NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

E-Balloting System Showed Problems Aug. 2, Activist Says

A new system that checks in voters before they cast ballots had glitches during the recent primary, and the irregularities could have troubling implications if the system is launched statewide, Tennessee Citizen Action’s Mary Mancini said Monday.

Mancini, executive director of the left-leaning public advocacy group, said three elected officials and at least two registered voters in Davidson County were electronically issued Republican ballots by default using electronic poll books during the Aug. 2 primary election. Mancini said the system issued tickets for GOP ballots if the voter was not asked which ballot he or she wanted or poll workers failed to hit the Democratic primary ballot key hard enough.

“It is obviously outrageous that it defaults to any party ballot. It should not default to any ballot, at all,” Mancini said outside the Davidson County Election Commission office Monday.

Citizen Action and the League of Women Voters are asking the state to audit the primary election and the Davidson County Election Commission.

Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins is already looking into the irregularities and is recommending against using the electronic poll books in the general election, according to Secretary of State Spokesman Black Fontenay.

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Maggart: NRA’s ‘Negative Campaigning’ Led to Her Defeat

Leading House Republican Rep. Debra Maggart hasn’t decided whether she’ll make another go if it in 2014 following her recent GOP primary defeat in Sumner County.

The Hendersonville Republican blamed her loss on the National Rifle Federation and the Tennessee Firearms Association which “dumped over $150,000” worth of political ads into the race, she said.

“To tell the people of my district over and over and over that I am for gun control, which is a total lie, was very effective. People say they don’t like negative campaigning, but negative campaigning works,” she said following a roundtable discussion between Gov. Bill Haslam, legislators and business and education officials about improving higher education while at Tennessee Technology Center in Nashville Tuesday.

A review of contributions by political action committees indicated the NRA and TFA collectively injected $102,000 into the race.

Maggart’s opponent, Lt. Col. Courtney Rogers, enjoyed a 57 percent favorable vote to Maggart’s 43 percent to defeat the incumbent in the Aug. 2 Republican primary election. Rogers now goes on to compete with Democrat Jeanette Jackson in the general.

Maggart, who will serve out her term until the Nov. 6 election, said her loss does anything but call into question public concern over the direction legislative leaders are taking the state.

“Only then did it start getting people’s attention, and according to my polling data, it didn’t get heated until the NRA did what they did,” she said.

Asked whether she would run for reelection in 2014 to reclaim the legislative seat she’s held since 2005, she said it’s too early to tell what the future holds.

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Democrats Down a Few Incumbents, Too

Incumbent Tennessee Democrats evaded the kind of thrashing administered by legislative primary voters to their Republican counterparts. But they didn’t come away entirely unbloodied either.

Five incumbent Democrats were voted out of office Thursday. Among them were four who lost against fellow lawmakers who they were pitted against as a part of redistricting, and one culled by a Democratic challenger.

Heading into the November general election, the minority party now can focus on their an uphill battle trying to recover from two years ago when Democrats lost 14 seats in the House and one in the Senate.

“We’ve had a little dip in the road here and we need to make sure Tennessee stays focused on those three things, jobs, education and good fiscal management,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who faces his own re-election challenger in November.

“We have some very good candidates. If people would just give them a look we could elect some and we can overcome the problems we had in redistricting and retirements,” he said.

GOP-directed redistricting earlier this year merged Democrat-leaning districts and resulted in the purging of four rank-and-file incumbent Democrats from Legislature. Other Democrats saw the writing on the wall and opted to retire this year in lieu of running uphill races against Republicans.

Of those ousted was Memphis Sen. Beverly Marrero, a high-ranking Democrat who had served the Legislature for the better part of a decade. She lost her seat to to Minority Leader Jim Kyle by 10 percentage points, a result of Republicans pinning the two against each other after Kyle asked that he be placed in Marrero’s district instead of that of neighboring Republican Brian Kelsey.

