Where's Lee? (Nov. 11 - 17)

We assume he's working on his "Blue Steel," given this many photo ops

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It’s been a while since I’ve sent out Gov. Bill Lee’s weekly media schedule. Alas, his communications staff has still not (yet) figured out how to actually, you know, deal with the media, despite their very large state-taxpayer-funded salaries. But a few of my lovely subscribers have passed along the list this week. (No, it’s no one in the Capitol Hill Press Corps.)

Lee has already celebrated Veteran’s Day on Nov. 7 and Nov. 8, so he appears to be taking the actual “holiday” off, along with the rest of the state’s employees. Then follows a blitz of so many photo-ops, so close together this reporter can only assume the governor is practicing his “Blue Steel” look in advance of 2024, when he’s maybe thinking about running for president as the next Ronald Reagan.

If you get any convincingly pensive photos, please do send them my way …


Monday, November 11

Veterans Day – State Offices Closed

Tuesday, November 12

Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team Announcement

Nissan Stadium, South Side of Korean Veterans Blvd

1 Titans Way, Parking Lot N

Nashville, TN 37213

11:00 a.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Chief Executives Organization World Wide Conference

J.W. Marriott Nashville, Harpeth Room

201 8th Ave S

Nashville, TN 37203

11:45 a.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Availability

Wednesday, November 13

Volkswagen Groundbreaking

8001 Volkswagen Drive

Chattanooga, TN 37416

9:30 a.m. EST

MEDIA – Open, Availability  

Armory Naming Ceremony

1801 S. Holtzclaw Ave.

Chattanooga, TN 37404

10:35 a.m. EST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Chattanooga State/Valmont Apprenticeship Signing Day

1950 Industrial Blvd.

Jasper, TN 37347

12:45 p.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Mueller Water Products Announcement

2048 Industrial Blvd.

Kimball, TN 37347

1:15 p.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Tour of the Caverns

555 Charlie Roberts Rd.

Pelham, TN 37366

2:30 p.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

The Stephen’s Singer and Songwriter Cocktail & Dinner Reception

Country Music Hall of Fame

222 5th Ave S.

Nashville, TN 37203

5:30 p.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only  

Thursday, November 14

No public events

Friday, November 15

McNairy Co. Health Department Ribbon Cutting

725 East Poplar

Selmer, TN

11:00 a.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Availability  

Tour of Senator Frank P. Lashlee Career and Technical Center

155 Schools Drive

Camden, TN 38320

12:30 P.M. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Tour & Visit

Stewart Co. Health Department 

1021 Spring Street

Dover, TN 37058

1:45 p.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Lodge at Paris Landing Groundbreaking Ceremony

16055 Hwy 79 N

Buchanan, TN 38222

3:00 p.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Saturday, November 16

No public events

Sunday, November 17

No public events

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting until subscriptions start in January. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

Share The Dog and Pony Show

Who's on Gov. Lee's Media List?

Lobbyists, hundreds of state employees, a few dead people, and, oh yeah, some reporters

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The first time I heard this story, it was about two months after Gov. Bill Lee had been sworn into office. I heard it from an impeccable source — a Republican very much in the know, someone who voted for Lee and supports his politics. Since then, I have heard the same story from several other GOP sources, all of whom I trust. The story, such as it is, goes like this:

Certain members of Lee’s staff are telling him he’s the next Ronald Reagan. And Lee is buying it.

That’s it. That’s the story. That’s the punchline, except it’s not a joke.


Six weeks ago, I sent out a newsletter in which I noted that Gov. Bill Lee’s communications staff had refused to update the office’s official press list to add my current email address. They also did not return my calls or emails about the matter.

Later that week, on Sept. 27, I drove an hour north to Athens for a press availability, or “avail,” with Lee. I asked the governor to comment on his staff refusing to add me to the media list.

“I’m not familiar with that at all. I don’t know anything about that, so I can’t comment on that,” Lee responded.

