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VOL. 42 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 02, 2018

Rotating Forrest bust out of Capitol gains momentum

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Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s days in the State Capitol could be numbered.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, says he could support a move to rotate Forrest’s bust out of the Capitol and make sure Capitol displays are “more reflective of the entire history of Tennessee.”

Though the state Capitol Commission voted last summer not to seek a waiver from the Tennessee Historical Commission to move Forrest’s bust to the Tennessee State Museum, legislation is being proposed to require it.

Sponsored by Democratic Rep. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, the bill states the Capitol Commission shall transfer the Forrest bust to the new museum on the Bicentennial Mall as soon as “practicable” when the building is completed.

But while Gilmore, former chair of the Black Caucus who is seeking the Senate seat of fellow Democrat Thelma Harper, could have a hard time mustering votes, the words of McNally could weigh heavily on state officials.

McNally says he doesn’t think the Senate will want to change laws this session in regard to the Forrest bust. But he does say, “I think probably long term we need to look at some type of rotation and maybe look to make sure that we’re not changing history, but we’re more inclusive in the history that we display in the halls of the Senate or the Capitol.

“I think it’s something the Capitol Commission probably will look at in the future as to how to resolve it.”

Besides the Forrest bust placed there in 1973, the Capitol houses a bust of Union Admiral David Farragut and Sampson Keeble, the state’s first black legislator elected in 1873 as a Republican House member from Nashville.

“We can’t really change history, and we shouldn’t attempt to, and if we look at the people we honor as heroes, a lot of times their past was not … pure. And we just have to remember what they did at the time they did, and certainly part of that’s forgiving them for the mistakes that they made,” McNally explains.

The lieutenant governor points out a portrait of former Gov. Ray Blanton, “indicted and convicted of high crimes,” still hangs in the Capitol. “But there were some good things he did, and we honor the office more in that case than the person,” McNally adds. Blanton was run out of office the day before his term ended amid a cash-for-clemency scandal.

Portraits of the state’s governors rotate out of the Capitol, and Gov. Bill Haslam’s portrait will find a place on the wall when he leaves office later this year, so the state does have some precedent for refreshing its historical displays.

Forrest is, in death, about as controversial as he was in life. A slave trader, Confederate cavalry leader who bedeviled Union generals and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest is said to have changed in later life and sought equality among the races in Memphis.

As a battle in Memphis continues over the removal of a Forrest statue from Health Sciences Park in a quick city sale of the property to a new nonprofit organization, McNally could display the kind of leadership needed at the state level to head off a conflagration.

The governor already urged the Capitol Commission to send the Forrest bust to the State Museum, a message it failed to heed. McNally’s idea for a revolving display, one heeding a similar suggestion by Treasurer David Lillard before the commission’s vote last summer, could provide the compromise needed to put this matter to rest – at least for now.

A purely historical display providing the context of Forrest’s role in Tennessee, along with other Tennesseans, would come a lot closer to satisfying lawmakers still feeling the sting of ancestral slavery. After all, Forrest still might be a hero to some, but he’s far from a hero to all, nor should he be.

“Open-minded” on medical cannabis

Senate Republicans run the gamut on medical marijuana, from McNally’s opposition to Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville sponsoring legislation to legalize it.

Dickerson, an anesthesiologist, calls Gov. Bill Haslam’s three-pronged opiate battle plan “a great start” but says Senate leaders are likely to be taking another look at the same problem in January 2019. Meanwhile, Dickerson adds he’s heard some opponents of medical marijuana say legalizing it would mean doctors simply take patients off of a high dose of opiates and substitute with another drug, medical cannabis.

“I’m not sure they perceive that as a move forward. I actually think in the proper patient with proper safeguards that actually is a desirable change. For us to lower the dose of fentanyl, oxycodone with a relatively moderate dose of medical cannabis, I think that’s a move in the right direction,” Dickerson acknowledges.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican set to leave the Senate this year and run for Rutherford County mayor, says he’s not ready to commit to supporting medical marijuana but studied the matter in two summer legislative seminars and found out Colorado and Nevada are seeing a “dramatic decline” in opioid abuse since introducing medical marijuana.

A cancer survivor, Ketron says he also hears from patients and other groups who want him to support it.

“And two years ago before I got cancer, I was a ‘heck no, I’m against all of it’ because of my social feelings. But I’m at least open-minded because I do feel like God put plants here for a reason,” he points out.

Through involvement with MTSU and its China exchange program, Ketron has been involved in looking at indigenous tribes there and medicinal roots and plants.