Also in Memphis, Rep. John Deberry outdistanced Rep. Jeanne Richardson while Rep. G.A. Hardaway beat out Rep. Mike Kernell, a veteran lawmaker whose career spanned four decades. Both races won on nearly 2-to-1 margins.

The race was even clearer in Chattanooga where Rep. Joanne Favors defeated Rep. Tommie Brown on an almost 3-to-1 margin, winning 3,957 votes to Brown’s 1,514.

But that wasn’t the last of the Democratic defeats Thursday. Longtime Nashville Rep. Mary Pruitt fell to challenger Harrold Love by a mere 41 votes.

The election isn’t over for Kyle and Favors, though, as they both face off against Republicans in the November election.

Even as Democrats lick their wounds, they’re hopeful general election voters will reject the victorious crop of conservative upstarts who picked off incumbent Republicans on Aug. 2.

“You don’t want to ever think negatively about your opponents getting beaten in the primary and all that, but the fact is this can only be encouraging to the general election on our side,” said Fitzhugh, adding the defeats will ultimately make for “a little different complexion on the ultimate makeup of the General Assembly.”

A GOP leadership crisis means opportunities for Democrats, Sen. Lowe Finney, the Democratic Caucus chairman, said in a press release Friday. “When you look at the number of incumbents unseated last night, it’s clear the Legislature will be a very different place next year,” he said. “I’m confident the Democrats can be very influential in that environment.”

Among the ousted GOPs were high-ranking leaders like Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart and Education Chairman Richard Montgomery.

But even as Republicans regroup after this week’s political upsets and await to hear if the results of close races will be challenged, they argue they still see Democrats as “at a severe disadvantage” in the general election, said state GOP Party Chairman Chris Devaney.

Featured Liberty and Justice News Transparency and Elections

They Play, You Pay

Tennessee taxpayers will fork over an estimated $4.5 million this week administering elections for the two major parties.

But as a matter of state law, the decision as to who can and cannot participate in the partisan festivities is ultimately left to party officials and not the government. For that matter, there’s no guarantee the majority will get to decide the winners and losers.

That reality of the fundamentally rigged nature of Tennessee’s primary system was on display recently in Rhea County, where election judges turned away at least 10 voters this month for trying to vote in a primary election in which they were deemed by local GOP bigwigs as not “bona fide” members of the Party of Lincoln. All were asked to swear their allegiance to the Republican Party, and nine were given no guarantees their vote would count.

Members Only

Tennessee GOP chairman Chris Devaney indicated the party’s primary concern in the primary is promoting long-term partisan fidelity.

“We encourage people who have good intentions, Democrats, independents, to come over and vote in our primary if they intend to stay,” said Devaney when asked about the voter challenges in Dayton, a town of 7,000 people.

“But I don’t want people voting in our primary if they just want to manipulate the election,” he said.

Tennessee’s primary election system is technically open, allowing anyone to cast a vote in any primary. But the fine print of the law gives political parties the power to challenge and discount an individual’s vote if they are not “a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote.“

Voters can get around that law only if they have “declared allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and (stated) that the voter intends to affiliate with that party.” If party election officials are convinced, voters can cast a ballot. Otherwise, those voters cast a rejected ballot that party leaders decide later whether to count.

Leading House Democrat Craig Fitzhugh says Democrats didn’t have a candidate to vote for in the Rhea County race. But no voter should stand accused of so-called “crossover voting” without evidence, he said.

“I just think that’s carrying that party tag a little too far,” he said, adding he was OK with Dayton Mayor Bob Vincent’s wife Maxine trying to switch from Democrat to Republican to presumably vote against incumbent Rep. Jim Cobb, of Spring City, who is running against Dayton businessman Ron Travis.

“I don’t think much of that at all. I think people cherish their vote a little more than that just to use it in that manner,” he said.

The Kurita Cure

That’s not what Democrats were saying a few years ago when the party’s State Primary Board chose to oust the people’s choice, an incumbent, in a state Senate race in favor of a hand-picked successor more to the party establishment’s liking.

