NASHVILLE — The chairman of the House Republican Caucus is asking why the National Rifle Association is coming after her in the Tennessee GOP primary while, she said, letting former Democratic House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh off the hook for years when he blocked gun legislation.
"It's unfortunate," Debra Maggart, of Hendersonville, said over the weekend. "As caucus chairman, I've wondered why the NRA wasn't there to help us defeat Jimmy Naifeh. They never were there to help us defeat the Democrats. They never ever helped us to do that financially."
The NRA has spent $75,000 in an effort to defeat Maggart in her Aug. 2 primary fight with Courtney Rogers.
The gun lobby faults Maggart and other top Republicans, from Gov. Bill Haslam to House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Senate speaker, for blocking the group's Safe Commute Act.
The legislation, dubbed the guns-in-parking lots bill, would allow employees and others with handgun-carry permits to keep weapons locked in their vehicles on most public or privately owned property.
Maggart spoke Saturday before attending the Tennessee Republican Party's annual Statesman's Dinner fundraiser. She said the issue "is still a fundamental conversation about property rights versus gun rights."
She said she has "always supported the Second Amendment, and I always will" but added that the bill needs more balance between property and gun rights.
Also present was Chris Cox, a Tennessean who heads the NRA's political arm, the Institute of Legislative Affairs.
Maggart also noted that Cox once was an aide to former U.S. Rep. John Tanner, a Democrat.
"Again, I think it's interesting the NRA never came after Speaker Naifeh," Maggart said. "They never came after any of the Democrats that kept all their bills bottled up and voted against their bills. So it is kind of shocking they come after me when I've voted for every bill they ever wanted."
Cox said the NRA is involved in "thousands of campaigns" nationwide and is using Tennessee members' money "making sure Tennessee gun owners know the truth, not only in [Maggert's] district but in a number of other districts."
He said the group did try to defeat Naifeh, who "for years abused the legislative process, the democratic process."
He said he was "looking forward to doing independent expenditures in Jimmy Naifeh's race this time, but he saw the writing on the wall and chose not to get defeated in November." Republicans this year redrew Naifeh's district, and he chose not to run.
Cox slammed Maggart for taking " the Jimmy Naifeh approach of killing legislation behind closed doors."
Asked about having worked for Tanner, Cox said, "The difference between me and Debra Maggart tonight is I've helped elect thousands of Republican politicians all across the country, and I paid to be here."
'Anti-Islamist' behind super PAC?
The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says a new Tennessee "super PAC" targeting the 6th Congressional District has gotten all of its $105,000 in funding from an "anti-Islamic activist" from Nashville.
Citizens 4 Ethics in Government registered as a super PAC with the Federal Election Commission on July 2, reports the center, which tracks federal political spending.
The PAC's FEC filing shows Andrew Miller, CEO of Nashville-based Healthmark Ventures, put up all its money. So far, the PAC has spent more than $30,000 opposing U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., who faces a primary challenge from Lou Ann Zelenik, a tea party activist.
The Center for Responsive Politics says Miller helps lead the anti-Islamic Tennessee Freedom Coalition. Zelenik, whose opposition to building an Islamic center in Murfreesboro has become a major issue in the campaign, had been serving as the Freedom Coalition's executive director. The coalition's website says she has taken a leave of absence.
Meanwhile, the Center for Responsive Politics, quoted Zelenik campaign manager Jay Heine as saying Miller had worked briefly with Zelenik's campaigns.
The Tennessee Freedom Center's website describes the group as focused on "equitable tax structures, education reform, vibrant economic paradigms, immigration issues, limited government, health care, Islamic radicalization, job creation, and our proper constitutional relationship to the federal government."
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, ...