After the other reporters moved away, I asked Lee’s communications director Chris Walker if he would comment. The conversation lasted about a minute, in total. Here’s the transcript:

Me: Can you comment, Chris?

Chris Walker: No. We reserve it for journalists, and everything’s online. Thanks

Me: So you’re saying that I’m not a journalist? Is that what you’re saying, Chris?

Walker: Cari, I’ve answered your question. Thank you. It’s good to see you.

Me: I’m a journalist. I’m stringing for the New York Times

Walker: It’s good to see you. It’s good to see you. Thank you.

Me: I’m stringing for the Washington Post

Walker: Ok. Good. I look forward to reading that. 

Me: And you’re saying I’m not a journalist? I have a thousand subscribers —

Walker: I look forward to reading it, Cari, thank you. It’s good to see you. 

[I walk away, then walk back over 30 seconds later.]

Me: Hey Chris, is the Tennessee Star on the press list?

Walker: Cari, enough.

Me: I, I —

Walker: Enough.

Me: I can make a records request.

Walker: You live in Georgia. 

Me: Will a records request submitted by a Tennessee resident show that the Star is on the press list?

Walker: Cari, everything’s online. Everything’s on the website.

Me: No, it’s not.

Walker: Yes it is. Go look at it. All the events are on the website. Everything’s on the website. You can look on the website.

[Walker walks away, as do I in the opposite direction.]

Well, I— a person who currently lives two whole blocks from the Tennessee state line and spends all her money in Tennessee but does not count as a state resident for records purposes — found someone to make that records request. And what I discovered is that the governor’s (and the first lady’s) emailed “media” lists get sent to hundreds of people who aren’t employed by media outlets. Although Tennessee Star staff aren’t on the list, about two dozen lobbyists are, along with a handful of Republican operatives and fundraisers. The emails also go out to some employees of public schools, electric companies and local chambers of commerce. Reserved for journalists it is not.

Before I break down some of the notable names on the list, I want to be clear that I have no problem with any of them getting the weekly email of the governor’s media schedule. Most of Lee’s public events are listed on the state website’s calendar, but unlike the email, the online calendar does not regularly include details of whether there will be a media avail at an event. Lee has notoriously shied away from avails in favor of “photo only” events, which is why it is important for reporters to know if they will have a chance to question the governor, especially when travel is involved. Also, sometimes times and locations of events change at the last minute. If you’re on the list, you get an email about it. If you are stuck checking the calendar, you might easily miss the changes.

This is why I would like to receive the governor’s schedule in my inbox, like hundreds of other reporters, editors and producers across the state and country. (Yes, reporters from Politico, The Hill, CNN, ABC, Reuters and the New York Times are on the list, despite having no bureau reporters in Tennessee.) My Substack newsletter — this news outlet — has over 1,000 subscribers, with more signing up every month. My work was even recently featured in a lovely profile by Harvard’s Nieman Lab, the news outlet of the prestigious Nieman Foundation. The only people who seem to seem to not consider what I do “journalism” are Lee’s communications staff.

But since hundreds of people on the governor’s “media” list are not journalists, it shouldn’t even matter what the staff thinks as to the merits of my journalism. Because they are sending out Lee’s schedule every week to journalists who have left the state, like former Nashville reporters Alanna Autler and Dave Boucher, who moved to Dallas in 2018. They are sending it to three Metro Pulse email addresses (including my own), even though Knoxville’s beloved alt-weekly was shut down five years ago. (Please, someone at the KNS ask why these email addresses still function when the website doesn’t.) They are sending it to a number of people who are dead but who apparently still have functioning email addresses. They’re sending it to state employees who left their jobs months ago and to (presumably defunct) email addresses for elected officials who lost office a full year ago. (I’m assuming Beth Harwell can’t still check her state email account.)

