Opinion: RINO hunt of Tennessee conservatives is politically divisive

Staff File Photo / Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire, center, speaks during a legislative roundtable at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2016 as Sen. Bo Watson, left, and state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood listen.

Less than 20 years ago, Republicans in Tennessee had to fight for scraps at the state legislative table. Now that they're the majority party, groups within the party seem to want to tear them apart.

It's a recipe that could - if taken to heart - reduce confidence in voters' belief in Republicans' ability to govern.

We think the GOP - any political party, really - is stronger when it highlights where members agree, when members try to work out their disagreements in private and why it's important for members to work together for legislation instead of against each other.

We speak in this case of the recent publication of "The RINO Report: A Conservative's Best Guide for Finding Political Truth in Tennessee" by The Tennessee Conservative.

(RINO is the acronym for Republicans In Name Only, those who - according to the report - "actively worked with left-leaning corporations and interest groups to kill conservative legislation for their own political benefit, voting with and governing like Democrats when it mattered most in the last legislative session.")

Two members of Hamilton County's delegation are singled out in the publication for particular disdain. State Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, is the House RINO Legislator of the Year, and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is one of the Top 5 RINOS in the state Senate.

Both members were selected because of their floor and committee votes against legislation of concern to the publication, or not voting for such legislation.

Hazlewood went afoul of The Tennessee Conservative for voting - among other things - for the state budget, which included $550 million in state bonds to help fund a new domed stadium in Nashville for the Tennessee Titans, and for voting for a bill she co-sponsored with Gardenhire that will allow the Chattanooga Lookouts to help fund a new stadium by retaining a portion of the state's sales tax for sales at baseball and non-baseball events at the stadium.

"Corporate welfare," the report scolds, "is unethical and morally wrong [and discriminates] against taxpayers and small businesses for corporate millionaires and billionaires in the name of economic development."

Hazlewood cast the criticism in context of the freedom of opinion celebrated during Monday's July 4 celebration.

"We all have opinions; however, the opinions that matter most to me are from the people in my district. I represent them and their interests, not the interest of some guy who solicits money by pontificating about his personal definition of conservatism.

"Anyone can see how well Tennessee is doing compared to D.C. or any other state. Our budget is truly balanced, we cut billions in taxes, substantially increased our rainy day fund, reduced red tape, and made it much easier for businesses to thrive and survive in our state and communities."

Gardenhire is not bothered by the publication's designation, either, and he can trace his involvement in the party before Republicans had any foot in the modern-day state legislature.

He said his definition of a conservative goes back to the adoption of what has come to be called The Sharon Statement, a set of founding principles for Young Americans for Freedom adopted on Sept. 11, 1960, at the home of William F. Buckley Jr. in Sharon, Conn.

The statement's core principles included: Individual freedom and the right of governing originate with God; political freedom is impossible without economic freedom; limited government and strict interpretation of the Constitution; the free market system is preferable over all others; and Communism must be defeated, not contained.

Ronald Reagan, according to Gardenhire, united five coalitions - the military, religious conservatives, gun rights advocates, fiscal conservatives and social conservatives - to win the presidency in 1980, and he said he has been true to those coalitions while in the state Senate.

"I think I'm a fairly social conservative," he said. "It's not definite to me how [those who wrote the report] define 'conservative.' Philosophically, I'm not sure where they get the idea."

Gardenhire, in the report, was dogged for voting against a bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee that sought to give local law enforcement the authority to enforce federal law and arrest anyone transporting, harboring or facilitating the transport of illegal aliens into Tennessee; for sending a bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee to summer study that would set up a process for parents who identify questionable materials in their child's libraries to inform the school superintendent and for the material to be removed and reviewed; and for not voting for a bill that became law that allowed the anti-viral drug Ivermectin to be sold over the counter.

The two-term senator said he's not been hit up by large groups of constituents questioning his votes.

"Sure, one or two get mad every once in a while," Gardenhire said.

Nevertheless, he said of The RINO Report, "their criticism I take with pride."

We believe both Hazlewood and Gardenhire have been principled conservatives and have served their constituents well. We don't believe a few selected votes have tainted that good service.