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VOL. 9 | NO. 11 | Saturday, March 12, 2016

‘Fearless’ Stewart Embraces Battles With Supermajority

By Sam Stockard

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Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart lives on the front lines of the Tennessee General Assembly. As chairman of the House Democratic Caucus with 26 members, Stewart could employ a bunker mentality, but instead has chosen to take the fight to the other side of the aisle.


“He’s fearless, especially when he’s passionate about it,” including issues such as prison reform, says Rep. Darren Jernigan, a fellow Davidson County Democrat.

Whether calling for a bipartisan committee to investigate sexual harassment allegations against Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham, hammering supermajority Republicans over legislation dealing with sexual harassment lawsuits or advocating prison initiatives, Stewart keeps pushing even though he is badly outnumbered.

Stewart, who is notorious for holding press conferences in his Legislative Plaza office, recently challenged legislation backed by Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery requiring attorney that fees be awarded for state government employees when they prevail in lawsuits filed against them while on the job.

“We’re at a time when the House Republican leadership has asked the attorney general of the state of Tennessee to take on a unique role in conducting a wide-ranging sexual harassment investigation relating to these allegations surrounding the House Republican leadership,” Stewart says of the Durham case.

“So we have the attorney general on the one hand conducting this investigation of sexual harassment, and yet tomorrow (March 3), he brings before the Legislature a bill that would place great obstacles in the way of anybody who actually wanted to do something in court about sexual harassment.”

Stewart contends the legislation undermines the bedrock of the U.S. justice system by putting the onus on those who file claims, potentially forcing them to pay tens of thousands of dollars if they lose.

Rep. William Lamberth, a Cottontown Republican who carries the House bill for Slatery, argues the measure is not designed to “tamp down” sexual harassment complaints but to stop frivolous lawsuits against state employees in an individual capacity. In fact, he says the Durham investigation is completely unrelated to the AG’s bill.

“I have an enormous amount of respect for Mike. I work very well with him. He’s on the Criminal Justice Committee with me,” Lamberth says.

“I have an enormous amount of respect for Mike. I work very well with him. He’s on the Criminal Justice Committee with me,” Lamberth says.

But he notes he has no idea what Stewart is referring to because his intention is simply to stop frivolous lawsuits against state employees and not expose them to expensive attorneys’ fees.

Ultimately, Lamberth won the argument on the House floor with his bill passing 69-16. The Senate version sponsored by Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican, remains to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Debating the Durham situation

Led by Stewart, Democrats pounded the House Republican leadership early this session for its handling of allegations leveled at Durham.

The Republican Caucus held a closed meeting and voted not to suspend its rules and decide whether Durham should keep his position as House whip. But after an investigative piece by The Tennessean revealed anonymous allegations about Durham sending late-night text messages to women working in the Legislature, he resigned his leadership post and left the Legislature for two weeks to shore up his life. He is back on Capitol Hill.

The Democratic Caucus has its own difficult situation, with federal tax fraud charges filed against state Rep. Joe Armstrong of Knoxville alleging he and others profited from the sale of state cigarette tax stamps.

Stewart, a Nashville attorney, points out the situation with Armstrong differs greatly from the controversy swirling around Durham.

He notes Armstrong, who stepped down from a caucus leadership position last summer, has a federal trial date, a time for “an accounting.” Stewart says he believes the longtime representative will be found innocent but is concerned about the due process surrounding Durham.

“What we called for in the Legislature for Jeremy Durham and the Republican leadership was for these charges that have so far been aired in the newspaper to receive a public hearing,” Stewart explains.

“The House Republican leadership called for Rep. Durham to be expelled. … I would think if you’re making those sorts of extraordinary demands, then obviously we need to have some sort of transparent, public fact-finding to figure out what’s going on here.

“What’s the truth? What’s the basis for this call? Right now, I think the public is scratching its head.”

If the House had moved forward with Democrats’ proposal for a bipartisan committee to investigate the allegations against Durham, it already would be looking at text messages, subpoenaing documents and interviewing, much the way Congress handles matters, he says.

With the attorney general investigating Durham, the only information conveyed to the public has come from the press, he points out, adding, “That is not what we need to be doing to give people confidence in their government.”

