NASHVILLE — Those who follow Tennessee politics are well aware that conservative Republicans have established control over the Tennessee General Assembly — the GOP having won 64 seats in the state House last fall (to the once dominant Democrats’ 34) and holding a 20-13 edge in the state Senate.
Legislation approved by the Republican leadership in the two chambers has so far been passed with unprecedented speed — whether it be the Norris-Todd bill regulating how school-system merger can be carried out in Memphis or a bill to exempt Tennessee from the mandates of last year’s federal health-care bill or several current measures to restrict or revoke the traditional prerogatives of public school teachers.
But one sea change had gone largely unnoticed until Thursday when, at the conclusion of the current week’s session (which saw Governor Haslam’s modifications to teacher tenure sped on their way to full passage), two Democratic legislators from Memphis made a discovery in the halls of Legislative Plaza, the General Assembly’s office complex.
Watching one of the several high-definition TV monitors that now hang from the walls of Legislative Plaza, state Rep. Lois DeBerry and state Senator Reginald Tate noticed that, after both Senate and House had finished their business for the week, the monitors had switched from closed-circuit screenings of the two chambers to news transmissions from the Fox News cable network.
When they asked the uniformed guard who controls the settings if the channel could be changed — to CNN, say — he informed them, “We were told to keep the sets on Fox News.” Why? He shrugged. “Because it’s a conservative network.” When the legislators looked at him open-mouthed, he shrugged again. “That’s what we were told,” he said apologetically.
It was not immediately possible to establish who gave the say-so, but a longtime denizen of Legislative Plaza said that at one time such housekeeping matters had been determined by an informal committee appointed by the Speakers of the House and Senate. “More likely now, it’s just what the two Speakers want to see up there,” he said.
That would be Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville in the Senate and Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville in the House. Asked about the channel choice, Ramsey took full credit. "It's my doing," he said. "I just thought we should be fair and balanced."
Rep. DeBerry and Sen. Tate served notice that they would try to get the channel changed, at least from time to time, and state Rep. Tommie Brown of Chattanooga said she, too, would join in such an effort.