One of this primary season’s most watched political brawls is heating up this week as two well-known state sovereignty champions whip negative campaign mailers and press releases at each other.
On top of sparring about the outcome of anti-health care mandates bills that failed this year, Republican State Rep. Susan Lynn is suggesting that when the rubber hits the road, state Sen. Mae Beavers’ doesn’t take either Tennessee highway safety or her professed ideological beliefs very seriously.
And a Democrat in the state Senate Dist. 17 race is capitalizing on the region’s long list of decrepit state bridges, too, promising the issue will live on long past primary election day Aug. 5.
“It’s your family. Could you vote ‘no?’ Mae Beavers did! Mae voted against funding safe bridges,” reads a Lynn campaign mailer sent out to district voters this week. “Elect me as your State Senator and I’ll fight for you to ensure that we have safe, functioning transportation corridors in DeKalb County.”
Sligo Bridge, in DeKalb County, was one of 200 roadway structures deemed by Tennessee Department of Transportation officials in need of upgrade after the high-profile 2007 bridge collapsed in Minnesota that killed 13 people.
Two years later, the federal government sent Tennessee enough stimulus dollars to fund about 70 bridge repairs statewide. Gov. Phil Bredesen then began urging the Legislature to borrow another $350 million to fix 200 other bridges.
According to voting records and archived floor debate, Beavers — who said she voted against this year’s Tennessee budget because it used stimulus funds — actually wanted the federal government to cover the bridge’s repairs when the issue came up last year. But the Tennessee Department of Transportation nixed the project from consideration because it wasn’t “shovel ready,” in keeping with federal strings attached to the stimulus money.
After some political negotiating, the Legislature — with Lynn voting in support — ultimately OK’d the plan to issue bonds to pay for the bridge repairs during the final June days of the spring 2009 legislative session.
However, the two-term incumbent senator from Mt. Juliet — who is often outwardly critical of federal meddling and interference into the affairs of state governments — voted against a borrowing package so the state could fund the bridge repairs on its own.
Before casting her “no” vote on SB2358, Sen. Beavers gave several reasons she opposed the bond measure, including that behind-the-scenes political maneuvering had unnecessarily prevented the Sligo Bridge from getting the go-ahead to be fixed with federal dollars.
“It’s strange to me that one of the most important bridges is the Sligo Bridge, and it was in the stimulus list to begin with until we decided to play politics with this bond bill,” she said on the Senate floor at the time.
“I can’t agree to borrow money in times like these, but I think politics are being played with this bond bill also, and I cannot vote for this,” she continued.
Beavers declined this week to elaborate for TNReport on what “politics” were being “played” on the bridge issues. The Sligo Bridge simply wasn’t applicable for the stimulus funds, she said.
According to TDOT, only state bridges in the most dire need across the state were considered to be fixed with stimulus funds. But to make the cut, the projects needed to be in a state in which work could start immediately, said chief engineer Paul Degges. Sligo Bridge was not, he said, so it was added to the list of bridges to be fixed later with borrowed money.
Beavers was one of three “no” votes in the Senate and eight in the House of Representatives.
Lynn says Beavers is contradicting herself by standing up for state sovereignty but refusing to fund bridge repairs when the federal government decides not to pay for them.
“The hypocrisy is she only voted against the budget because of stimulus funds,” said Lynn. “You can’t have it both ways.”
While Beavers’ mail pieces never mentioned the bridges, one of the postcards highlighted her voting against using the federal stimulus dollars to balance the state budget.
Although Beavers spoke in favor of Sligo Bridge repairs on the Senate floor, she declined to comment to TNReport whether she would have supported federal stimulus dollars paying for repairs to Sligo Bridge, saying it was never an option.
“It wasn’t a matter of it being in the stimulus money, because it wasn’t ready for any construction money,” she said.
Beavers’ says her upstart challenger is “twisting a vote around into something it’s not.”
“We’ve been operating on cash. She’s making an issue out of something that isn’t an issue,” said Beavers, who added that she supports funding construction on her local bridges. “She’s misrepresenting everything that she’s saying about me.”
Beavers and Lynn are bitter rivals seeking the same 17th District state Senate seat in the Republican primary election, representing Cannon, Clay, DeKalb, Macon, Smith and part of Sumner, Trousdale and Wilson Counties.
The two conservatives seemingly share more surface philosophical similarities than differences — in particular, a passion for state sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights and rhetorical disdain for expansive government.
But they also hold a common animus for one another, the public manifestations of which have often transfixed and amused many statehouse politics watchers.
However, Gordon Borck, a third Republican candidate for Beaver’s Senate seat, doesn’t find the the Beavers-Lynn feud particularly entertaining, and says district constituents are beginning to tire of their ritual hostilities as well.
Furthermore, there’s blame enough for both lawmakers to go around, he said.
Beavers shouldn’t be solely blamed for the district’s poor bridges, which also include Hurricane and Benton McMillian bridges over the Caney Fork River and Cordell Hull Bridge over the Cumberland River.
“It would appear to me that a state representative would bare as much responsibility (for bridge repair) as our current state senator,” he said.
Borck also agrees that the state should avoid using any stimulus dollars. “How can we take the money and tell the federal government to stay out of our business?” he said.
Democrats are also floating campaign messages about bridge repairs, including Sam Hatcher whose campaign ad points out the need to fix ailing bridges while making a swipe at Beavers and Lynn.
“We have bridges to repair across our district and bridges to repair in our state Senate,” he said in his add. “Let’s stop the bickering and focus on those issues that matter most to us.”
Four Bridges in the 17th District Approved in the Bond Bill, Public Act 552, according to TDOT.
Sligo Bridge over the Caney Fork River in Dekalb County is slated to be replaced in Fiscal Year 2011/2012.
Cordell Hull Bridge over the Cumberland River in Smith County is slated to be rehabilitated in Fiscal Year 2011/2012.
Hurricane Bridge over the Caney Fork River in Smith County is scheduled to be replaced in Fiscal Year 2011/2012.
Benson-McMillian Bridge over the Caney Fork River in Dekalb County is slated to be rehabilitated in Fiscal Year 2010/2011.