Political notebook: Lee attends DeSantis event in Florida, debate over Tennessee ban on LGBTQ youth medical procedures

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks Oct. 14 during the launch celebration for the Volkswagen ID.4 electric SUV at the Chattanooga Volkswagen Assembly Plant. Lee was among those in attendance over the weekend for a gathering of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s top donors and supporters in Palm Beach, Fla.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks Oct. 14 during the launch celebration for the Volkswagen ID.4 electric SUV at the Chattanooga Volkswagen Assembly Plant. Lee was among those in attendance over the weekend for a gathering of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s top donors and supporters in Palm Beach, Fla.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was in Palm Beach, Florida, over the weekend, attending a retreat for Republican political types just four miles away from Mar-a-Lago, the private club and home of former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Lee in the businessman's successful 2018 and 2022 bids for governor.

But this GOP retreat at the Four Seasons Hotel wasn't sponsored by Trump, who has already announced he is running for president again after his 2020 loss to Democratic President Joe Biden.

Rather, according to Politico, which among other news outlets reported on the three-day event, it was a gathering of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's top donors and supporters.

Politico reported Lee as being one of the estimated 150 attendees at the event, described as a celebration of the "Florida blueprint," and preceding a likely DeSantis 2024 presidential bid.

"As RGA vice chair, Gov. Lee meets with fellow governors and conservative leaders often, and enjoyed joining Gov. DeSantis's summit for the second time to showcase how Tennessee and Florida are America's blueprint for opportunity, security and freedom," Lee Press Secretary Jade Byers said in response to an email inquiry from the Chattanooga Times Free Press on why Lee attended and whether it signaled Lee's support of a 2024 DeSantis bid.

RGA is short for Republican Governors Association.

During Lee's 2018 election, which also featured GOP primary rivals Diane Black, a then-congresswoman, and entrepreneur and now University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd, Black sought Trump's outright endorsement. But Black failed to win as she and Boyd attacked each other in a barrage of negative ads, leaving Lee, who wasn't attacked, as the lone candidate saying nice things.

"She's in a big race," Trump teased during one Tennessee trip. "Good luck, Diane."

But he didn't endorse her. After Lee won the primary, the-then president endorsed him. Trump most recently weighed in on Lee during the governor's 2022 re-election campaign, citing his conservative credentials: "Re-electing Bill Lee means putting America first. Bill has my Complete and Total Endorsement! " Trump wrote.

'Nonopenly LGBTQ Republican colleagues' in Tennessee House?

Last week's Tennessee House debate on Republican leaders' Senate Bill 1, which seeks to ban life-affirming care for minors, took a notable turn when Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, the General Assembly's lone openly gay member, spoke out against the measure.

Harris voiced concerns about the bill's provision halting puberty blocks in most instances and how that might affect a minor's mental health. He then went further.

"This is becoming an odd, odd piece of legislation. ... And as the only openly LGBTQ person in the Tennessee legislature, this is becoming something -- I don't even talk about LGBTQ issues as much as some of you all do in this space," Harris told colleagues. "And it's becoming not only weird, but suspect," Harris added as an audible mummer began sweeping across the chamber floor.

"We have three other, nonopenly LGBTQ Republican colleagues of mine who can't really open up their mouth and speak freely about their situation because they're hiding as well," Harris said. "And so I say that because there's young people who are uncomfortable with who they are and can't speak on behalf of themselves because of people like us in this legislature."

Harris named no names.

The legislature's only other openly gay lawmaker, then-Republican Rep. Eddie Mannis of Knoxville, did not seek re-election to a second term last year, later telling the Knox TN Today he was taken aback by GOP colleagues' views on a bill.

"I asked them to think about what they were doing to LGBTQ students ... just wanted to express from personal experience the impact this can have on children. Do you think I am gay because I had gay influences? Have you ever sat down and talked with a gay person?" he was quoted as saying.

He said he later was summoned before House GOP leaders who proceeded to rake him over the coals for "insulting" his colleagues.

Bill to end open primary process stumbles

An effort by some House Republicans to require Tennessee voter registration by party and toughen technical restrictions to prevent crossover voting in political party primaries failed last week in a vote in the GOP-controlled House Local Government Committee.

The sponsor of House Bill 405 was freshman Rep. Bryan Richey, R-Maryville, a Florida transplant who last August defeated incumbent Rep. Bob Ramsey, also of Maryville, in the House District 20 Republican primary. Richey's bill died in a voice vote. Six members, among them Rep. Greg Martin, R-Hixson, asked to be recorded as voting yes.

Tennessee law technically frowns on crossover voting. But the state doesn't have party registration per se.

State law simply says a registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election if he or she is a "bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote." Or, if at the time a voter seeks to cast a ballot, the law says the voter can declare "allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and states that the voter intends to affiliate with that party."

And that's the way it's worked for years, a situation Republicans were happy to take advantage of when Democrats ruled the roost. But now that Republicans do, some GOP conservatives are fuming that Democrats are taking advantage with the support of some Republican office seekers.

It became an issue in the 2022 Hamilton County mayor Republican May primary when Weston Wamp won. His GOP rival Sabrena Smedley charged Democratic support put him over the top. Smedley appealed to the Tennessee Republican Party in its role as the party's primary board. She lost the appeal. Among its problems were charges that both candidates had appealed to Democrats, and who could know for sure who voted how because it was, after all, a secret ballot?

Under Richey's bill, Tennessee voters would be registered based on their previous primary voting record. They could change their registration up to 30 days prior to an election. Those who had never voted in a primary would be registered as an independent.

Freshman Sen. Adam Lowe, R-Athens, is carrying the Senate version, SB 452, which is scheduled to come up before the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday.

Making pumpkin pie 'great again'

Students in a Madisonville school are getting a crash course in realpolitick, Tennessee-style, as they watch the progress of Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Lonore, as he moves House Joint Resolution 23. It seeks to designate pumpkin pie as the state's official pie for two years and is moving through the House committee process. It comes courtesy of a local school's request as part of a civics lesson.

Russell is getting a bit of an education as well.

"I didn't realize this one would bring such media attention, but apparently it did," Russell said to House Public Service Subcommittee members during the resolution's maiden appearance earlier this month.

"This one designates the pumpkin pie as a symbol of the state of Tennessee, this resolution just does it for the two years of this General Assembly, and this was at the request of Madisonville Intermediate School back home, just to teach the kids how the process works," Russell said.

The resolution notes, among other things, that pumpkin pie is a symbol of the harvest often eaten during the fall and winter months and is the "traditional dessert" at Thanksgiving. Pumpkin pie, it notes, is an "iconic American delicacy." And it says pumpkin pie can be traced back to the days of the early American colonists who were introduced to the indigenous fruit by Native Americans, who used pumpkins in "a variety of ways, including as a food source."

Lawmakers couldn't resist having some fun. Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, noted he had majored in math in high school and minored in it while in college: "The pie I wanted to designate is 'pi r squared,'" Powers said, alluding to the mathematical formula for a circle. "So would you consider it?" he asked Russell.

Replied Russell: "Just for you I would."

He was asked in another panel whether the resolution should state a preference for plain, whipped cream or Cool Whip. Russell said there had been some thought about whipped cream, but he didn't get the amendment done. Asked if he wanted time to put the amendment on the bill, Russell demurred: "I just want to make pumpkin pie great again."

The resolution is now scheduled to be on the House floor Monday.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.

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