If party officials believe a race was decided by voters who weren’t “bona fide” party faithful, the state party itself can decide to go with another candidate.

That’s what happened in 2008. Democrat Sen. Rosalind Kurita, who had earlier cast the key vote to name Republican Sen. Ron Ramsey as the Senate speaker, so infuriated the party brass that they gave her the boot in favor of the man she actually bested by a razor thin margin.

The party’s primary board reasoned that Kurita’s 19-vote victory was “incurably uncertain” because they believed voters of the wrong partisan hue jumped party lines in an attempt to sway the election in her favor. So the party’s executive committee sent her challenger, Tim Barnes, to the general election in her place, and he won despite Kurita’s attempt to run as a write-in candidate.

Kurita took her fight to U.S. District Court in Middle Tennessee where Judge Robert L. Echols dismissed the case in part on the grounds that primaries are technically private-party affairs.

“Simply stated, the manner in which primary election contests are handled is left to the parties,” Echols wrote in his ruling.

The power to select a nominee for a political party has never been reserved traditionally and exclusively to the State of Tennessee. In fact, just the opposite is true, as the Tennessee General Assembly expressly disclaimed any role of state government in resolving party nomination contests and instead reserved power exclusively to the political party to choose the nominee whose name will appear on the general election ballot.”

Kurita lost her latest appeal to that ruling last month in the 6th District U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, agreeing with the lower court’s opinion that the parties themselves are the final arbiters of who gets to go on to the general election under the party banner.

Taxpayers Footing the Bill

Secretary of State spokesman Blake Fontenay said the tab for putting on the roughly four-and-a-half-million-dollar show for Republican and Democrat primary voters includes the cost to provide early voting, count ballots, staff election precincts and other duties — all paid for through county tax dollars.

One activist said that legislators should change the laws so voters can be confident they can vote for their favorite candidates in the primary election — regardless what party they belong to.

“This is going to sound funny, but there’s too much politics in our elections,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a left-leaning civil rights group. “It’s the election by the people. They should have access to whatever ballot they want to choose during that process. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.”

But she declined to comment on what she thought about Kurita being bumped off the ballot for alleged cross over voting.

“People want us to believe we live in this hyper-partisan society. But I think there’s a lot of people out there who vote for the person, not the party,” she said.

Business and Economy Featured News Transparency and Elections

Bankruptcy Filing Haunts Challenger to Maggart

In 2005, Courtney Rogers’ life savings were gone.

The oil distributorship business her husband bought with a friend months before the 9/11 attacks had failed. Business debts were piling up. And the couple was filing for bankruptcy.

And even though it stemmed from the failure of her husband’s company, Rogers is being sucked back into that difficult chapter in their lives now that she’s running for state political office. Rogers is waging a dark horse campaign to unseat one of the House’s leading Republicans, GOP Caucus Leader Debra Maggart, of Hendersonville.

Michael Rogers’ company — BSR Petroleum Distributors Inc. — consumed $55,000 of the Rogers family’s savings as profit margins shrunk following the terrorist attacks, forcing the pair to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, Rogers and her campaign said.

“There was nothing we could do. We fought it off for a few years, we emptied our savings. But the margins never came back,” said Rogers.

Rogers and her husband filed for bankruptcy in March of 2005, according to court records. The couple listed liabilities of more than $930,000, with most of those debts, nearly $730,000, tied to his company. Their legal obligation to pay their debt was gone three months later, and their assets were liquidated.

“I don’t know that we’d do anything different because no one could foresee that,” she said of her husband buying Pulaski-based Chiles Oil Inc., and launching their business six months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The revelation of Rogers’ bankruptcy is the newest twist in the Aug. 2 primary race for District 45 in Sumner County between the two conservative Republicans. A handful of interest groups are flooding Rogers with support in an effort to unseat the politically powerful Maggart as payback for leading the charge against issues they hold dear, including the National Rifle Association, which so far has plugged more than $75,000 into the race.

Rogers has not filed a disclosure of the bankruptcy with the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance.