Oh, and they’re still sending it to my old Nashville Scene email address too. Yes, that’s right — I am still getting the governor’s press list at two different email addresses, neither of which I can access, but the governor’s staff refuses to change that address to my Gmail account. Petty and nonsensical, but that’s Tennessee governance for you.

So who is alive, at the same job, and currently getting the governor’s schedule? Over 1,500 people, at minimum. There are 1,738 email addresses on the governor’s media list, per the open records provided to me last week, and there are 766 names on the first lady’s list. The latter seems to be copied wholesale from a couple of silos of the governor’s list, as it includes my old Scene address and legislators no longer in office like Harwell. The 1,738 number on the former — assuming I counted the small print in the 46-page PDF correctly — includes several names twice, along with the former employees of whatever outlets and state offices, so the actual number of people receiving the emails is probably 1,600-ish.

The media list does go to journalists — mostly political reporters across the state, but it also goes to editors and news producers and a handful of independent local bloggers. The records I received have the list divided into silos (some reporters appear on more than one), which logistically makes sense. If the governor has an event in Knoxville and the venue has specific camera protocol, a smart communications person would want to email only Knoxville media and not 1,600 other people about that. And if timing changes on a presser at the Capitol, no reporter in Memphis cares, just the Capitol Hill crew.

That said, it appears Lee’s staff doesn’t seem to understand the silos former Gov. Bill Haslam’s communications staff set up. They have added the Commercial Appeal’s columnist Ryan Poe to the Nashville silo, along with several state employees, editors at local papers in Lawrence County and Greenville, a sales representative for VIP Jackson (a magazine that covers social events), and Tim Weeks of TWA Pictures, a Nashville-based television production company. The silos for the members of the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Senate have not been altered since January 2018, although a few more recently elected officials have been added elsewhere on the list. And the silo going to legislative and capitol staff has added new names but hasn’t deleted any of the people who have left or died since Lee took office, including the disgraced Cade Cothren or the very nice and helpful Glenn Barber, who passed away last summer.

The majority of the people who are not media or state employees receiving the weekly email are in one silo set up by Haslam’s staff. These two pages include lobbyists like:

  • Gif Thornton (one of the state’s most prominent lobbyists; also represents the pro-voucher, pro-charter TennesseeCAN);

  • Elizabeth Millsaps (Axon Enterprises — a.k.a., Taser — and do read this story);

  • Alex Lewis (assorted electric utility interests and Volkswagen; left lobbying this past week to work at the state Department of Commerce and Insurance);

  • Ted Boyatt (left TennesseeCAN for Tennessee Chamber; reputed to be the third party on the Cothren/Glen Casada texts; also this guy);

  • Trammel Hoehn (assorted insurance interests along with Volkswagen, Teach for America and Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis);

  • Former Tennessee Republican Party Executive director Brent Leatherwood (now at the Southern Baptist Convention’s lobbing arm, ERLC); and

  • People employed by (and most, but not all, who are also lobbying for) the Tennessee Hospital Association, Methodist Le Bonheur Hospital, the Hospital Alliance of Tennessee, the University of Tennessee, Gatlinburg CVB, the Nashville Chamber, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, Eastman Chemical, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, AARP and the Catholic Diocese of Nashville.

There are also White House staff members; Bob Keast, the owner of the Birdsong Resort, Marina and Family Lakeside RV Campground in Camden; and two employees of Haslam’s family business, Pilot Flying J.

Since Lee took office, his staff hasn’t added quite as many lobbyists to the list — possibly because they’re already on the list, and possibly because Lee hasn’t been in office a full year yet. But his staff did add the most well known Republican fundraiser in the state, Kim Kaegi, along with her staffer Anne Locke, to the media list in July 2019. They also added lobbyists:

  • Robert Clark (St. Jude Hospital);

  • Jim Layman (Insurors of Tennessee);

  • Micah Johnson (former communications director of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker whose company represents Volkswagen, although she’s not yet registered in the state as a lobbyist for the manufacturer);

  • Holly McDaniel (TennesseeCAN and BlueCrossBlueShield).

