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VOL. 40 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 1, 2016

Dickerson keep his balance as a Republican in blue Davidson

By Sam Stockard

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To call Sen. Steve Dickerson a maverick might be an understatement. An oddity as a Republican in the Davidson County legislative delegation, Dickerson doesn’t quite fit in with the blue hue of Nashville voters or red-state Republicans who dominate the General Assembly.

Yet the anesthesiologist who practices medicine at Hendersonville Medical Center is comfortable in his own skin.

“I find myself at odds with everybody at some point or another, including myself,” says Dickerson, 51, serving his first term in Senate District 20.

He might cast a vote and then six to 12 months later, after seeing how it works, wish he had the benefit of what medical people call “the retrospectoscope.” But at the same time, he is impressed with the ability of senators to disagree on one bill and then vote on the merits of the next “without any recriminations.”

Dickerson says he wishes Insure Tennessee had at least come up before one of his committees during the 2015 session so he could have debated the details. He’s made no commitment on the governor’s market-based proposal to use Affordable Care Act funds to catch about 290,000 people in a coverage gap.

“There’s not a lot of ill will and hard feelings,” Dickerson explains. Indeed, one of the most frequently-used lines in the Legislature is “let’s agree to disagree.”

Sen. Bill Ketron, who chairs the Senate Republican caucus, says, “He is free spirited, and he lives in a different demographic area, Davidson County. … He’s not gonna be the same kind of Republican that comes out of Bradley County, let’s say, in comparison.”

Ketron also points out Dickerson is up for re-election this year, so he must be “kind of moderate.”

Nashville political commentator Pat Nolan says Dickerson’s legislative agenda loaded with Democrat-oriented bills could lead some people to question his party affiliation. Democrat Erin Coleman is set to run against him this fall.

“He’s the only state senator I can think of in my lifetime that’s been a Republican in Davidson County,” Nolan says.

Moderate or liberal, Dickerson is accustomed to making fellow legislators feel uncomfortable.

For example, he knows his medical cannabis bill made a number of legislators uneasy when he proposed it last year. It failed, for obvious reasons, even though it was narrowly drawn to allow extremely ill people to use it in pill form or creams for only a few diseases – but “no smoking,” Dickerson adds.

He points out about half the nation’s states allow medical cannabis, so Tennessee wouldn’t be breaking ground with such a law. Nevertheless, it went to the legislative graveyard in 2015 and again this session.

“I would describe it as the camel’s nose under the tent. People are afraid that this is a gateway to full decriminalization,” Dickerson says.

He thought he might run into the same opposition this year with legislation allowing wider access to contraception and preservation of biologic evidence in death row cases.

“If you’re going to push public policy in some important areas, you’re going to ruffle some feathers,” he adds.

But he didn’t face much pushback on his contraception bill after looking into the science behind the matter and deciding “expanded access to contraceptives was a fundamentally good public policy place to be.”

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American Academy of Family Practice support the collaborative practice agreement he is proposing between pharmacist and physician, which would allow a woman to get birth-control pills at the drug store without going to the doctor.

National groups support over-the-counter access, enabling women to buy birth-control pills at the drug store much the way she would Tylenol, but that requires a federal designation, and Dickerson was more comfortable taking the route of collaborative agreements instead.

The measure, which passed the Senate with relative ease and is moving through the House committee system, drew some concerns about people getting wider access to medicine without a physician’s prescription, he says.

Sen. Steve Dickerson

(R) Davidson County, District 20

Age: 51

Family: Wife Katrina, three children

Religion: Episcopalian

Career: Anesthesiologist, Hendersonville Medical Center

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Sewanee: The University of the South; medical degree, Wake Forest University

Politics: Elected to state Senate in 2012

Committees: First vice chair of State and Local Government; Education; Finance, Ways and Means; chairman of Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of Finance

“But in terms of it being a public policy position, people from all political spectrums look at it and say, ‘Hey, what we’re trying to do is cut down on unintended pregnancies and wider spread access to contraception is a logical effort to accomplish that,’” Dickerson explains.

To his surprise, he also ran into few hurdles sponsoring a bill to require biologic evidence in death row cases be preserved as long as a convicted killer remains in prison. Oddly enough, DNA does not have to be kept in Tennessee, though the TBI says it holds on to it for the duration of a case.

“It makes a lot of sense, and I’ve had great support from the left and the right,” Dickerson says.

The Davidson County legislator didn’t find nearly as much success with legislation designed to stop a quarry from starting operations near the Old Hickory Dam.

Earlier this session, quarrymen walked the halls of the Legislative Plaza wearing T-shirts that said “Save our jobs.”

They apparently caught the attention of House members, who killed Dickerson’s bill, some saying property rights and the permitting process, which was complete, outweighed other concerns.

“I just can’t tell you how big a deal it is. And it was just almost impossible to get that passed.

“And that’s one of my great regrets. But the fight’s not over,” Dickerson says.

Congressmen Jim Cooper wrote a recent op-ed outlining the potential damage quarry blasting could do to the dam’s earthen levee, which is built on 15 feet of wet sand.

Flyrock from blasting at the quarry also could make a nearby recreation beach and Old Hickory Lake inaccessible for periods of time.

Dickerson feels the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers raised enough questions about the impact of the quarry to stop it, but other legislators drew a different conclusion.

“Had there been an authoritative statement of the Army Corps of Engineers stating this will destabilize the dam, I don’t think there would have been any question about a vote. Frankly, I don’t think we would have had it come up for a vote,” Dickerson says.

The senator says he’s concerned a buffering provision passed by the Metro City Council won’t hold legal muster. And he is continuing the battle, with an Army Corps of Engineers general set to tour the site, and more legal action is pending.

Refugee resettlement slugfest

Dickerson butted heads, to a degree, with Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris early in the session over Norris’ resolution calling for the state to sue the federal government for a declaratory judgment on Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program to ensure it meets federal guidelines.

At one point, Dickerson asked Norris, an attorney, for an explanation of his resolution. After a lengthy response, Dickerson told Norris he felt his response could qualify as a “run-on sentence.”

Was he removing the emperor’s clothes? Hardly, says Dickerson laughing, noting he considers the conservative Norris a “role model” in the Senate.

Nevertheless, he believes such a lawsuit – based on a 10th Amendment states’ rights challenge – would be largely symbolic and accomplish little.

And considering the small number of refugees allowed into Tennessee each year, only a couple hundred or so, the impact of refugee resettlement on the state’s budget is “hardly a rounding error,” Dickerson says.

Even with a terrorist bombing in Brussels, Belgium, Dickerson contends ISIS would have to be pretty “clever” to plant someone in a refugee camp in 2014 in hopes they would migrate to the United States within two years to carry out a terrorist act.

“I think a lot of folks have set up the binary choice: safety or open arms. You can welcome refugees or you can be safe, but you can’t do both, and I do not accept that premise,” Dickerson says.

“I think with a thoughtful refugee policy you can accept people who are being tormented, hunted, killed in foreign countries, welcome them to the United States and still be safe.”

Asked about their point of contention during a committee debate on the resolution, Norris laughs and says he and Dickerson are “close friends,” sort of like the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia and liberal Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“He’s a doctor, I’m a lawyer. I’ve had a lot of doctors as clients, and they’re hardheaded and have trouble understanding, even concepts as basic as what it takes to comply with federal law,” Norris says.

Such a jab, however, holds little concern for Dickerson, who considers it the give and take of the General Assembly’s Upper Chamber.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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