It’s unclear whether she is in violation of election law, which requires candidates running for election to fill out paperwork listing “any adjudication of bankruptcy or discharge received in any United States district court within five years of the date of this report.” Omitting information could result in a fine up to $10,000.

Although the court issued the Rogerses their bankruptcy in 2005, it took court officials until 2008 to close their case, well within the five-year window.

The issue would only get vetted if Maggart or someone else filed a formal ethics complaint against Rogers.

Maggart declined to comment directly on whether she would do so. When asked, Maggart said she is “focused on getting my message out there about me, about what I’ve done as a state representative.”

Maggart ran a business of her own which closed down in 2008. She was the owner of Best Buy Carpet and Flooring Inc., in Madison, a company she closed when she couldn’t find a warehouse with a showroom she wanted to relocate to closer to home, she said.

Maggart dismissed any comparison of her own business closing and that of Rogers’ husband, calling them “very different.”

“My opponent, she campaigned on the idea of government staying out of her life, yet she didn’t mind asking government to stand between her and her creditors,” Maggart said.

Officials won’t comment on whether the Tennessee Ethics Commission has received a complaint on Rogers’ situation.

Although the bankruptcy was filed and discharged in 2005, the TEC doesn’t have a set definition of whether the ongoing filings since then qualify as “adjudication,” said Becky Bradley, the commission’s ethics specialist.

“It just has not come up before,” she said, adding that the commission would likely have to work with the Attorney General’s office to come up with a definition.

The commission keeps the content and number of filed ethics complaints secret. TEC has publicly considered five complaints since it was founded in 2006 and has thrown the rest out, according to Bradley. None resulted in a finding of an ethics violation.

But a Nashville bankruptcy attorney questioned whether the chain of events in Rogers’ case met the five-year test.

The late closing of the case had nothing to do with the actual ruling and liquidation, which was finished by 2005, says Edgar Rothschild, who was not involved in the case and reviewed the documents at the request of TNReport.

“I see nothing unusual about the fact that it was opened in 2005 and not closed until 2008,” he said. “The fact that the trustee took so long moving his paperwork along and disposing of the assets had nothing to do with the debtors. There is nothing in the report which indicated that the debtors did anything questionable.”

Press Releases

Independent Businesses Group Throws Support Behind Maggart

Press Release from the National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee Chapter; July 6, 2012:

NFIB/Tennessee supports pro-small business candidate for reelection

NASHVILLE, Tenn., July 6, 2012 – The National Federation of Independent Business, Tennessee’s leading small business association, has endorsed incumbent Debra Maggart (Hendersonville) in the race for the 45th House District.

The endorsement was made by NFIB/Tennessee SAFE (Save America’s Free Enterprise) Trust, which is comprised exclusively of NFIB members. The primary is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 2, with early voting beginning July 13 and ending July 28.  The general election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 6.

“Debra Maggart is a very strong supporter of free enterprise and has done an outstanding job protecting small businesses in House District 45,” said Jim Brown, state director of NFIB/Tennessee. “Representative Maggart has voted to decrease harmful taxes on small business, like the death tax, and to reduce the burdens of government on hard-working entrepreneurs.”

Maggart said, “I greatly appreciate NFIB’s support for my campaign. I will continue to fight for less government and less red tape so our small-business job creators can get back to doing what they do best, which is grow Tennessee’s economy. Tennessee is a great place to do business, but we have more to do to make it even better.”

NFIB’s endorsement is critical to the Maggart campaign. Small business owners and their employees vote in high numbers and are known for actively recruiting friends, family members and acquaintances to go to the polls. NFIB has pledged it will activate its grassroots network on behalf of the Maggart campaign. NFIB’s political support is based on the candidates’ positions and records on small business issues.

