NASHVILLE -- An Arlington, Va.-based group pushing for Tennessee driver's license exams to be given only in English has ties to the "racist founder of the modern anti-immigration movement," a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center says.
Dr. John Tanton, the founding chairman of the group ProEnglish, "has bigoted beliefs about today's immigrants, nonwhite immigrants," said Dr. Heidi Beirich, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project director.
Last week, ProEnglish lobbyist Eddie V. Garcia testified in favor of House Bill 262 in the General Assembly. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, requires the written portion of driver's license exams be given only in English.
"This bill is about safety, safety on our roads," Mr. Garcia said. "A lot of people forget that driving is a privilege. It is not a right."
The House Public Safety Subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee approved the bill on a 4-1-1 vote.
In an e-mail Saturday, Mr. Garcia accused the Southern Poverty Law Center of using "smear" tactics.
Efforts to contact Rep. Watson, a Bradley County Sheriff's Department lieutenant who has emphasized motorists' safety and law enforcement hardship in promoting the legislation, were unsuccessful Friday afternoon and early Saturday. The proposed legislation is on the list of bills scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the House and Senate Transportation committees.
Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, said Saturday he is sponsoring the Senate version at Rep. Watson's request and is meeting Monday with state Safety Department officials to "get educated" on testing procedures.
With regard to Dr. Tanton, Sen. Bunch said, "I don't know who you're talking of, and I doubt very seriously that Rep. Watson knows who you're speaking of. This is an issue I think that as a legislator you should listen to constituents."
He said he wants to learn more about what the state is doing to ensure roads are safe. At the same time, lawmakers want to "allow and encourage tourists and people who are coming here to safely operate on our roads. There's a delicate balance there."
The Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center says its own mission includes monitoring racist activity and "hate" groups. Dr. Beirich said Dr. Tanton's umbrella group is an organization called U.S. Inc.
Several groups supported by Mr. Tanton are "hate groups," Dr. Beirich said, although she stopped short of labeling ProEnglish as such.
Dr. Beirich said Dr. Tanton, a retired eye surgeon from Michigan, "has like a 20- or 30-year track record of making racist statements, hanging out with Holocaust deniers, former Klansmen, racists, funding white supremacist organizations such as a group called American Renaissance."
"He believes there's a Latin onslaught occurring," she said. "He's concerned that Latinos aren't as educable as whites. He believes, and this is his own words, that if the European-American population continues to fall, American civilization will disappear."
She said groups like ProEnglish are "part of his effort to push back on the bad things he thinks immigrants are bringing here."
Dr. Tanton has previously defended himself from the Law Center's charges, which were first made in 2002, on his own Web site, calling them "cheap shots."
"I would certainly have no reservations about claiming credit for being the guy secretly manipulating U.S. immigration policy," he wrote.
He later noted that "the fact that there may be some misguided people who want to cut immigration, however, does not mean it is an inherently bad idea, any more than (Italian dictator) Mussolini's getting Italian trains to run on schedule serves as an argument against well-run railroads."
During his Tennessee subcommittee appearance, Mr. Garcia, who emigrated to America at age 3 with his parents, criticized businesses for opposing the bill.
Among companies opposing the measure is Germany-based Volkswagen Group of America, which is building a $1 billion plant in Chattanooga. State officials and businesses argue passage of the bill sends a bad message to the international community.
Mr. Garcia during his presentation scoffed at such assertions.
"They come because of the work ethic of Americans and that states like Tennessee are ready and willing to provide tax rebate credits and other economic incentives to get that company here," he said.
That and his talk about safety won quick applause from Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who told Mr. Garcia, "Buenos dias (good afternoon) Senor Garcia. Yo quiera (I want) safe highways. Bravo. Bravo."
Tennessee currently allows license applicants to take the written portion of the test in Spanish, Japanese, Korean and, in a nod to VW, German at the state's Red Bank service center.
In a Friday evening e-mail response to Dr. Beirich's charges about Dr. Tanton and his ties to ProEnglish, Mr. Garcia defended himself passionately, noting how "in our great country, we have the dignity and the ability to disagree not only amongst ourselves but with our government."
He recalled growing up in the U.S. where he was "often ridiculed" and called names, which he called a "pivotal force" in his desire to learn English.
Legislation requiring all written driver's license exams be given in English only is scheduled to be heard in the full Tennessee House and Senate Transportation committees Tuesday.
ABOUT THE GROUP
ProEnglish, founded in 1994 and based in Arlington, Va., is a member-supported, nonprofit organization that works to make English the official language of the United States.
"So if anyone even implies or insinuates that I am a racist, I will take them on to the fullest extent possible," Mr. Garcia said.
Georgia State Ethics Commission filings, meanwhile, show ProEnglish lobbyists have been active in the Georgia legislature which has and continues to consider similar driver's license testing legislation.
ProEnglish in 2009 was the prime financial backer of a referendum that sought to make English the "official language" of Metro Nashville government, according to news accounts.
Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said ProEnglish "almost excusively funded the English-only ballot intiative in Nashville, and that wasn't disclosed" until after the election.
The Tennessean newspaper reported the effort raised $84,467.76 for its campaign, with ProEnglish contributing $82,500.
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, ...