He “suffered” through pain during his cancer fight because he didn’t want to get addicted, even though he strongly considered using medical cannabis for nausea when going through stem cell treatment.

“But it was illegal,” he says.

Ketron makes note of the late Circuit Court Judge Keith Siskin, a friend of his from Murfreesboro who died last summer after a long battle with Crohn’s disease. Ketron adds Siskin declined to use medical cannabis.

“Because he was a judge, he wouldn’t do it because it was against the law here in Tennessee.”

McNally says he believes more research is needed and Tennessee should wait until the federal government removes marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug before it acts.

But, clearly, more minds are changing in that august body called the Senate.

Slapping TBI around

A House Government Operations Committee voted recently to keep the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation going for another three years during a sunset hearing but not before kicking the agency a little bit for bad financial management and some other problems.

A Comptroller’s Office special report found the TBI exceeded its budget since 2014 and used various reserve funds to keep running, greatly diminishing the accounts. In addition, it found the procurement of TBI’s Pilatus Airplane could have been more “cost-effective.” Lawmakers say the plane cost $8 million.

One part of the Comptroller’s report referred to an “allegation” about the plane’s use but with few details and nothing confirming it, leading some lawmakers to say it never should have been brought up if it couldn’t be hashed out. One senator said later the accusation was that TBI Director Mark Gwyn used the plane for personal reasons.

The biggest public problem with the plane, though, is that the agency did a poor job of tracking how it was used. Gwyn told legislators there was “no evidence of any mismanagement with the plane” and that the agency is using a new database to help it track the plane’s use.

In defending the plane’s operations, Gwyn says it was being used to conduct surveillance in Jackson when one of his agents was murdered during an undercover operation.

“Without it, more agency [personnel] would have lost their life,” he adds. “You can’t put a price on life.”

The plane also was used last year for TBI surveillance during White Lives Matter rallies in Shelbyville and Murfreesboro, and more recently in Memphis, according to Gwyn, a strategy to help Tennessee avoid a catastrophe similar to the one in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Most Tennesseans would agree those are legitimate.

But another question raised in the committee had nothing to do with airplanes and more to do with the proper use of agents.

A recent Lebanon Democrat report stated TBI agents executed a search warrant at the Hermitage townhome of House District 57 candidate Jeremy Hayes, who is running again Rep. Susan Lynn.

District Attorney Tommy Thompson, after being contacted by the State Election Commission, reportedly asked for the TBI investigation to make sure Hayes hadn’t committed voter fraud, possibly voting illegally in Wilson County while living in Davidson County.

A TBI spokeswoman confirmed the search warrant was made at Hayes’ townhome, the article states, but denied agents tackled him as he said. Hayes claims agents also went to the home he claims in Wilson County without a search warrant and grilled him, even trying to scare his grandmother.

As for Lynn, she admits questioning the residency status of Hayes, though he hasn’t qualified for the race, but says she was “surprised” to hear about the TBI search, the newspaper reported.

Questioned about the search by Rep. Bo Mitchell during the Government Operations hearing, Gwyn said he can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.

TBI Deputy Director Jason Locke, however, added he could think of at least two other instances when TBI agents searched people’s homes to check on voter fraud allegations.

But Mitchell, who usually doesn’t go out of his way to protect Republicans, questions whether “raiding” a home usually should be considered a “major crime” with public safety jeopardized.

Locke contends the agency wouldn’t investigate without the request of a district attorney or a search warrant signed by a judge.

“We have to present evidence to a judge that specific evidence we are looking for is located in a specific location. We have to have probable cause to believe that evidence is there, and it’s going to be there when we execute the search warrant, and the judge has to ultimately give us the authority to serve that search warrant or not,” Locke says.

Mitchell, who claims his first opponent got around residency requirements by living in a barn, initially called the matter “disturbing.” But he was shocked at Locke’s responses.

“I just thought you guys would say, ‘Hey, we were doing what the DA said, it’s not always right.’” Mitchell says. “… This is horrifying, and it should be horrifying to most citizens of the state of Tennessee that when you put your name on the ballot, if your opponent questions you, then some people have the authority to send the TBI to your home.”

Mitchell has no problem sounding off when necessary.

In this case, the TBI should be taking heed. If nothing else, when a Comptroller’s audit shows the agency is draining reserve funds, it should find a better way to use agents than sending them to ferret out the residency of a man who hasn’t even qualified to run for election.

Gestapo-type tactics are no way to persuade the governor to give you more money in next year’s budget.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based journalist covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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