NFIB is the nation’s leading small business association, with offices in Washington, D.C. and all 50 state capitals. Founded in 1943 as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, NFIB gives small- and independent-business owners a voice in shaping the public policy issues that affect their business. NFIB’s powerful network of grassroots activists sends its views directly to state and federal lawmakers through our unique member-only ballot, thus playing a critical role in supporting America’s free enterprise system. NFIB’s mission is to promote and protect the right of our members to own, operate and grow their businesses. More information about NFIB is available online at

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VIDEO: Haslam Helping Maggart, Says GOP Key in Advancing His Agenda

Gov. Bill Haslam hasn’t thought much about what his perfect General Assembly would look like, but says there’s “no doubt” the scores of Republicans in the Legislature have helped him advance his agenda.

Despite political division between moderate and conservative Republicans on several hot topics this year, Haslam says more GOP members in the Legislature means his team will have an easier time passing much of his legislation, like they did the last two years approving civil service and education reforms.

“I’d love to say it’s all my wisdom, intelligent approach to legislation. But the reality is when you have more people that are on your side, things tend to go a little easier,” Haslam told reporters after speaking at the Digital Government Summit in downtown Nashville Tuesday.

Haslam is promising to pop his head in at campaign events for GOP incumbents this primary and general election season, including House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville and Assistant Majority Leader Kevin Brooks of Cleveland, who both have primary election challengers, among others.

The newest legislator on Haslam’s list of candidates to stump for is Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville. Maggart has become the target of criticism for helping derail legislation to allow workers to store guns in their vehicles on their employers’ parking lots. She faces off against fellow Republican Courtney Rogers, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel supported by the Tennessee Firearms Association, in the Aug. 2 primary.

Haslam said his support is not an attempt to block someone who may be more conservative from taking Maggart’s spot.

“I thought she did take a lot of unmerited heat. I think anybody who would question Debra’s conservatism I think is missing something,” he said. “This isn’t just about Debra. It’s about helping a lot of folks who we think can be helpful to us in the process.”

Featured News Transparency and Elections

House Republicans Running Rally-Round-the-Incumbents Campaign

Tennessee Republicans are looking to tighten their grip on state government in the Nov. 6 general election by winning an even larger legislative majority than they’ve enjoyed the last two years.

But party leaders, particularly in the House, say a first priority is to ensure that members of their caucus survive challenges in the Aug. 2 primary.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick and Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart both say incumbents winning primaries is a prime concern. In McCormick’s words, incumbents deserve to be “rewarded on election day” for responsibly governing since they began dominating state politics two years ago.

“Certainly, we want our incumbents to win,” said the Chattanooga Republican. “We think everyone, or close to everyone, is going to win. And then we feel like we can pick some seats up this November as a result of our staying focused on the issues voters care about.”

Maggart sees it as her unwavering responsibility to ensure sitting lawmakers get their jobs back next year. And she faces her own tough re-election challenge against Courtney Rogers of Goodlettsville, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel.

Supporting a candidate can mean everything from political donations from individual lawmakers or the well-funded House GOP Caucus, appearances from high-ranking lawmakers such as Speaker Beth Harwell and even coming out to knock on doors or work political fundraisers.

“My job is to bring the incumbents back,” Maggart told TNReport. “That’s our job — my job — as the caucus leader.”

But while GOP legislative leaders say they see it as their rightful role to protect the already-in crowd, some prominent outsiders who speak for constituencies typically seen as leaning Republican argue that in reality, principles ought to take precedence over the power of incumbency.

The automatic impulse to protect incumbents is rarely the answer — and more often likely part of the problem, argues Ben Cunningham, spokesman of Tennessee Tax Revolt and a founder of the Nashville Tea Party.

“People tend to stay in office far too long and have a sense of entitlement about being re-elected, and that tends to be reinforced by the reality,” Cunningham told TNReport this week.

He said anytime voters can get candidate variety and real ballot-booth choices, it is rarely a bad thing.

“I think that’s one thing most Tea Party people have in common — that we tend to be skeptical of the sense of entitlement that comes with long-term incumbency,” Cunningham said. “I simply don’t feel any loyalty to someone because they’re an incumbent.”

