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Staff file photo / Tennessee state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, left, speaks as state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, listens at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2016.

NASHVILLE — A Chattanooga-based conservative news site is slamming a number of top Tennessee Republican officials, including House Finance Chairwoman Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain and Senate Speaker Randy McNally of Oak Ridge.

The site labeled those two and others as "Republicans in Name Only," slapping "RINO Legislators of the Year" designations on both Hazlewood and McNally for legislation and policies both lawmakers supported or opposed that the website disagrees with.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee wasn't spared by Tennessee Conservative News Publisher Brandon Lewis and his staff. The governor, along with his education commissioner, Penny Schwinn, were deemed "Executive Branch RINOs."

At least two dozen other GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, were criticized as well on their votes on individual bills in areas ranging from illegal immigration to school choice to gun rights to abortion, medical "freedom," the Second Amendment and more in the two-year legislative session.

"Many Republicans talk a good game on the campaign trail yet vote with left-leaning corporations and Democrats in committee," Lewis said in a statement. "RINOs depend on low-information primary voters to re-elect them. The RINO Report offers the kind of detailed coverage from a Conservative perspective that Republicans can't get from liberal corporate media outlets."

McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider fired back in a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"Anyone who thinks Randy McNally is not a conservative has little to no understanding of Tennessee politics or history. Randy McNally has been a Republican and a conservative before it was cool," Kleinheider said. "Before the author of this report could identify Tennessee on a map, Randy McNally was running and winning as a Republican.

"Every conservative victory since the inception of the majority, be it historic tax cuts or the end of legal abortion in Tennessee, has its roots in Randy McNally's leadership and sacrifice," Kleinheider said. "Modern-day Tennessee conservatives quite literally stand on the shoulders of his life's work. Anyone who does not recognize that is either misinformed or subverting the truth to fit their imaginary political narrative. Either way, the report and its contents are laughably inaccurate, misleading and wrong.

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FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2017, file photo, Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, presides over the Senate opening session after succeeding Ron Ramsey as Senate Speaker in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

"Not only has he turned conservative ideas into action in the majority, he also fought the Democratic machine for many years in the minority," Kleinheider added. "During Operation Rocky Top, at great risk to his political future and personal safety, he took on the corrupt Democratic power structure and sent corrupt Democratic politicians and lobbyists to prison."

In a statement to the Times Free Press, Hazlewood said Americans on Monday "celebrated our freedom as a country — a country where you can voice your opinion freely and achieve your dreams! We all have opinions.

"However, she added, "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."

She said anyone can see how well Tennessee is doing compared to other states.

"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!" Hazlewood stated. "Ronald Reagan would be proud of how Tennessee is leading because we are making it easier to achieve the American dream. I look forward to continuing to serve my constituents and being a strong voice for them in Nashville."

Lee spokeswoman Laine Arnold did not respond to a Times Free Press email seeking a response. The governor was in Chattanooga later Tuesday afternoon for a scheduled appearance with Hamilton County Republican mayoral nominee Weston Wamp. The governor and a staffer did not respond to a Times Free Press reporter's request for comment there as they left the event.

Gardenhire, however, wasn't so shy.

"This is a group so small and so far right to the right that they're trying to have some relevancy," Gardenhire told the Times Free Press in a Tuesday morning phone interview about Lewis' group. "And the only way they can do it is to attack people and then try to raise money from their efforts.

"I wouldn't begin to tell somebody who's a conservative and who's not — and I don't know who gave them the right or the credentials to do that except for their own selfish motives," Gardenhire said.

Lewis once served on the Hamilton County Election Commission as an appointee of local GOP lawmakers. He resigned in 2010 after Chattanooga police found him "asleep on the sidewalk, straddling a stop sign, almost sticking in the roadway," according to a police report cited by the Times Free Press at the time. He was charged with public intoxication.

Hazlewood drew criticisms from Lewis on several bills, including her support of Lee's proposed $500 million in bonds to help fund a new Tennessee Titans stadium. It also allows Nashville to raise its hotel-motel tax by 1%, which is expected to funnel $10 million more annually toward the stadium. It passed by large margins as part of the state's $52.8 billion budget.

Hazlewood, Gardenhire and the governor were also called "RINOs for corporate welfare" for the new minor league baseball stadium sought by the Chattanooga Lookouts and Chattanooga and Hamilton County's mayors.

Hazlewood, Gardenhire and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, opposed the original version of the bill, which among other things sought $20.8 million from the state, including $7.3 million for environmental cleanup, as well as use of state and local sales tax revenue from the property for decades.

It didn't happen that way. There was no state grant — Gardenhire, Hazlewood and Watson noted the state was already spending $35 million for a new interchange at the site. And the mayors and Lookouts didn't nearly get what they wanted on the sales tax portion either, Gardenhire said.

"I — and Bo went along with me on it — we put such a tight definition on that that only the sales tax inside the stadium could be used," Gardenhire said Tuesday. "And that's forgone revenue" that's not being collected currently, he added.

Gardenhire said it also requires 2% of the state's 7% sales tax collected inside the stadium to continue to go to K-12 education. "And I insisted that at the end of 30 years, it (the sales tax) is over and done with."

There is no state funding for environmental clean up either, Gardenhire said.

Watson was largely spared by Lewis. But Watson was cited as among five "RINO's" who didn't support a proposed state constitutional amendment declaring an individual's right to refuse medical treatment.

Lewis' report also chastised Hazlewood for voting in 2021 against Republican Rep. Jerry Sexton of Bean Station's yearslong and unsuccessful efforts to make "The Holy Bible" Tennessee's official state book. The Bible bill was never brought up in the Senate.

She was also listed as a RINO yet again for not supporting legislation to lower the age from 21 to 18 to qualify for a Tennessee conceal-carry handgun permit.

Yet another bill that wasn't approved was what the Tennessee Conservative says was a bill aimed at halting social media platforms' "censorship" by designating them as common carriers subject to regulation by the Tennessee's Public Utilities Commission. House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and McNally as well as others were criticized for preventing the bill's passage.

Among bills praised as wins, the report cites legislation sponsored by Sexton and Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. It prohibits public institutions of higher education from requiring students or employees to embrace "divisive teachings" such as critical race theory as stipulation for any grade, diploma, employment opportunity or tenure.

But the news site criticized Bell and Gardenhire, among others, for not going along with its favored version of a bill policing school libraries over material deemed "obscene" by parents or others. Legislative Republicans enacted a compromise. It allows parents' objections to come before the politically appointed state school board, which could decide to ban the book or material in a decision that would affect not only an individual public school or system but every system in Tennessee.

Sexton, McNally and other Republicans were also criticized for the successful passage of the new ethics and campaign finance law.

Meanwhile, six House Republicans were listed as a "RINO" for not supporting a bill that failed that sought to give local law enforcement powers to enforce federal to arrest "illegal aliens" in Tennessee and send them to cities or towns in a list of states that includes mostly Democratic areas. Gardenhire didn't support the measure either.

Among them was Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Palo Alto in California.

Also listed was Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, where President Joe Biden has a home.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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