Tensions in heavily GOP Tenn. county after conservative takeover reflect wider battle over elections
May 21, 2023, 5:05 AM
(AP Photo/George Walker IV)
GALLATIN, Tenn. (AP) — Shortly after being sworn in last fall, the new majority of the Sumner County Commission in Tennessee acted to update one of its official documents. The new version said county operations would not only be orderly and efficient, but “most importantly reflective of the Judeo-Christian values inherent in the nation’s founding.”
It was an important moment for the 14 commissioners who had campaigned under the banner of the Sumner County Constitutional Republicans. The group had waged a political war on fellow Republicans they viewed as insufficiently conservative in this fast-growing region north of Nashville during a bitter primary a few months before.
Since taking control, that majority has halted plans for a new building, rejected federal grants and tried to give away a historical property, actions it said were in line with its commitment to fiscal responsibility, protecting property owners and managing growth. The group also has been involved in an escalating feud with the county’s election commission in ways that have prompted concerns about whether preparations for the 2024 presidential election will be affected.
Those early moves have been cheered by their supporters. But some Republicans and community members say the commissioners are operating outside political norms, inviting lawsuits and jeopardizing elections and other county operations.
“What’s happened here is the Sumner County constitutional conservative Republican group, they don’t believe in government,” said Baker Ring, a Republican who is serving his fourth term on the county commission and is not aligned with the new majority. “They’re opposed to government. But now they are the government.”
The tensions are similar to those playing out in communities across the United States where conservative groups have been running candidates for local offices in recent years and sometimes winning majorities, upending the way local governments operate.
They have been motivated by pandemic restrictions, school and library boards, county commissions and city councils.
With millions of Republican Party voters continuing to believe changes to how elections are run, from getting rid of voting machines to removing ballot drop boxes.
The pressure has led some promoted election conspiracy theories.
While their success at winning office has varied, the consequences when they do are becoming apparent in places such as Sumner County, where they can wield power — such as budgeting authority — that could have implications for how elections are run and votes are tallied.
“If we don’t fund it, you don’t get to do it,” one county commissioner, Jeremy Mansfield, told the election administrator and chair of the election commission during a contentious meeting last fall.
Sumner County is just northeast of Nashville, where urban sprawl meets open land. Horse and cow pastures give way to planned communities with bucolic names like Durham Farms and The Retreat at Norman Farm that surround the main cities of Gallatin and Hendersonville.
The growth has led to a need for more government services, including schools and teachers, while providing an opportunity for a right-wing element within the local Republican Party to gain power.
“They appeal to people who moved here from other states saying, ‘If we don’t get elected, our Sumner County will become like your county that you came from, and you don’t want us to become like you, so you need to vote for our people,’” said Ring, a semiretired high school government teacher. “And that works in a lot of parts of the county.”
Eight Republican commissioners were defeated in the May 2022 primary by challengers aligned with the Constitutional Republicans. That paved the way for the group to form the majority after an August general election in which less than 15% of registered voters cast ballots. Helping fuel the group’s rise were two property tax increases approved by the county commission over the past decade or so.
Ring did not have a primary challenger and has found himself called a “RINO” — Republican In Name Only — even though “for most of my life, I’ve been the most conservative person in the room.” He is among more than two dozen current and former local officials featured on a “Wall of Shame” that the Constitutional Republicans created on their website.
The group’s social media activity includes regular updates on what the commission is doing, along with frequent swipes against others in their party.
“The Republican party (GOP) is not your friend! They do not like us!” read one recent post.
“We exist to smoke out these Rinocrats,” said another.
Patrick Flowers, a Democrat who is on the board of a few Sumner County nonprofit organizations, said he was saddened by the discourse. He has seen lifelong conservative friends labeled as “left-wing Democrats” by the Constitutional Republicans group.
“The newly elected folks have this war mentality,” he said. “It’s not, ‘Let’s listen and talk.’ They think they have instructions from God, and there is no one who can change their opinion.”
When the county’s election administrator came before the commission last fall seeking money to pay election workers for the November midterms, commissioners refused and pointed to money she still had in the bank.
The election administrator, Lori Atchley, has continued to ask, warning the commission that she is operating at a deficit because the workers had to be paid. Commissioners have not budged.
It was at that meeting that Mansfield, in his second term on the commission and an influential member of the Constitutional Republicans group, said two weeks of early voting, as required by state law, “just seems excessive for this county.” He has expressed support for changes to how elections are conducted, including using paper ballots filled out by hand that would be hand-counted in local polling places only on Election Day.
When a fellow commissioner said the county would soon be adding vote centers — polling places where anyone in the county can vote — Mansfield replied, “Well, we can always change that, too.”
