clearly laying out where our state needs to go to become an even better state. And I think that’s a contrast.”

Since he brought up what was clearly a reference to Haslam, Wamp was asked to critique the debut ad that hit televisions across the state Friday.

“I don’t want to talk much about what the other campaigns are doing with their money,” he said, then added, “To me it looks like a Pilot Oil ad. My ads are going to show me running for governor with a plan and an agenda to make Tennessee a better place, not the family business. So they can brand him however they want to, and they can spend as much money as they want to, but the people of Tennessee want a leader with vision and a plan to make Tennessee an ever better state.

“Frankly, I have the experience of having done that,” he continued. “I’ve been able to do that in one part of the state. Now I want to do it in the whole state, and the people are with us.”

The Haslam ad depicts the Knoxville mayor as having worked hard to build up the Pilot business, showing images of trucks at truck stops while a voiceover reflects on Haslam’s work as mayor. The ad also gives a glimpse of Haslam knocking on doors working his campaign and walking with others toting big red umbrellas.

In the restaurant in Murfreesboro, Wamp made his way over to greet McMillan, one of three Democratic candidates for governor. The smiling McMillan said to him what sounded like, “Great minds think alike” about their chance meeting.

McMillan’s campaign staff said the location was a coincidence, but they acknowledged they learned about a day or so ago Wamp was scheduled to be there, too.

Wamp, the 3rd District U.S. congressman from Chattanooga, is on what his campaign bills as a “statewide announcement tour.” He will be in the TriCities on Wednesday.

Wamp said he was encouraged by the crowd of people who had attended his event at the Capitol.

“Frankly, the desire for new leadership is what’s causing this,” he said. “In the Capitol itself, to have that kind of show of support, to have many of our legislators there, leaders from the community there, I was greatly encouraged.”

It was cramped quarters from the start in the Murfreesboro cafe where the soup, chili and sandwiches were moving quickly. The entrance of McMillan to go with the Wamp crowd made for even closer brushes between patrons and servers.

There, McMillan talked about the kinds of reactions she gets from such meetings with the public.

“A lot of them say, ‘Good luck,’ ‘Go for it,’ ‘We’re for you,’ which I like,” McMillan said. “But a lot of it is, ‘Here’s what I think.”

“I just heard two good ideas when I got here. One was someone talking about regionalism, and someone else promoted the idea of lifelong educational opportunities, thinking about making sure people always have that re-training and education. Good ideas.”

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report.


Candidates for Governor Weigh in on Higher Ed

With lawmakers on the cusp of approving major education reforms this week, candidates for governor gathered in Nashville Thursday to offer their views on education.

Hosted by the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education, SCORE, gubernatorial hopefuls addressed issues ranging from pre-K programs to college graduation rates, improving teacher quality to linking jobs to education. Sponsored by NewsChannel 5 and other organizations, the entire one-hour forum can be viewed here.

The seven candidates — four Republicans and three Democrats — had all raised at least $250,000 for their campaign fund prior to Thursday’s forum at Belmont University.

Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat in his last year in office, called lawmakers into Special Session this week to approve his proposals to reform education in light of a pending grant proposal for $485 million worth of “Race to the Top” federal funds.

The highly competitive grant rewards states with the most creative and innovative education reforms.

Bredesen also asked lawmakers to review how the state treats higher education, an issue not specifically related to the RTTT competition. He wanted lawmakers to tackle that subject as well, but members have agreed to push off that issue until the regular session this spring.

Candidates at the forum tackled the topic anyway, offering 1-minute explanations on how they would improve the two-year and four-year college graduation rates.

“We have to combine, we have to partner between our educational institutions and our work force development efforts in our state,” said Kim McMillan, former Tennessee House Democratic leader.

“Part of the problem is that we have a lot of out students entering in college who aren’t prepared. They’re spending a lot of money on remedial courses at the college education level,” said Bill Gibbons, Shelby County District Attorney General who is running for the Republican nod for governor.

Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman running for a space on the Democratic ticket, said Tennessee Diploma project is the key to improving higher education.

Congressman Zach Wamp, a Republican, said he wants to see high school students get “fired up about the future” with the help of distance and online learning.

Maybe the problem is too much red tape, said state Sen. Jim Kyle, who leads the Democratic party in the chamber.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, said students should be able to transfer more classes from their community college classes when switching to a four-year university.

Bill Haslam, Republican Mayor of Knoxville, pointed to two programs in his own city as examples of what the state can do.