In the primary election this summer, 21 House Republican incumbents face off against GOP challengers who say they better represent the party’s values or are better suited for the job than the sitting state rep. Four GOP state senators have primary opponents.

“Part of the problem is that some incumbents have become addicted to power,” said John Harris, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Firearms Association, which lost a long-fought battle with Republicans this year over allowing gun owners to stow their weapon in their locked car at work. The TFA supports Maggart’s opponent, Rogers, as a result of GOP leaders stonewalling the bill instead of allowing debate and an up-or-down vote on the House floor, where Harris says the legislation would likely have won approval.

His squabble with Maggart over gun rights is “merely a symptom of a much deeper problem with the personal agenda of incumbents and the caucus within the General Assembly, primarily the House of Representatives, to raise funds to retain power and their offices rather than to demonstrate by their actions that they can be trusted with a return to office,” Harris said.

“The question citizens need answered is, Who controls such a system?” Harris said. “It is not the citizens. It is elected officials who are seeking re-election. It is the caucus. It is a product called ‘incumbent protection’ even from members of their own partisan parties.”

The state Republican Party wouldn’t comment specifically on how they balance supporting incumbents versus ensuring those elected sport solid Republican values. But it tipped its hat to the current GOP powers that be in the Legislature for lowering taxes and reducing spending.

“We work very hard to recruit solid, conservative candidates to run for office, and encourage voters to listen to all the candidates and what they stand for when selecting our party’s nominees,” said TNGOP Chris Devaney.

NewsTracker Transparency and Elections

Governor Gearing Up to Help Favored GOP Candidates

Besides being a time to remember fallen soldiers, reopen swimming pools and enjoy a long weekend, Memorial Day also represents the unofficial start of campaign season.

Gov. Bill Haslam says he’ll lend some of this clout this year to Republican lawmakers in legislative races who have helped advance his agenda.

“Obviously I’ll be a lot more active this fall in Republican races. I’ll also be a lot more active for folks that have worked really hard for us,” Haslam told reporters after a Memorial Day ceremony on Capitol Hill.

So, who is on that list?

“We haven’t gotten there, yet,” Haslam said, but added he doesn’t see himself pitching in on Democratic races for friendly Democrats.

Haslam’s support “will mainly be going to events and help,” he said, although the he did not rule out making political contributions.

So far, Haslam said he’s been to a campaign event for state Rep. Ryan Williams, a freshman legislator running against Democrat Thomas D. Willoughby, both of Cookeville. Haslam said he’s also planning to attend an event for House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery who is facing off against Dale Carr in the Republican primary election. Both are from Sevierville.

Haslam says he hasn’t sat down to figure out which races he’ll be helping, but said he didn’t think he’d be involved in races for open seats.

Press Releases

Yarbro Officially Asks for Recount

Press Release from Jeff Yarbro for Senate; Aug. 17, 2010:

NASHVILLE – Jeff Yarbro filed a formal request today with the Democratic Party Executive Committee, seeking an expedited recount of the votes in the Senate District 21 Democratic Primary.

“The results of this election continue to change, following yesterday’s news from the Election Commission that a voting machine had not been counted in the initial results,” Yarbro said. “Obviously, we’re troubled by the changing tallies and the resulting uncertainty. The need for a recount could not be clearer.”

Tennessee law does not provide for an automatic recount of close elections. The Davidson County Election Commission is prohibited from recounting the ballots unless the State Executive Committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party, sitting in its capacity as the State Primary Board, orders a recount. Yarbro filed a Petition for Recount with the Executive Committee today and requested that the body hear and decide the request as soon as possible. Sen. Henry’s representatives have stated that the Senator would not oppose a recount.

“With the cooperation of the candidates, the Executive Committee, and the Election Commission, the recount could be concluded as early as next week,” said Kathryn Sasser, Yarbro Campaign legal counsel.

“We have an opportunity to demonstrate that close elections like this one can be resolved without drama and without delay,” Yarbro said. “Voters deserve to have confidence in the results of this election, and there’s no need for that process to drag on for weeks.”