NOTE: Since this column was written prior to the Nov. 8 general election, it is not possible to comment on what happened. That will come in future columns.
Gov. Bill Haslam has announced 45 important appointments to the boards of six universities across the state. One name is triggering lots of talk among conservative GOP lawmakers.
That person is Democratic fundraiser and mega-donor Bill Freeman, 65, being nominated to the board of Tennessee State University, which is the historically predominant-black university in Nashville. He is the recommendation of TSU president Glenda Glover. Freeman has been a generous donor to TSU over the years.
Freeman is also a high-octane Democrat who contributes to various liberal candidates. He attended but did not graduate from the University of Tennessee. He left UT after his father died.
He was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Nashville in 2015, when he spent $3.6 million. He is the single largest donor to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in Tennessee. Former Democratic Party chair Chip Forrester is now employed by him. The Clintons (both Bill and Hillary) have been hosted three times at the Freeman home in Nashville.
He is truly the George Soros of state Democrats.
Former Vice President Al Gore’s office is in a Freeman-owned building in the Green Hills area of Nashville.
More relevant to GOP House Republicans is that Freeman only this past year donated $100,000 to the state Democratic Party for the sole purpose of recapturing the Tennessee House for the Democrats. That means retiring over 25 of the existing GOP House members who may not want to retire.
Freeman is also actively exploring a 2018 run for governor as a Democrat as you read this, along with former Nashville mayor Karl Dean. There are also at least five Republicans testing the waters for governor, including Knoxville business owner Randy Boyd.
Freeman is a very generous donor to civic causes as well. He attended a luncheon this summer hosted by Bill and Crissy Haslam where the $40 million campaign for private donations for the new State Museum was advocated. It is not known if he has made a pledge yet as the donor list has not been released.
In the eyes of Republican lawmakers, there is dismay that Haslam would name the most prominent and liberal Democratic fundraiser in the state to a nonpartisan position. They will ask how much time will Freeman spend helping TSU if he is also running for governor? Will he push the Hillary Clinton higher education agenda while on the board?
On the other hand, he genuinely is a champion of TSU, which needs all the help it can secure. He would be an active TSU advocate.
It is not clear how the confirmation hearings by the House and Senate will occur and what questions, if any, will be posed to nominees. Will they be asked about their education philosophy, any financial conflicts they might have, disclosure of income as required at the federal level?
The law establishing these new boards says that any nominee is approved unless the House and Senate by resolution disapprove. As a practical matter that would be tough to do and the governor could veto such a resolution.
Lawmakers may ask that he pledge to suspend his political activities while he serves on the board.
Some are asking why Haslam could not have found a less partisan Democrat to serve, such as former Gov. Phil Bredesen or former Nashville mayor Bill Purcell. Bredesen and Freeman, while both Democrats, are not friends.
This is going to make for an interesting behind the scenes discussion in Nashville in January. On the other hand, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has been nominated for the ETSU board, and he is widely applauded as a conservative voice.
It seems to me the most valid questions to be asked Freeman and all other nominees is what his philosophy toward higher education is and what he wants to do for TSU. His response would be instructive. His political ties are well known and will not change. He should not be disqualified on the basis of politics alone. All the boards should reflect a bipartisan membership as the universities themselves should be nonpartisan.
■ Brian Noland, president of ETSU, reportedly applied to be chancellor of UT Knoxville but withdrew his application before the cutoff date.
State law on open records has been changed to keep secret all applications until the list is reduced to finalists. Noland is expected to seek UT President Joe DiPietro’s position when he retires in three to five years. If he had become chancellor, that might have prevented him for applying to be president so soon after becoming chancellor. One advantage he has is that he actually knows Tennessee.
DiPietro wants to see the new team in place on the Knoxville campus to follow Jimmy Cheek, and then many observers expect him to retire by 2020 when the next governor is halfway thru his/her first term.
■ State Rep. Jimmy Matlock and Sen. Randy McNally are speakers next Monday, Nov. 14, at the West Knoxville Republican Club at the Red Lobster on Kingston Pike at 6:30 p.m.
Both are candidates for speaker of their respective bodies. Public is invited.