Whether the county uses vote centers or has multiple early voting locations falls under the authority of the five state-appointed members of the county election commission, which hires the local election administrator. But county commissioners control funding, and the newly elected conservatives say the election budget is higher than comparable counties and that changes such as vote centers are hard to justify without proof they will increase turnout.
The election commission’s desire to move its operations to a larger building is at the center of another dispute between election officials and those now leading the county commission who say the move was never authorized and they want the space for other uses. Election officials say they only needed approval from the county mayor, which they received before the current commission took office. They say they already have been using the new location for storage, training sessions and meetings, and are asking the county for $300,000 to cover the costs of the move and the vote centers.
The election commission says the larger space and additional security it provides are needed to store the county’s new voting machines, which are larger and heavier than the current ones. Nevertheless, county commissioners voted in March to require the election operations to vacate the building.
The election commission responded by filing a lawsuit against the county, arguing the dispute and forced move “threaten the integrity of the 2024 election before a single vote has been cast.”
Mansfield said he would not describe elections in the United States as secure or trustworthy and that he believes the local election administrator has contributed to an erosion of confidence in the community. Among other things, he pointed to a recent misdemeanor citation issued to Atchley over a private property dispute unrelated to her job.
“Elections should be about integrity and trust,” he said.
Atchley referred questions about the lawsuit to the election commission’s attorney and did not respond to a message seeking comment about the citation and Mansfield’s criticism. Tom Lee, the election commission’s lawyer, said members regard the citation as a “private matter.” There have been no reports of large-scale election problems in the county, and the state recently reappointed members of the election commission.
Commissioner Matthew Shoaf, one of the Constitutional Republicans elected last year, said concerns stem from election officials making purchases and signing contracts associated with the move to the larger building without authorization from the commission. He said he was surprised to see the election commission hire a lawyer and threaten a lawsuit before they had a chance to work through the disagreement.
Lee, the election commission’s lawyer, said election staff continues to work with the county as it seeks clarity from the court and prepares for the state’s presidential primary early next year.
“We filed our lawsuit because frankly we have plenty to do right now that is pressing business, and we need to be about that business,” Lee said. “We have a job to do, it’s an important job and we’re intent on doing it well.”
Shoaf would not talk specifically about the election commission’s lawsuit but said the elections department was not being treated any differently from other county departments when asked to justify their budget requests.
“Everybody says, ‘I’m fiscally conservative,’” said Shoaf. “Saying and doing are two different things.”
Both he and Mansfield described what they said were frustrations in the community with those who sat on the previous county commission.
“People want small government and government they can trust,” Mansfield said. “But they feel like they can’t trust government because locally they don’t feel the government has been responsible with the tax dollars they have been entrusted with.”
Charlena Aumiller never imagined she would be attending so many meetings of the Sumner County Commission and its committees.
A lawyer who previously worked for the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, Aumiller has become a local government watchdog. She has chronicled the county commission’s actions with regular posts on a public social media page and filed a lawsuit against the commission that claimed, in part, violations of the state’s open meetings law.
A Republican and mother of two, Aumiller said she became concerned about the rise of the Constitutional Republicans group during the pandemic and attempts to push their agenda in local schools.
“At one point, I was ignorant, totally oblivious with what is going on — whoever is in office, it’s all interchangeable. That’s because I believed there were safeguards,” she said. “What I am seeing, they don’t care about laws. They don’t care about rules. I have never seen anything so fragile as our government.”
Elected to his first term last year, County Commissioner Wes Wynne is a Republican and Christian, but he’s not part of the Constitutional Republican bloc and is concerned by the majority’s actions, citing the filing of four lawsuits since the new commissioners took office.
Wynne said he has been pushed aside, assigned to just one committee when others typically serve on three. He said he also has been targeted with an ethics complaint after questioning the qualifications of a person nominated to serve on a local board.
Wynne said he has been disheartened to see Christian values invoked by commissioners only to be followed by actions he views as questionable. He said he struggled over how he would vote on the Judeo-Christian question, seeing it as an unnecessary legal risk.
“You know, I’m sworn to do the business of the county but also I’m called, too, to follow the direction of God,” said Wynne, who ultimately abstained. “That was one that I felt was more of a gotcha-type of vote. If you support it, great. If you don’t, then we’re going to use that against you later.”
Wynne said he doesn’t understand why there’s been so much animosity between the county commission and election officials. He offered a motion that presented a compromise on using the larger building, but said it was ignored.
“So far, our commission has done a fabulous job at grinding every ax that they can find against people they don’t like,” Wynne said.
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