Lawmakers didn’t show much empathy in session last week

Robert Houk • Apr 30, 2012 at 8:58 AM

Empathetic is not a word that comes to mind when describing members of the Tennessee General Assembly. State lawmakers seem rarely aware, much less sensitive, to the plight of their less affluent constituents.

This year, legislators have been more than happy to push such “pound on the poor” measures as a bill to require those on public welfare programs to submit to drug testing. At the same time, lawmakers — who are still rushing to wrap up their business this year as I write this column — rejected an amendment last week to include themselves under a mandatory drug-testing law.

Obviously, state legislators think they are better than the people they are elected to serve, which (despite their callous actions) does include the poor. Even so, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — who will someday collect a very generous pension paid from state taxpayers — practices “tough love” when dealing with the sick and downtrodden.

“Folks, we don’t need to give any support to that lifestyle,” he said earlier this year.

Shockingly, empathy did raise its head briefly Tuesday during House debate on a bill that the sponsor said would solve problems with an anti-bullying law the state General Assembly passed last year. Most of the debate centered on a “killer” amendment that would have exempted hostile religious imagery from the law. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Charles Curtis, D-Sparta, said the amendment would effectively scuttle his efforts to correct a cyberbullying law that the state’s attorney general has deemed unenforceable in its current form.

The sponsor of the amendment suggested that a swastika used to identify a Native American organization, or the flaming cross used by the United Methodist Church could be construed as bullying. Curtis corrected that notion by pointing out the law specifically addresses clear threats of bodily harm and intimidation.

The cyberbullying law was passed in Tennessee last year following the suicides of several teenagers, including one who is believed to have taken his own life after being bullied for being gay. At least one conservative group has opposed the law, saying it prevents religious people from condemning what they consider to be the deviant lifestyles of others. This same backwards-thinking organization, which laughably calls itself the Family Action Council of Tennessee, also supports the ridiculously silly “Don’t say gay” bill.

Last week’s floor debate saw some House members skirting around the particulars of why an anti-bullying law is needed. Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, said there will always be bullies and their victims. Then the freshman lawmaker made an astounding comment that he would later apologize for: “We’ve had some horrible things happen in America and in our state, and there’s children that have actually committed suicide, but I will submit to you today that they did not commit suicide because of somebody bullying them,” Faison said. “They committed suicide because they were not instilled the proper principles of where their self-esteem came from at home.”

Efforts to amend the bill were defeated, and the revised bullying bill was passed by the House. But it wasn’t empathy for the students who might be bullied for being different that spurred their action. No, it was anger over the way one of their colleagues had been treated by a lobbyist that made them want to take a stand.

Earlier in the week, the House Republican Caucus decided in a closed door meeting that the “guns in parking lots” bill is just too politically radioactive to take up on the floor this year. Despite the heavy lobbying of the National Rifle Association for lawmakers to pass the bill before the end of the session, House Republicans agreed it was not in their best interests to alienate state businesses leaders, who have spoken up loudly against the measure.

This did not set well with the NRA, nor was it what John Harris, the executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, wanted to hear. Harris sent out an email in which he blamed House GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, for the demise of the “guns in parking lots” bill and said that it was time to symbolically “display a used crucifix at the entrance to the General Assembly as a warning.”

He also wrote: “Rep. Debra Maggart’s political career needs to end much as the Romans crucified criminals.”

Harris’ comments galvanized both the Republican majority and the handful of Democrats who serve in the House, and both parties were united in calling Harris a bully during the debate on the bullying bill.

“To put a used cross at the entrance of the Legislature to warn us against voting against that organization, that is intimidation,” House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner, D-Nashville, told his colleagues. “If you don’t think it is, God help us all.”

So, empathy (of a sort) finally prevailed on Capitol Hill last week. Of course it was limited in its scope and doesn’t appear to be a far-reaching trend in the General Assembly. Still, it was good to see lawmakers walk a mile in another’s shoes — even if it was a mile over the same halls of power that they also walk everyday.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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