This editorial was updated on Oct. 23, 2020 at 4:45 p.m. to clarify campaign spending by state Sen. candidate Glenn Scruggs.
The state Senate campaign website for Democrat Glenn Scruggs says he will not take "a dime" from corporations or political action committees (PACs), but third-quarter campaign finance records show he's taken a lot more than a dime. A whole lot more.
The Chattanooga assistant police chief is running to unseat two-term incumbent Sen. Todd Gardenhire in the District 10 race that includes parts of Hamilton and Bradley counties.
According to campaign finance disclosures filed with the state of Tennessee, Scruggs received $36,000 from political action committees, so named by the state, in the period from August through September.
The Senate Democratic Caucus was the most generous, providing $25,000. He also received $5,000 from Envision Tennessee (state Sen. Jeff Yarbro's PAC), $2,500 from the Tennessee Education Association Fund for Children and Public Education, $2,500 from the Communication Workers of America Committee on Political Education, $1,000 from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen PAC Fund, and $1,000 from Service Employees Local 205.
Gardenhire also has received thousands from PACs but has not pledged he would not accept such legal money.
Financial disclosures also show current and former members of the administration of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke are firmly backing Scruggs.
Berke himself contributed $1,000, while former Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher gave $500, former city councilman (and now state Rep.) Yusuf Hakeem $250, Chief of Staff Kerry Hayes $200, former city attorney (and now mayoral candidate) Wade Hinton $250, former Chief of Staff Stacy Richardson $200, Chattanooga Police Captain Nathan Vaughn $250, and city Office of Economic and Community Development administrator Donna Williams $1,000.
Just last week, Scruggs told Times Free Press editorial writers PACs were "murky waters" and could determine who you're "beholden to."
In July, he told a local online news site he had taken no contributions from special interest groups.
"This campaign is people-powered," Scruggs said. "From the start, I have wanted to speak for working people in this District. That's who we are and that's who I represent. Let corporations give their money to Todd; he's their representative anyway."
His website says this: "Dark money has had a pervasive impact on our political system for too long, and once Glenn gets to Nashville, he will immediately push for campaign finance reform. In the meantime, he won't be taking a dime from corporations or political action committees. Glenn wants to be a candidate for the working people and will never be beholden to special interests."
Reached Thursday, Scruggs acknowledged his campaign needed to "clarify" the wording on his website and said he understood where the facts in the financial disclosure forms would "lead to some confusion."
He said when he thinks of PACs, he thinks mostly of corporations. So when people give to labor unions and state Democratic groups, he doesn't normally consider them PACs but places where "working folks in Tennessee" can contribute.
Scruggs also received donations from the Davidson County (Nashville) Democratic Party ($250), from Shelby County (Memphis) Mayor Lee Harris ($250) and from Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe ($250).
His top individual givers during the quarter were Sarah Faulkner of Lookout Mountain ($1,600), Nashville real estate company chairman Bill Freeman ($1,600), Amy and Frank Garrison of Nashville ($3,200 combined), Allison Mills of Lookout Mountain ($1,600), David Nelson of Somerville ($1,500) and Chattanooga real estate appraiser Cristen Spaulding ($1,750).
Gardenhire received donations from former state Sen. Victor Ashe of Knoxville ($600), Hamilton County Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler ($100), Riceville state Sen. Mike Bell ($1,600), state Rep. Mike Carter and his wife, Joan ($3,000 combined), state Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville ($1,000), Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond ($200), state Sen. Jack Johnson of Franklin ($1,600), state Sen. Art Swann of Alcoa ($1,600) and former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp ($1,000).
Political action committees are legal groups put together with the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. Those who choose to accept their contributions must determine how much, or if, they will be beholden to the groups that funded them. And voters, through their own examination of public financial disclosure forms, can hold the candidates' feet to the fire about those funds.
But candidates who declare they won't take PAC money and then do it may mean their word already doesn't exactly mean what they say it means.