Call it arrogant and heavy-handed or refreshing and bold, depending on your viewpoint, but some Republicans in the legislature clearly aimed to impose their will on the state’s more liberal biggest cities on a sweeping array of issues. At first this session, it seemed they could.
With unusual speed in the session’s opening week, the Republican majority rammed through legislation to postpone for two school years any attempt by the mostly black Memphis city school system to merge with the wealthier, whiter Shelby County district. Democrats were dismayed.
“The next thing you know, the legislature’s going to solve that Nashville fairgrounds problem because obviously the people of Davidson County don’t have enough sense to solve it,” an exasperated Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle said then. “I guess they’ll just file a bill to fix that. Why not? Republicans know it all. Republicans say, ‘We’re state government and we’re here to help.’ ”
And so it was that most state government insiders expected quick approval of another piece of legislation, this one to bring Nashville to heel.
That bill was filed not on the fairgrounds issue, as Kyle jokingly predicted, but in response to a proposed Metro Nashville ordinance that would extend protections against workplace discrimination to gays, lesbians and transgender people working at businesses contracting with the city government. Drawn broadly to encompass all municipalities, it would bar them from enacting their own policies on discrimination, as well as minimum wages, health care and family leave.
Proponents were moving quickly to try to win legislative approval before the Metro Council could give final OK to its ordinance. But last week, a House Commerce subcommittee derailed the bill at least for now by voting 7-6 against an amendment. Two Republicans joined Democrats and the legislature’s one independent, Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethton, in defeating the amendment. The sponsor — the crusading conservative Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Williamson County — then postponed his bill for two weeks.
A surprised Casada acknowledged he was taken aback. Not only were lawmakers voting with gays and lesbians — not exactly an influential lobby in this bright-red state — but they were bucking Tennessee’s usually almighty conservative Christians, who wrote Casada’s bill.
“The bill’s not dead,” Casada insisted afterward. “The winds are blowing coldly. That’s true. But the bill is still alive.”
Casada said he would meet with legislators on the subcommittee over the next two weeks “to see if we can come up with something that they’re comfortable with.”
Conservative Christian leader David Fowler played the bad cop, immediately vowing to make these lawmakers uncomfortable. He said his group, the Family Action Council of Tennessee, would bombard the representatives with angry emails from home.
“We’ll have to make their constituents understand how their legislators have voted,” Fowler said.
He blamed the defeat on heavy lobbying by the state’s four largest cities — Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga. On the eve of the vote, half the 40-member Nashville Metro Council signed onto a resolution condemning the bill for overstepping the state’s authority to determine how municipal governments operate.
“The big four cities that want to expand their powers beyond that of state and federal government have been lobbying against the bill in recent days. That’s exactly it,” Fowler said.
He said the bill’s defeat would mean “any city could now decide to let workers have a day off if their dog dies. That just creates a nightmare for businesses. It really does hamstring the flow of commerce from community to community.”
Fowler’s group is a subsidiary of the Rev. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, which is orchestrating these fights in Colorado, Kansas and elsewhere. In February, Montana’s House of Representatives approved a bill that would overrule a Missoula city ordinance prohibiting employment and housing discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender.
Focus on the Family obviously is trying to stop the advancement of gay rights. But in an apparent attempt to avoid putting off more moderate lawmakers, the group couches its opposition as aimed at preventing new burdensome business regulations and laws.
Metro Council member Mike Jameson, one sponsor of the proposed Nashville ordinance, scoffs at the contention that the city is harming the economy by barring discrimination against gays.
“If they can point — not to a dozen, not to 10, not to a hundred — if they can point to one city that has adopted this legislation and can demonstrate any data showing an economic deleterious effect, that would be great for us to consider,” Jameson said. “The problem is that while they’ve raised these concerns, they haven’t raised any data to demonstrate it. On the other hand, we have shown them similar ordinances in Louisville, in Austin, in Seattle, and all of them seem to be doing OK. We’ve shown them over 60 companies in Nashville that have the same policy. And these companies, like Bridgestone, seem to be doing OK.”
Jameson pointed out that social conservatives made the same arguments two years ago, when the council adopted an ordinance banning discrimination against gay city employees.
“They said all of these calamities were going to befall the city of Nashville if we dared pass that ordinance, including an economic downturn and an explosion in litigation,” he said. “And looking around, I see that birds are still singing and the sky is still blue. There has not been an explosion of litigation. Businesses have not been thwarted by this ordinance.”
Chris Sanders of the Tennessee Equality Project — a GLBT advocacy group — said lawmakers voted against Casada’s bill not to protect gays, but to stop an outrageous state power grab. Casada himself acknowledged it was possible social conservatives had overreached by writing their bill to include policies on health care and other areas.
Sanders said lawmakers didn’t mind denying gay rights, but they objected to “collateral damage.”
“The bill was aimed at our community — the gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. But to lawmakers, the damage is the precedent it sets for micromanaging cities,” Sanders said.
The Metro Council is scheduled to vote March 15 for final passage of the proposal. Casada said he would bring his bill back before the House subcommittee the day after that vote. From the way some of its members were talking last week, odds are the bill is dead.
Rep. Williams criticized the measure for “stepping on the toes of local municipalities.”
“This has nothing to do with gays or moral values,” he said. “We don’t want the federal government coming in and telling us what to do and trying to force health care down our throat, and now here we are trying to force something on the municipalities that they don’t want. So to me, it was an easy vote.”