Lee’s staff has also added Kingsport Chamber staff; the communications director of pro-charter Tennesseans for Student Success; an employee of the law firm Greenberg Traurig, which just hired former state insurance commissioner Julie Mix McPeak; and freelance journalist Kathleen Carlson, who is also on the Davidson County Democratic Party’s executive committee. Finally, in very curious timing, the office added Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Marlon King to the list about two weeks after the Freedom From Religion Foundation lambasted the district for allowing its schools’ social media accounts to proselytize religion.

The media list also includes over a dozen names (added both by Haslam and Lee staff) of Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee members or county party chairs (or former chairs). Partisan pundits Steve Gill and Scottie Nell Hughes are both on the list, but at email addresses affiliated with Gill’s defunct radio show. Gill told me he does not currently receive the emailed schedule, but other conservative talk radio hosts (and/or their producers) across Tennessee are getting it every week.

In my records request, I asked for “any written policy describing how the governor’s communications staff determines who is or is not ‘press’ ” in regards to being added to the listserv. The records I received in response to that were exactly zero.


If Lee really does have delusions of Reagan this early in his tenure — and again, I was hearing this before the legislative session ended last spring, way before the voucher bill even passed — he’s not going to be dumb enough to tell any reporter that. But while I have laughed myself silly a couple of times when telling people about this, it’s something I’m finding more and more disturbing as the weeks go by and the governor’s communications staff repeatedly refuses to do their jobs. Despite Walker’s $144,000 taxpayer-funded annual salary. Despite Laine Arnold’s $90,000 taxpayer-funded annual salary.

Communications staff for any elected official, even part-time ones like state legislative leaders, are paid to answer questions from reporters. Sometimes they are going to dodge those questions, and sometimes they simply won’t reply quickly enough because something else has taken priority that afternoon. But communications staff paid by the state are not being paid to refuse to return calls or texts or emails for months upon months simply because they don’t personally like someone. And the governor’s staff certainly does not get to determine who is and who is not a journalist — much less when an email list they say is reserved for journalists is going to hundreds of people who wouldn’t know what a nut graf was if it kicked them in the, well, you know.

I emailed Walker about this story, both to his state and his personal accounts. I texted him the contents of the email. I called the two cell phone numbers I have for him. He did not reply. In fact, he has not replied to anything I’ve sent him since February. Which is hardly the Reagan-esque way to get the press on your side writing softball stories — although I assume since they know I won’t ever do that, they simply don’t care.

But you, whatever your political affiliation, should care. If you live in Tennessee, if you shop in Tennessee, if you go out to restaurants or stay in hotels in Tennessee, your tax dollars (and mine) are paying for two people to not do their jobs in umpteen different ways. (Not to mention the whole breaking the law thing.)

I know that several people have emailed Walker and Arnold on my behalf, not that it has done any good so far. But one kind soul wrote an email that made me cry, which Nieman Lab also quoted at the end of their story:

“Our politics need to be driven by a local dialogue, and that only occurs when we have local journalists that can make a living off of covering local issues,” the email stated. “That’s why the exclusion of Cari is so troubling to me. In the face of the nationalization of politics and the slow death of local newspapers, the Governor’s office is going out of its way to exclude those trying to power a new business model.”

If any of you can actually get an answer as to why freelancers active in party politics and lobbyists for large corporations and a West Tennessee school superintendent and a handful of dead people and my two old email addresses that I can’t access deserve to get the governor’s media list but I don’t, please do let me know. I feel sure it’s what Reagan would want too.

And should you be so inclined to further parse the 46 pages of Bill and Maria Lee’s media list recipients, I have uploaded the unredacted pdf for your viewing pleasure.

