Opinion: Campaign finance tool offers glimpse into who gets what from where among Hamilton County delegation members

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Election Commissioner Jerry Summers, center, acknowledges the applause of state Reps. Greg Martin, left, and Yusuf Hakeem, right, when he was honored by the Tennessee General Assembly earlier this year.

Everybody's thought it.

State Sen. So and So or state Rep. What's Their Name voted on this or that piece of legislation because they received sizable campaign contributions from a business that will benefit from the legislation.

We're not here to accuse any member of the Hamilton County legislative delegation of pay-for-play but only to offer information collated in a digital tool created by The Tennessee Lookout to see who is giving to our representatives.

Without the online tool, it would take someone hours and hours to comb through public campaign finance reports, from all the years a particular legislator has been in office, and tally up contributions.

People will make their own conclusions from the information, but here's what we found:

› An apples-to-apples comparison of the individual legislators in the delegation is difficult because each member has been in office a different amount of time. For instance, records show Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, has reaped $1,615,729.70 in contributions, while Rep. Greg Martin has collected $102,945. However, Watson has been in the House, then the Senate, since 2004. Martin was appointed to the legislature in March 2022, then won an election for the seat in November 2022.

› The top contributors for individual legislators, over the life of their time in office, are: Watson, Tennessee Association of Realtors, $61,500; Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents -- Tennessee Volunteer PAC, $19,750; Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, Tennessee Bankers Association, $26,000; Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, $6,000; Rep. Esther Helton-Haynes, R-East Ridge, Tennessee Radiological Society: Independent Medicine PAC, $6,500; Rep. Greg Vital, R-Georgetown, Marsha PAC, $11,000; and Martin, R-Hixson, Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Tennessee, $4,000.

› The most indiscriminate donor is Wine and Spirit Wholesalers of Tennessee, which gave to all seven members of the delegation. Hazlewood, with $22,500, has received the top amount from the group.

› Several of the top 10 givers to various members of the delegation routinely contribute to both parties. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Tennessee Association of Realtors and Advance Financial-Affiliated PAC are among the top 10 donors to four members of the delegation, and all three give to the Republican and Democratic caucuses and individual members of both parties.

Watson, by dint of being in the legislature for 19 years, is the recipient of the third most money from BlueCross BlueShield, fifth most from Tennessee Association of Realtors and seventh most from Advance Financial-Affiliated PAC. Hazlewood, in office since 2014, took in the 10th most from BlueCross Blue Shield.

› Five groups (Tennessee Bankers Association, HCA Healthcare, Home Builders Association of Tennessee, Amazon and Tennessee Road Builders Association -- Tennessee Highway Contractors PAC) have given to three members of the delegation, and another five (Nooga PAC, Tennessee Radiological Society: Independent Medicine PAC, Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents, AT&T, and Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association) have given to two legislators.

› Those looking for conspiracy theories might note that Watson is the director of sports medicine and therapy services at HCA-Parkridge Medical Center, and HCA Healthcare has been his fifth highest donor. Or that Hazlewood was once an executive at AT&T, which is her sixth top donor. Or that four of the top five contributors to Helton-Haynes are medical related, and she is a former nurse.

› Looking at it another way, Watson is the powerful chair of two Senate committees (finance, ways and means, and rules) and vice chair of another (council on pensions); Gardenhire is the chair of one Senate committee (judiciary) and vice chair of another (fiscal review); Hazlewood is chair of one House committee (pensions); and Vital is vice chair of one House committee (transportation), so business groups will always be seeking their favor.

› Further, taking a look at the committees they represent, Watson sits on the commerce and labor committee, and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry was his 10th largest giver, and Hazlewood is on the transportation committee and the transportation subcommittee, and Tennessee Road Builders Association tied for ninth among her top contributors.

Frankly, we'd like to think legislators often get put on certain committees because the committees speak to some of their experiences and subject areas where they have expertise. And if the dollars later follow because the groups believe the legislators' votes speak to their preferences, so be it.

While we're not so naive to think that pay-for-play never goes on in any governmental body, we chose to believe that the biggest motivation for members of our county delegation -- and most others -- is to craft legislation to provide a better life for all Tennesseans.