NASHVILLE -- The chairman of the state House Democratic Caucus said he sees no conflict of interest if he becomes the paid head of the Tennessee State Employees Association, a group that frequently lobbies the General Assembly.
Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, confirmed he is interested in the 16,000-member association's vacant post. If he were to be hired by the association, Rep. Turner said, he plans to continue serving in the House where he represents the Old Hickory area.
"I don't think it's any conflict," Rep. Turner said.
While previous association chiefs have registered as lobbyists, he said he "would not do that ... I would not be lobbying."
Tennessee Center for Policy Research President Drew Johnson, whose organization espouses a libertarian style of government, said Rep. Turner "just doesn't get it."
"If he were to get this job, they'd be buying someone on the inside," Mr. Johnson said of the employees association. "They wouldn't need a lobbyist."
A Nashville firefighter and a vice president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, Rep. Turner noted he has "always tried to champion" state employees' causes in the Legislature.
Should he become executive director, Rep. Turner said, his role "would be more about operating the organization and building membership services and things like that as opposed to the legislative work.
"That would be what I envision my role would be. That may not be what they envision."
West Tennessee association Vice President Almous Austin declined to say who has applied for the executive directorship, left vacant earlier this year by the departure of Jim Tucker. Mr. Austin noted the group's executive director "has always lobbied" for TSEA issues on Capitol Hill.
"I'd hate to say right now," Mr. Austin said, when asked if Rep. Turner's comments that he would not lobby could hurt his chances.
The TSEA board took applications last spring but wasn't able to complete the process, Mr. Austin said. The group's president has been seriously ill. The TSEA is readvertising the position this month, Mr. Austin said.
Rep. Turner said he believes his experience in building "strong organizations" can benefit TSEA. He said he is "not going to take a job that would take away from ... my constituents and the caucus job."
Dick Williams with Common Cause Tennessee, a nonpartisan ethics watchdog group, said it would be a problem if Rep. Turner were to get the job and actually lobby. Mr. Williams suggested the lawmaker avoid sponsoring TSEA-backed legislation and recuse himself from voting on some employee issues.
"He's got to be awfully careful, and so do they (TSEA)," Mr. Williams said. "I think the bottom line is I'm not sure we should absolutely prohibit it, but as I said, the person in the organization ought to be extremely careful ... (from) having undue influence."
In a statement, Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said that if "Mike Turner were to get this job, it would be inappropriate for him to continue serving in the General Assembly. It seems to be it would an astounding conflict of interest to hold both positions at the same time."
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...