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting until subscriptions start in January. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

TNDP Counters Lee's Day of Prayer ... With Prayer

Unsurprisingly, not all Democrats are on board

Tennessee, like the rest of the United States, is overwhelmingly Christian — 81 percent of the state’s population identified as Christian in 2014, compared to almost 71 percent of the U.S. population. Another three percent of the state’s population are members of different faith communities, like Judaism or Islam. (Four percent identify as agnostic or atheist, while 11 percent describe themselves as unaffiliated with any religion.)

According to the same Pew Research Center study, 70 percent of Tennesseans say they pray daily, while another 19 percent say they pray weekly or monthly. So Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement that Oct. 10 would be a statewide day of prayer and fasting has found a mostly sympathetic audience, despite questions about separation of church and state. (Which, I will note again, is something actively discouraged by Lee’s home church.)

Personally, to this lapsed Episcopalian, a statewide day of prayer seems about as useful as Marianne Williamson urging her supporters to pray for a hurricane to change course. If thoughts and prayers actually moved mountains, we wouldn’t have any mass shootings by now. I grew up believing that faith without works is meaningless, but if praying and fasting tomorrow is going to make you feel better about the miserable state of the world, then do whatever you need to do.

However, an email sent this week to Tennessee Democratic Party county chairs, officers and executive committee members suggesting that Democrats “join in” the day of prayer has raised the ire of many party members. On Monday night TNDP chair Mary Mancini — already under fire over sloppy bookkeeping and members calling for her resignation — sent out a messaging memo encouraging interested Democrats to tweak the day of prayer to raise awareness of issues like the UAW strike, bullying and the lack of health care in rural areas:


TOP LINE: ​Governor Bill Lee has declared October 10, 2019 a “Day of Prayer and Fasting.” In keeping with American values of equality and inclusion, urge Tennesseans of all faiths, as well as Tennesseans with no organized religious affiliation, to choose what works for them - ​prayer, a moment of silence, private meditation, etc.​ - and join in. Pray Governor Lee/Your Elected Official understands the responsibility they have to the men and women of the state.


● A government-issued proclamation which specifies “prayer and fasting” as a collective action may be alarming,* but our country does have a tradition of publicly declaring days of prayer.

● Urge Tennesseans of all faiths, as well as Tennesseans without organized religious affiliation, to choose what works for them - ​prayer, a moment of silence, private meditation, etc​. - and join in.

● Use the October 10 “Day of Prayer” to acknowledge the connection we share and open our hearts to higher levels of empathy and compassion for those who are suffering.

● Above all, use this day to act, or pledge to act.

● It will take more than prayer, moments of silence, and silent meditation to solve the complex economic, social, and political problems in Tennessee.

● Pray Governor Lee/Your Elected Official understands their responsibility to the men and women of the state, who need their leadership right now.

SUFFERING IN TENNESSEE: Justice, struggling workers, healthcare, systemic racism, etc..

● Use stories from your own County/experiences.

● The family of Coffee County High school junior Channing Smith, who took his own life after being outed as bisexual by his classmates. Pledge to work with the Smith family as they seek justice for their son and brother.

● Tennessee is the 9th worst state for working people. Remind people to open their hearts to UAW and CWA workers and their families who, frustrated by unfair working conditions, are on strike.

● Pray for all those Tennesseans without life-saving health care coverage, without an emergency room close by, and without the medication necessary to stay alive.

● Send strength to those who fight against systemic and strategic racism and sexism.


● May our elected leaders understand that words matter, policies matter, and leadership matters.

● May our elected officials gain the wisdom, insight, and empathy to see the affect their anti-gay legislative agenda has on our communities.

● Give our elected leaders the ability to see the economic realities of the many Tennesseans who work 2-3 jobs, can’t afford life-saving medication, and struggle to feed their families.

● May our elected officials see the suffering of those without health care. Let them see that they have the power to take action to expand Medicaid.

