Part 2 of Rep. Sheila Butt interview

This is Part 2 of an interview with Rep. Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) on Wednesday. For Part 1, click here.

Butt recently came under fire for posting controversial comments on Facebook. In recent days, the Tennessee black caucus has denounced Butt’s words, while several members of the House leadership have defended her.

SB: This is absurd and it saddens me that we’ve come to this point that everything we look through that lens, especially I guess when it comes to a Christian conservative is looked at first could this be construed as racism instead of looking at the comment that said, ‘Hey, everyone should be included at the table.’ So we’re missing the point of what can fix America by trying to look through this single lens of racism of every single comment. We must get past that.

AA: Representative, I do have to ask, forgive me for being forward but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask. Some people are wondering your feelings on Islam and Muslims. Do you have preconceived notions on the religion?

SB: I wouldn’t say that I do. No, I don’t. I can say that I don’t have preconceived notions about the religion.

AA: Do you–

SB: –I can’t say I’ve studied it deeply, I just don’t know.

AA: What prompted you, I guess, to respond to that open letter from CAIR? It was a letter that was asking presidential candidates to eradicate Islamophobia and take Muslims into consideration. What was your reasoning behind posting?

SB: My reasoning behind that was that the Christians should also be able to send a letter and say, ‘We hope you are amenable to Christianity and will learn about us.’ That other organizations could write and say, ‘We hope you know about us, too.’ That’s all the comment was.

AA: Jeff, do you have anything? …. Is there anything else? Do you think this will blow over?

SB: I’m sure it will. I imagine this is just the news of the day. I mean I really feel that way because there was absolutely nothing intentional in the comments whatsoever.

AA: Would you be willing to have some sort of meeting with CAIR? The Muslim community? About this?

SB: We’ll see if that comes about.

AA: Well, if there’s nothing else, I appreciate your time.


That seat at that table

It looks like Rep. Sheila Butt is gaining support from at least one fellow member of the House leadership.

GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada (R-Thompson Station) sent out this statement this morning:

“Instead of using their energy attacking conservatives in Tennessee, CAIR should instead refocus their efforts on stopping the spread of radical extremists in their own religion in the United States and across the world.

 I call on my colleagues in the General Assembly to join me in defending western values and culture against radical Islam.”

Speaker Beth Harwell also told reporters that she believes Butt “was misunderstood.”

Butt addressed the House today on the topic of her controversial Facebook posts:

“I am so thankful to live in a country where we can have a First Amendment where we can speak our minds…. I’m disappointed some in this body misunderstood.  I strongly believe this nation is better off when we all adhere to our Christian values and beliefs. When we all work together to solve the problems that beset every single one of us. And this being divisive and this trying to make something intentionally inclusive to be divisive is something that should not happen in this body,” Butt said.

The Black Caucus held two news conferences after this happened.

I was not there but looking at people’s tweets, it appears as if members denounced Butt’s comments.

IMG_0246 IMG_0247

Transcript of Rep. Sheila Butt interview: Part 1

By now, you’ve probably heard about the comments Rep. Sheila Butt (R-Columbia) posted on Facebook.

Facebook post made by Rep. Sheila Butt.

Facebook post made by Rep. Sheila Butt.

Butt was responding to an open letter from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The Jan. 26 memo called for the 2016 presidential candidates to cast aside fears of Islamophobia in their platforms.

The majority floor leader made two posts. First, she wrote that “it is time for a council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this country.” She later wrote that we need more groups advocating for Western cultures.

Since then, several groups have called out Butt. CAIR released a statement denouncing the representative. A spokesman for the Islamic Center of Nashville said the Republican party should be embarrassed. Democrats have used the opportunity to criticize Butt, saying she spend more time focusing on real issues instead of Facebook.

Butt said down with me yesterday for an interview. Please find below the first part of that interview. (Our server went down at midnight last night, so Part 2 will come soon.)

Alanna Autler: First off, what do you want to say about these accusations that you had made racist comments on Facebook? What did you mean?

Sheila Butt: For you to ask me that, it might be wise if I just read you a comment that I have sent out to everyone because this is genuinely how I feel about this. (Reading) It really saddens me that we’ve come to a place in society where every comment by a conservative is automatically scrutinized as being racist. Instead of realizing my post was actually about making sure that every race, religion and culture had a seat at the table, liberal groups have once again incorrectly and falsely said this is something about race, and it certainly was never intended to be that. It seems like if we could take jumping at race out of the situation and look at comments like that for what they’re worth, we would have a better chance of fixing the problems that face every single one of us as women, as Christians, as every group in the United States. And my comment was to say, yes, CAIR has a seat at the table. The Christian Coalition could have a seat at the table. The Western culture could have a seat at the table. We all need a seat at the table when we’re discussing what’s best for everyone in the United States of America.

AA: You made a reference to a group known as the NAAWP. It has some historical connotations. The former KKK leader used it and tried to advocate for the advancement of white people.

SB: I know, I think that’s so funny because I had no clue about that. That was an acronym that at that morning, I simply made up to say, ‘National Association for the Advancement of Western Peoples’. I had no idea that had ever been used for that before. So that’s something that just came out of nowhere, actually.

AA: But in general, don’t we assume when we say, “Western people,” we think “Christian, white”? Isn’t that the stereotype that goes along with Western people?

SB: I don’t think that anymore when we look at our culture and we look at all the people and the immigrants that have come from all the years and have become a part of our Western culture. I don’t think that’s how a majority of us see that anymore. I certainly don’t. I mean, America is genuinely the melting pot and our Western culture is made up of many, many types of people and cultures. But my point was, and it’s amazing that it seems to make it more narrow, when the point was all these people, not just one organization, should have a seat at the table.

