Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 10, 2018

View from the Hill: State Sen. Tate goes a step too far in dance with GOP

Sen. Reginald Tate ran a campaign ad in the waning days of the Democratic primary race bragging about his service to the city of Memphis.

But voters, apparently tired of Tate’s shenanigans, finally decided he was more concerned about serving himself and opted for political newcomer Katrina Robinson instead.

Not even the hokiest rap video in the history of political rap could save his seat. He put it out just a couple of days before the vote, an apparent last gasp for a desperate campaign.

Robinson, who owns The Healthcare Institute in Memphis, stomped the 12-year senator by more than 2-to-1, picking up 14,162 votes, 68.6 percent, to Tate’s 6,465, 32.3 percent in the 33rd Senate District. Without Republican opposition in November, Robinson is in.

The results weren’t surprising, considering Tate was caught on a hot mic during a legislative meeting this summer saying Democrats are “full of s---” and calling himself a “black Republican.” In Democrat-heavy Memphis, he was due for a major butt-whipping from the upstart Robinson, who prepared for two years to make this run.

The Shelby County Democratic Party censured him for those vulgarities, and rightfully so. If he wanted to run as a Republican, he should have switched parties instead of trying to keep pulling the wool over voters’ eyes.

For Tate, though, his words to fellow Sen. Bill Ketron before a Fiscal Review Committee meeting only confirmed for voters what most people already knew. After all, he had been voting Republican for years and trying to play it off as some sort of peaceful alliance with Republicans so he could bring meaningful policies and programs back to Memphis.

He claimed free inmate education and the precursor of the Workforce Investment Network as proof his compromises were paying off for Shelby County.

Those in legislative circles, however, considered Tate a pawn for former Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who purportedly gave him plum committee assignments on education, finance and fiscal review in return for votes. Tate backed Ramsey for lieutenant governor twice and voted for Sen. Randy McNally in his bid for lieutenant governor in 2017 while other Senate Democrats voted against him – albeit symbolically.

Asked about his vote afterward and how McNally might do, Tate gave this inexplicable explanation: “You know, it’s the first day. I don’t have a projection for him, but as for his character, I’ve never seen him flaw with me. So why wouldn’t I support his selection? There was no other name (candidate).

“I don’t have a posture to say I’m for or against or have some intent in my mind to say I’m Democratic or non-Democratic or Republican. The man cotton weigh what the man cotton weigh. He’s been straight with me whenever he’s been on the scale, so why not support him? … But I don’t have a feeling toward pro or con.”

As for weighing cotton, neither Tate nor McNally have done any farming in quite some time, if ever. And if Tate didn’t have any feeling for or against McNally, maybe he should have abstained. But then he wouldn’t have been able to forge the kinds of bipartisan arrangements that enabled him to put Memphis first.

Or was he putting himself first?

Meanwhile, his votes in 2018 to defund Planned Parenthood, punish local governments for sidestepping the Heritage Protection Act and against expanding Medicaid all went directly against Memphis constituents.

Republican lawmakers talked all session about how the Memphis City Council violated the “spirit of the law” by selling two city parks to the nonprofit organization Greenspace, which instantly removed Confederate statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis. A Nashville Chancery Court judge found the city abided by the law.

Serving barbecue or constituents?

Tate’s legislative travel is legendary, and his family business, A&R Bar-B-Que, proved to be a beneficiary or benefactor, too, depending on your interpretation.

Tennessee Registry of Election Finance records show Tate sent nearly $31,400 from his campaign account to A&R Bar-B-Que over seven years. The money covered events such as Feed the Need at Thanksgiving, a Martin Luther King Day celebration, legislative luncheon, Operation Stand Down, Block Party for Peace and food for the Lois DeBerry funeral. But some of the giving from his campaign is described simply as “donations” to the restaurant.

Tate’s statements of interest from 2010 through 2016 show he listed A&R Bar-B-Que on Hickory Hill as a source of income. No amount is listed.

So far, he has skated on any potential violations of campaign law, even if he might have violated the spirit of the law, much like the Memphis City Council is said to have done.

Asked about the matter, Drew Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, says he reviewed some of Tate’s reports and found it “appears” he made donations of food and drink to the groups from his campaign account.

“Our office allows members to make donations to charities and other causes from their campaign account. Therefore, as long as Sen. Tate is paying fair market value for the food/drink I do not believe he is violating campaign finance statutes,” Rawlins said in an email statement.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell whether Tate was paying fair market value for the barbecue and fixings. And heaven forbid anyone spend a couple of minutes looking into whether he was funneling money to the restaurant for his personal benefit.

Rawlins says he has no intention of talking to Tate, and Tate has declined to answer phone calls and return messages all summer.

Tate’s travel is just as sketchy.

In November 2017, he traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida, and Atlanta for Southern Regional Education Board conferences. No doubt, those were crucial to his position as vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.

Those followed trips to SREB conferences in Atlanta and New Orleans, as well as the National Conference of State Legislatures in Boston and the Southern Legislative Conference in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The previous year topped it all, though, when he went to a conference for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in Los Angeles, an NCSL conference on school choice in Indianapolis, to Little Rock for the Southern Regional Education Board conference, to Lexington, Kentucky, for the Southern Legislative Conference, to New Orleans for the Friedman Foundation, to Chicago for NCSL, to Indianapolis for the American Legislative Exchange Council, again to Lexington for the Council of State Governments, then to Long Beach, California, for the Council of State Governments on veterans policy.

Asked about Tate’s travel two years ago, Ramsey – who was only a few days from being finished as lieutenant governor – pointed out that pretty soon the Memphis senator’s expenses would be someone else’s problem.

It was clearly a problem, too, because taxpayers doled out roughly $10,000 in per diem payments during the last three years for Tate to go to all those conferences, plus at least $7,000 for travel.

In Tate’s defense, these trips were crucial governmental policy-forming trips where he could come up with solutions for every problem in Memphis and Tennessee.

Too bad he rarely put those into legislation or thought on the Senate floor. Mostly, we heard non sequiturs over the last few years.

Tate did manage to put one reflective idea together in 2017 during an argument over legislation allowing Memphis children from struggling schools to use public dollars to attend private schools.

He figured only about 10,000 to 12,000 students would be able to use the money statewide because of the difficulty of providing their own transportation and extra money to cover tuition costs if the state spent only $9,000 per child.

“So, it’s really all in somebody’s mind about what the effect is,” Tate said at the time. “But if one of (the students) can get out, that may be the one that needs to get out, and I don’t want to stop the one that can get out.”

Of course, he was co-sponsoring legislation by Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown. Democrat Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis was carrying the House version.

The analysis

As such, Republicans were able to roll Tate out to show bipartisan backing for legislation, as well as support from an African-American legislator.

That has been sticking in the craw of Democrats in the Shelby County Legislative Delegation for quite some time, to the point Sen. Lee Harris (elected last week as Shelby County mayor) and Sen. Sara Kyle both endorsed Robinson for the 33rd District Senate seat.

About the only endorsement Tate received came from ultra-conservative Republican state Rep. Judd Matheny, a Tullahoman who made an ill-fated run for the 6th District congressional seat.

The only thing worse than getting an endorsement from Matheny for a Memphis state Senate seat is Tate’s dance moves in his last-gasp rap video. Not to pile on, but in the words of someone who grew up watching Soul Train, “Come on, man!”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News, Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.