● Let us pray for our elected leaders who use strategies of division to hold tight to their power and refuse to swing open wide the door of opportunity to all. *See the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

This is standard political messaging — do what the other side is doing, then flip it and reverse it. And it’s worth noting that the 2014 Pew study says 50 percent of self-identified Democrats pray daily, a number I would imagine is higher in Tennessee given the overall embrace of religion here. While Democrats may not have the evangelical voters who turn out like the GOP does, the state party is full of people of faith. Numerous African-American politicians across the state are also pastors; Democratic Senate candidate James Mackler is married to a rabbi; and almost everyone running for office spends every Sunday in a different church. Republicans do not have a stranglehold on Jesus, no matter how much they try. But it’s hard to imagine too many Republicans hitting “Reply All” after receiving the above memo and writing, “What the hell is this TNDP Day of Prayer nonsense?”

That was the verbatim response from Michael Lottman, an at-large member of Cheatham County Democratic Party (CCDP) Executive Committee. He continued, “We don’t have a state religion, or even a state party religion, and I for one resent an official day of prayer declared, with instructions as to how and what to pray, by a state political party. We are in enough trouble already with the Republicans and the Trumpologists trying to turn this into a country where personal religion or belief trumps all laws and constitutional requirements.

“Whose harebrained idea was this anyway? … Or is this how we have chosen to reach out to certain groups of voters, thinking they will be lured by a sudden dose of piety, or even that they should be? … The weaseling introduction to this ‘messaging memo’ purports to be inclusive, sweeping in ‘Tennesseans of all faiths, as well as Tennesseans with no organized religious affiliation,’ but make no mistake: a ‘day of prayer and fasting’ is a religious exercise, and having it declared by the state in this manner is a giant step toward fascism,” Lottman concluded.

Lottman’s response resulted in a thread of emails from other party members who agreed with him.

“For a government entity to push prayer on its constituents is unconstitutional. ... Are we following the Republicans? Should we also deny contraceptives and be against abortions since according to religion we should go forth and multiply? No wonder people are confused about what the Democrats stand for,” wrote Randy Fiedler, another member of the CCDP Executive Committee.

A third CCCP member, James Brooks, replied, “Republicans have perverted, distorted, and trivialized religion. I am certain Ms. Mancini’s heart is right and she is surely hoping to make the best of Governor Lee’s despicable Papal decree. But anything that even hints at a Democratic Party endorsement of Lee's hypocritical, diversionary, and reactionary appropriation of America’s religious traditions represents a hopeless ‘me too’ response by our Party and belies our Party’s commitment to the nation’s long-standing but often compromised belief in the separation of church and state.”

Callye J. Norsworthy, the chair of the Obion County Democratic Party, responded and said she was “one of those godforsaken Tennesseans ‘with no organized religious affiliation.’ ” She then mentioned a TNDP meeting in May that discussed how to appeal to rural voters.

“[T]here was a lot of talk about faith. So when given the opportunity to comment, I urged my fellow Democrats to remember that while faith is important to many Tennesseans, not all faith looks the same. We must remember that we have Tennesseans who are Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, and many other things or nothing at all,” Norsworthy continued. “Faith matters. But it matters how we use that word. Every Tennessean matters. We absolutely must reach the small town, bible believing, rural Tennessee voters. But we must NOT forsake all others do to so. Our party is the party of inclusion ... right?”

Mancini finally replied to the thread after Norsworthy’s email.

“No one has to participate or sanction the Day of Prayer. This guide is a suggestion for those who needed some guidance in responding. Please feel free to respond - or not respond - to the Day of Prayer as you wish,” Mancini wrote.

But that didn’t stop the emails, which flooded members’ inboxes all Tuesday afternoon. (UPDATE: One source says at least 30 emails were sent, including from people asking to be removed from the listerv. Feel free to send me the whole long thing if you have access.)