Getting involved

State Rep. Mike Stewart (D)

House District 52, Nashville

Age: 51

Family: Married with three children

Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from University of Pennsylvania, law degree from University of Tennessee

Career: Attorney, veteran of Operation Desert Storm

Religion: Methodist

Politics: Elected to state House in 2008, House Democratic Caucus chairman

Committees: Criminal Justice, Ethics, Government Operations, Insurance and Banking

Stewart, 51, ran for a state House seat in 1996 and lost. Twelve years later, he captured the 52nd District seat.

“I’d always wanted to be a state rep,” he says. “I really like Nashville. I like to campaign. I like my district. It truly is a blessing to be able to represent everybody.”

His district runs from East Nashville at the Shelby Park railroad bridge down Murfreesboro Road past Nashville International Airport to Antioch. He quips someone could eat out 30 straight nights and have a different ethnic dinner but a “great meal” every night.

He backs amendments approved by Nashville voters to encourage fair housing and local jobs for city construction projects, saying he wants all local residents to have a shot at a good life here.

“If we have a great city, but 40 percent of the people in the city are struggling to buy clothes for their kids because their jobs have such lousy pay, then we really don’t have a great city,” Stewart adds.

“What we have is a bad city with a bunch of great restaurants.”

An Army veteran of Desert Storm, Stewart says he backs Second Amendment rights but is sponsoring legislation designed to require background checks for all gun sales.

“I don’t have anything against lawful gun owners. But I think a lot of the debates we’re having, we’re back listening to the Thompson Twins back when we were in high school,” he says. “I think we’re arguing about stuff that’s no longer relevant because technology is making all of this obsolete.”

Stewart, who is married with three children, earned a degree in history at the University of Pennsylvania before getting his law degree at the University of Tennessee.

No doubt, dealing with litigation helped prepare him for this role.

“Chairman Stewart is in a difficult position as a super-minority to lead the Democratic Caucus. I think he is very effective at what he does,” says Jernigan, of Old Hickory.

“Personally, I think he’s oftentimes the smartest guy in the room. And he’s very easy to follow. What I like about Chairman Stewart is he’s very thorough. He may lose his keys sometimes, but don’t question him on policy. He’ll go 10 pages deep on you.”

In addition to recruiting Democratic candidates statewide and trying to help them keep their seats in a state turned from blue to red, Stewart’s job is to give members support.

“When you have a caucus that has Raumesh Akberi and Darren Jernigan and Bo Mitchell and John Ray Clemmons and some of its younger, dynamic members, that’s a very unusually strong group of people to be serving in any legislative body,” Stewart says.

But whether he does nothing or works tirelessly, he explains, his caucus isn’t going to sit around waiting for him.

“They’re off doing independent stuff every day, and really my job as caucus chair is to help them maximize their own individual potential,” he says.

Focus on corrections

Stewart’s attention shifts by the hour, sometimes by the minute, as is typical with most legislators in leadership positions. But this session he is emphasizing change in the way the Department of Correction runs Tennessee’s prison system.

He is sponsoring legislation to:

• Resurrect a corrections oversight committee.

• Require the correction commissioner to set guidelines for pay and work shifts for prison employees.

• Increase penalties for assaults on prison guards.

• Allow people sentenced to life terms to be eligible for release after serving 60 percent of 60 years.

Stewart says he got involved in the matter after a group of correctional officers came to his office and let him know their concerns about the department’s 28-day work schedule and resulting job vacancies as well as violence within the prisons.

“I know it sounds reactive, but most of my bills come from constituents,” Stewart says.

Proponents for change say the shifts cut overtime pay and forced a number of prison guards to quit.

Legislators who back the schedule say it was set up after a two-year department study of the matter. A separate bill to force the Department of Correction to adopt a 14-day work schedule failed earlier this session.

Stewart, meanwhile, is likely to be working with House Republican leader Gerald McCormick on legislation to revive a corrections oversight panel, which was eliminated several years ago.

During a recent House State Government Subcommittee meeting, Stewart presented his bill, urging members to create a central group “who can provide continuity and work and with prison administrators and the commissioner to ensure we have smooth-running prisons.”

He reminded them of the state’s $300 million lesson from days of federal control of state prisons.

But after being told McCormick planned to bring a similar bill the committee, Stewart opted to “roll” his and work with the Republican leader.

“My goal here is to get a corrections oversight committee and the fact that we’ll have leadership from both parties working on it, I think, is fantastic. I think he’s sincere in that, and I look forward to working with him,” Stewart points out.

So, just as he has no qualms about addressing the other side, Stewart will work with Republicans to reach his goal.

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

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