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Michelle Rhee

There's a new political action committee on Tennessee's Capitol Hill and it's playing big time.

Tennessee Parents/Teachers Putting Students First gave $117,000 to state lawmakers, leadership PACs and legislative caucuses from December and Jan. 15. The PAC is the creation of StudentsFirst, a group pushing its version of education reform.

The group was created by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system. Rhee is the ex-wife of state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, whose boss is Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. All of the PAC's $126,000 in funding comes from StudentsFirst.

The StudentsFirst PAC ranked No. 5 in contribution to individual lawmakers or legislative candidates with $65,400. Most contributions went to Republicans, who dominate the General Assembly these days. But Democrats were not forgotten.

The Senate Republican Caucus received $10,000 as did the House Republican Caucus. The PAC gave $5,000 each to the House Democratic Caucus and the Senate Democratic Caucus. Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey's leadership committee, RAAMPAC, got $5,000 as did Ramsey's personal campaign. Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell got $5,000 for her leadership committee, Harwell PAC, and another $5,000 for her personal campaign.

StudentsFirst this year supported a controversial voucher bill, which Haslam helped pull the plug on. The group also backed Haslam's plan to reduce average class size (but not lift the caps on individual classrooms). Haslam wound up pulling the plug on that legislation after it met stiff resistance from legislators, parents, many school superintendents and a number of school boards.

Presidential politics

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich hits Nashville Monday for a series of public events. But along the way, the former U.S. House speaker plans personal visits to several individual lawmakers.

That includes Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, who is backing GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, and Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who after an unsuccessful bet on Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race, is staying neutral.

Gingrich also plans to meet with House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington. Naifeh told the Knoxville News Sentinel that Gingrich's Tennessee co-chairman, state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, set up the meeting.

As for what they might talk about, Naifeh said he wondered if Gingrich knew the late Georgia Democratic House Speaker Tom Murphy, whom Naifeh knew.

Oh yes, Newt Gingrich did know Murphy, who in 2002 saw his Democratic House turn Republican and lost his own seat.

"The speaker, by raising money and gerrymandering, has sincerely dedicated a part of his career to wiping me out," Gingrich told the Republican-controlled Legislature in 1994, according to news accounts.

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B.C. "Scooter" Clippard

State Senate race

State Republican fundraiser B.C. "Scooter" Clippard appears set to run in a GOP state Senate primary, but an email he recently sent out is raising a few eyebrows with his mention of state Republican bigwigs he says are supporting his bid.

"Fred Thompson - Bill Frist - Lamar - Corker - Beth and Ron all plan on doing events for me," Clippard enthuses in the email, which saw wide distribution.

Clippard served as national fundraising chairman in former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson's unsuccessful 2008 GOP presidential bid and in 2010 and also was state Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey's unsuccessful GOP primary bid for governor.

But two of the politicians cited say they're steering clear of the GOP primary in which Steve Dickerson and Charles Williamson have already announced.

"It has been our custom not to be involved in open state legislative primaries, and we have no plans to change that practice," said Todd Womack, chief of staff to U.S. Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., in an email.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was quoted in the Nashville Post saying, "Scooter Clippard has been a good friend for a long time. He called to tell me he planned to run and I told him I would be happy to do an event for him after the primary."

Clippard says Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and GOP House Speaker Beth Harwell "sort of kicked me out of the starting blocks" and notes that until they took him to dinner "I would never have dreamed of this."

Ramsey said he didn't take Clippard out to dinner. But he said he would support him if he runs.

"I have spoken with him about that [running] and told him the pitfalls of running and the positives of running to let him make up his own mind," Ramseys said. "I'll be honest, Scooter's one of the best friends I have in the world and if he runs, I'm with Scooter. But at the same time, I want him to make that decision on his own. I don't talk anybody into running."