“Whole mess could’ve been avoided with a ‘BCC,’ ” one member commented in a secret Facebook group.

The TNDP State Executive Committee meets a week from Saturday, and it looks like it could be a tense meeting. But, then again, maybe it won’t be — because if there’s anything Tennessee Democrats are great at doing, it’s burying their heads in the sand and ignoring problems.

P.S. — If you do feel like praying tomorrow, keep the newly fired music minister from my neighborhood’s Catholic Church in your intercessions. After 10 years at the church, during which time the priest and other staff knew he was gay, John Thomas McCecil was fired for legally marrying his boyfriend. This is the type of discrimination Lee (and his church) supports, by the way. Exactly what Jesus would do!

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or contact me and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting until subscriptions start in the next few weeks. Thanks to many readers’ generosity, I have been able to pay my car insurance and my cell phone bill, two things no reporter in the South can be without. And please, if you were forwarded this, sign up for the newsletter. No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” I’m here to report on stories no one else is.

Where's Lee? (Sept. 23 - Sept. 29)

Talking Jesus and then heading east

You might have noticed there was not a “Where’s Lee?” column last week. It wasn’t because I forgot. It’s because some press releases from a former email had been automatically forwarding to me, and now they’re not. I’ve emailed the governor’s communications team to add me again to the list at this email address, but they won’t respond to repeated emails. They also won’t respond to other emails asking legitimate questions about policy. Shocking, I know, given how they don’t seem to care about breaking the law.

If you are a person who would like to continue to see Gov. Bill Lee’s weekly public press schedule in your inbox — which is a public record, by law — please email press secretary Laine Arnold (laine.arnold@tn.gov) and communications director Chris Walker (chris.walker@tn.gov) and request that I am added once again to the press list — something no other department in the state has had an issue doing. There are around one thousand of you lovely subscribers now (!!!), and maybe your influence will help remind the communications staff that the governor’s office is not a private business and doesn’t get to pick and choose which reporters it responds to.


Monday, September 23

No public events

Tuesday, September 24

No public events

Wednesday, September 25

No public events

Thursday, September 26

Tennessee Association of Christian Schools Educators’ Convention

Franklin Road Baptist Church & Christian School

3124 Franklin Rd.

Murfreesboro, TN 37128

8:30 a.m. CDT

MEDIA – Open, Availability

Smyrna Check Presentations (Nourish Food Bank of Smyrna and Lee Victory Recreation Park)

TN College of Applied Technology

663 Ken Pilkerton Dr

Smyrna, TN 37167

9:15 a.m. CDT

MEDIA – Open, Availability

Judge Wesley Bray Investiture Ceremony

City Courthouse

300 E. Spring Street

Cookeville, TN 385014:00 p.m. CDT

MEDIA – Open, Availability

TN Tech College of Business Distinguished Lecture  

Leslie Town Center

1 West First Street

Cookeville, TN

6:00 p.m. CDT

MEDIA – Open, Availability

Friday, September 27

McMinn Higher Education Center Groundbreaking

2345 Denso Drive

Athens, TN 37303

11:30 a.m. EDT

MEDIA – Open, Availability

CTE Ceremony

Jefferson County High School

115 W. Dumplin Valley Rd.

Dandridge, TN 37725

1:30 p.m. EDT

MEDIA – Open, Availability

Hamblen County Event with Rep. Eldridge and Sen. Southerland

Walters State Community College

Dr. Jack E. Campbell College Center, Foundation Room

500 S Davy Crockett Pkwy

Morristown, TN 37813

4:30 p.m. EDT

MEDIA – Open, Availability

Saturday, September 28

No public events

Sunday, September 22 (sic)

No public events

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TNDP Audit Shows Sloppy Bookkeeping

FEC finds issues with accounting during 2016 election cycle

On Monday afternoon, the Federal Election Commission released an audit of the Tennessee Democratic Party’s finances during 2015 and 2016, and the results show incredibly sloppy bookkeeping. The party didn’t track when its employees were working on federal campaigns (to the tune of over $400,000) and it took in over $166,000 in excess of federal campaign contribution limits (which it then mostly transferred to its non-federal account instead of issuing refunds). It also understated receipts and disbursements by $148,395 and $147,409, respectively, in 2015, and it understated receipts by $1,362,191 and disbursements by $1,377,720 on the original reports filed over the two-year period.

