NASHVILLE — State Sen. Todd Gardenhire clashed repeatedly with a conservative talk show host during an interview last week as the Chattanooga Republican defended his bill to make undocumented children in Tennessee eligible for in-state tuition rates.
Gardenhire's bill, which mirrors one that passed the Senate in 2015 only to fail by a single vote in the House, won approval last week in the Senate Education Committee on a 7-2 vote.
It's up for consideration this week in the House Education and Administration Subcommittee.
Gardenhire on Friday appeared on WWTN 99.7 FM with host Ralph Bristol where the Chattanoogan heatedly defended the legislation, as first reported by the Tennessee Star, a recently established, hard-right news website.
The website described Gardenhire as having had a "live on-air meltdown."
But to many in the state Capitol, it appeared to be a classic performance from the outspoken senator, who relishes a good fight. Gardenhire aggressively defended his position and sought to turn the tables on Bristol, who at times had difficulty getting to his own questions.
Undocumented students — brought as children to the U.S. and Tennessee by their parents — can already attend the state's public colleges and universities but must pay out-of-state tuition rates.
According to a recording posted on the Tennessee Star website, Bristol questioned the fairness of allowing undocumented students to attend state-funded colleges and universities paying in-state tuition when citizens from states like Alabama pay out-of-state rates.
"First of all," Gardenhire said, "some of the things you said in your introductory were just not, fit what I'm trying to do."
Gardenhire went on to make his points from what he considers a conservative perspective.
That includes figures that someone without a high school diploma "is going to cost the taxpayers over $33,000 a year for the rest of their lives. They're going to take benefits out of the system that all of us American taxpayers are paying, to supplement them. It doesn't matter if they're black, white, Latino, whatever."
As Bristol sought to interject, Gardenhire plowed on, saying "Let me finish now. If they have a high school degree it drops down to $30,000. If they have some college it drops down to $28,000.
"If they have a college degree," Gardenhire said, "it doesn't matter if it's in basket weaving or nuclear science, they're going to flip that thing around, they're going to pay over $15,000 a year for the rest of their life in taxes more than they take out."
After Gardenhire noted Tennesseans are already paying for the students' K-12 education, Bristol finally worked in a word or two with, "Right. We're required to."
Gardenhire agreed, saying "we've spent the money. Now, what are you going to tell somebody that's got a 4.0 average, was the valedictorian of their class, 'Sorry, you've got to go flip hamburgers.'"
No, Bristol argued, "we tell them they pay the out-of-state tuition, just like their neighbors from Alabama. Why would "
Said Gardenhire: "Why would you care about Alabama? What's that got to do with it?"
Bristol: "Why would I care about illegal immigrants more than I care about an American citizen?"
Gardenhire: "Well, they're not Tennesseans, Alabamans aren't."
The senator later accused Bristol of "trying to talk through me like you do everybody else. Let me tell you something, buddy, that's not going to work with me. Now you're going to listen to what I'm saying without cutting me off.
"You think you want to read my mind, you better go pick up another book."
As Bristol protested that "I'm not trying to read your mind, sir, I'm trying to understand why " Gardnehire retorted, "You don't have the ability to understand what I'm saying, OK? Let's just make that point right off the bat."
Bristol: "Why are you so angry with me?"
Gardenhire: "Because you try to talk through me. I'm not upset. You're the one doing the shouting and screaming, not me."
And so it went for about nine minutes. At one point, Bristol apologized for attempting to "talk through Gardenhire."
"Now you're talking over me just like I did with you, so you can apologize to me. I'll wait for you."
That was met with radio silence.
Bristol later told Gardenhire that Tennesseans don't pay the full costs of their education through their in-state tuition. "We give them a break because they're Tennesseans."
Alabamans, however, pay out-of-state rates, Bristol said, adding, "and I don't think we demonize illegal immigrants by making them pay the full price of their tuition. And I'll let you have the last word."
"OK, No. 1 you're wrong," said Gardenhire, pointing to tuition agreements Tennessee has with some states where residents live near the state border. "Thank you."
Replied Bristol: "You're welcome, sir. Sorry you're so angry with me. I'm not angry with you."
Gardenhire said, "I'm not angry. I just don't like somebody talking through me like you do. You can get away with it with your other guests. But you can't get away with it with me."
"Well," said Bristol, "you talked through me as much as I did you. And I will send you the tape."
"Have a great day," Gardenhire said. "I'm going to have a great day."
Replied Bristol: "I am too."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.