After Resolution Condemning Neo-Nazis Fails, Tennessee Lawmakers Debate Who’s At Fault | Nashville Public Radio

After Resolution Condemning Neo-Nazis Fails, Tennessee Lawmakers Debate Who’s At Fault

Mar 15, 2018

Tennessee lawmakers are pointing fingers at one another over the failure of a resolution condemning white nationalists and neo-Nazis, after a House panel defeated the measure earlier this week.

The House State Government Subcommittee rejected House Joint Resolution 583 on Wednesday without any explanation. The measure's sponsor, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, says he was stunned.

"I was completely surprised," he says. "I fully expected this to be passed straight through."

But some Republicans say the resolution was a trap, written to embarrass them and that Clemmons should've talked with members of the subcommittee about it beforehand if he was serious about getting it passed. 

The resolution's origins go all the way back to August. Clemmons and another Democrat, Memphis Sen. Lee Harris, came up with the measure days after this summer's deadly protest in Charlottesville, Va. It was filed for consideration more than two months before white nationalists gathered in Shelbyville for a rally that drew national attention.

The two-page text calls on the Tennessee legislature to denounce and oppose white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, as well as those who call themselves "alt-right." It goes on to say such groups promote "totalitarian impulses, violent terrorism, xenophobic biases and bigoted ideologies."

Clemmons says the words were inspired by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' description of the death of one protester as an act of "domestic terrorism." That means the statement should've been easy for lawmakers from both parties to embrace.

But none of the Republicans on the House subcommittee considering it would second a motion to start debate, effectively killing it. Members offered no explanation at the time, but later one lawmaker told Fox 17 that the language was vague and designed to be divisive.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams later put the blame on Clemmons for not lining up a second beforehand.

"Part of being a great legislator is knowing your bill, knowing the committee that it's going through, working the vote and asking for a motion and a second before you get there," he says. "That's what policymaking is. It's pretty simple."

The dispute is one of many minor skirmishes breaking out as lawmakers prepare for this fall's elections. Democrats hope to pick up seats in the General Assembly and potentially break the Republicans' supermajority, and one of their lines of attack is painting GOP lawmakers as unwilling to condemn the far right.

It's not a fair portrait, says House Majority Leader Glen Casada. He says leaders did not sink Clemmons' legislation. Casada suggests Clemmons should try his luck a second time. 

"I know I and the leadership team would definitely second it, motion it, support it, vote for it," he says.

Clemmons says he'll consider the invitation but has his doubts it's sincere.

He notes that the same subcommittee agreed to hear another piece of legislation he sponsored — and debated it for 20 minutes — without any advance discussion. He adds that members had ample opportunity to discuss the text.

"Glen Casada is full of crap," Clemmons wrote in an email. "Feel free to quote me."