At this time, the FEC is not taking action or issuing fines, although it could choose to do so in the future. And according to people well versed in the incredibly complex federal election finance rules for state parties, the audit doesn’t necessarily show signs of intentional malfeasance by party chair Mary Mancini or her staff, just bad accounting and lazy paperwork. Next Level Partners, the company to which the party outsourced federal compliance and accounting during those years, has recently been dinged for similar sloppy work with several other state parties, including the Arkansas Democratic Party. TNDP is no longer using Next Level. Wade Munday, who was the TNDP treasurer from January 2013 until February 2017, declined to comment.

But the audit comes at a possibly critical time for Mancini, as her opponents on the TNDP State Executive Committee gear up for a ouster push ahead of their Oct. 19 quarterly meeting — even though everyone admits that there were financial issues pre-dating Mancini’s tenure.

“I consider myself friends with Mary. She’s a good person and a fine person, but she’s simply not capable to lead us into 2020,” said District 17 member Carol Brown Andrews of Wilson County. “That said, I think the fault lies with us. We are duly elected officials, and we have failed on the job. Did all of this start with Mary? No.”

The Executive Committee knew that the FEC was conducting an audit, but the members to whom I’ve talked say they were unaware it would be released this week. Nashville’s District 19 member Charlie Clark said his call for Mancini to resign over the weekend was not timed to knowledge of the audit’s release. Andrews, who publicly joined Clark’s call for resignation via a tweet on Sunday, also said she didn’t know it was coming this week.

According to several party members across the state, dissent is bubbling up within many county parties too, although some of that has been building for months. Andrews said one of the reasons she did not vote in January to reelect Mancini for a third term was that all six county party chairs in her district “to a person told me not to support Mary.”

But District 7 member Mark Harmon of Knoxville said he thinks the criticism coming from Andrews, Clark and others about the party’s engagement in rural counties is wrong.

“I think it does not hold up to close inspection,” Harmon said. “I think people have been quibbling and using incomplete arguments.”

Harmon said that in the past year or two of Mancini’s tenure, “fundraising is up, the donor base is up, and we picked up a seat in the legislature. Mary’s been doing her job.”

But Johnson City’s District 3 member Debbie Harley-McClaskey said Harmon and other Mancini supporters simply have a hard time adjusting to change.

“It is important to have new leadership in place to make forward progress and a strategy to bring the party together for 2020,” said Harley-McClaskey, who also did not vote for Mancini in January. “A change in leadership may not be expected [mid-cycle], but the party is not where we think we should be.”

Under party bylaws, Mancini or any other officer “may be removed from office for malfeasance or incapacity by a majority vote of the total Committee membership.” But would a poor audit from two election cycles ago count as malfeasance, especially if part of the blame either lies with or can be blamed on an outside vendor no longer in business with the party? And would that really get over half of the executive committee to take action against Mancini when 2020 is unlikely to turn Tennessee any more blue? Especially given that similar complaints in 2018 did little to stop Mancini’s landslide reelection this year?

The TNDP declined to send me a statement about the audit. They also, per the audit itself, declined to say much of anything to the FEC either, besides amending several reports. As to whether party member think the audit is bad enough to demand a full external and independent audit of both federal and state party spending under Mancini’s tenure, as Clark wants — well, stay tuned.

I’m on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting. If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. Bonus: Now you can actually mail me documents at the P.O. Box listed below!

Please, if you were forwarded this, sign up for the newsletter. No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

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