AA: Can it be argued, considering the history here in the South, especially of slavery and other sort of institutions here, can it be argued that Western cultures do have a seat at the table, as whites have been historically privileged in society?

SB: You know, I don’t feel that way. I came from Rockford, Illinois, so racism was never a part of my culture, has never been a part of my culture. So racism is something that as I, as a Christian, and as someone from Rockford, Illinois, is something I do not identify with.

AA: If you don’t identify with it, can you realize that it does exist here?

SB: Historically, I think….certainly, I don’t feel like it does now, as what I’ve learned in history, historically. I think we’ve made great strides in that. And I as a Christian, and all of my Christians friends, we understand that God doesn’t see color. That color has nothing to do with us. So I don’t feel that.

AA: Religion is also something I think a lot of people feel passionately about, especially CAIR because they’re one of the biggest American-Islamic associations in the country. Were those comments made to repudiate the strides CAIR is trying to make?

SB: And if you looked at my second comment, my second comment said, we need a coalition for Christians to be at the table, also. We need a coalition for all religions. If we are going to have one religion at the table, we should have all the religions at the table. I think that’s the way America was built – for every organization to have a seat at the table.

sheila butt 2

AA: What’s being done in the Tennessee legislature to make sure there is a seat for everybody at the table? Are there any sort of subcommittees or any sort of organizations here that do truly represent every religion?

SB: I think we hear from them every day. We have people from all organizations coming in and talking to us. This particular post was talking about the Department of Homeland Security and saying that we all need a seat at that table. As far as a woman here in the House of Representatives, I have not felt any kind…anything like that. I hope our that black caucus doesn’t feel anything like that. Certainly, they know we respect them. I mean they were brought here like every single one of us, and we respect them and admire their accomplishments, too. I will tell you John DeBerry is one of my dearest friends in the world.

*Note: Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis) is the former chairman of the Tennessee black caucus. 

AA: Obviously, this is on social media and we know how things can appear on social media without context. For people who may believe you were referencing the NAAWP, what do you have to say to them? Because that is an organization that’s been referenced in history before.

SB: And I can say it like I said in my statement. I am so disappointed that we look at everything through that lens right now because that was certainly not anything I was looking when I made that comment. So I’m sorry that we looked through that lens and I really believe we can’t solve our problems until we all look through that lens together and solve our problems together as people in the United States of America and solve our problems in the state of Tennessee and as Americans together, collectively. And I don’t think race, gender, color, religion plays a part in that. We all should have a seat at the table. That’s genuinely what the whole thing was about.

AA: There are some organizations who have cried out for an apology. And I know you said you are sorry for the way this was viewed through a lens and the way it was interpreted. Will you issue an apology on what you said?

SB: I stand by my statements completely: that every person should have a seat at the table and every group. I think most Americans agree with that.

AA: Did you see the statement put out by CAIR today?

SB: I have heard about it. No, I have not seen it.

AA: They are asking for Republican leaders to reject Islamophobia. What’s your reaction to that?

SB: (Laughs) I don’t know much about Islamophobia, so I don’t know about that. And I don’t think Republicans ever have had Islamophobia. Just because of this comment doesn’t mean they should be accused of that whatsoever.

AA: It appears as if the comment, at least one comment has been deleted [the post referring to NAAWP]. What was the reasoning behind that?

SB: If someone were to look at the second comment, they would have certainly understood that because the first comment – someone immediately, probably within five minutes called me and said, “Sheila, that could be construed as racist.” And I said, “Well, certainly, my intention is not to be racist, so I will delete that comment and make my point that I am talking about Western people and other organizations, a Christian coalition, having a seat at the table.”

AA: So you were telling me before that you were unaware that acronym stood for what we thought for white people —

SB: Totally unaware.

AA: Who brought that up to you? And when? Of what it actually stood for?

SB: Someone in Maury County mentioned to me that day and called me. No. No, I had no idea of that, of what you are asking me until today. Never even knew that until today.

AA: Until today.

SB: Until someone mentioned to me that that was on their website, that it used to stand for something else, other than what I have put it on there for.

AA: And when did you delete the comment, again?

SB: I deleted the comment within five minutes after it was up there.

AA: But someone told you today [what it meant]. And what was your reaction?

SB: I really thought it was funny because I honestly never knew that that was out there for any other reason whatsoever. I mean, I was very surprised and it was a little bit humorous because I had no clue.

AA: Is this politics? Is this politicking? You talk about how liberals have misconstrued some of this. Do you believe people are actually concerned, or do you think you’re being attacked?

SB: I think people are going to…look, my comment had nothing to do with racism. People are looking at that as a way, looking through that lens, saying this Christian conservative is a racist. And I’m as far as a racist as anyone you could find. Born in Rockford, Illinois, have sisters in Christ all over the world that I’ve been to visit in every country. This is absurd. And it saddens me we’ve come to this point.

To be continued….

Insure TN is dead

It’s a strange feeling to a) know something’s about to happen, but b) not know when it’s going to happen.

Wednesday felt like we were waiting for this ax to drop.

We knew it was a critical day for Insure Tennessee. We knew the probable outcome. But we really didn’t know when the two would merge AKA when the vote would happen.

Some appropriate sayings include:

  • Hurry up and wait
  • Not a matter of if, but when

Throughout the day, I tried searching for signs – a moment that would reveal Insure Tennessee’s fate. An updated vote count from Chairman McManus? No. A wild motion on the House floor? No.

And then, we caught Speaker Harwell just as the House had gone into recess. Senate Health was about to reconvene.

Do you have the support? one reporter asked.

A beat. Then, right before she turned away: “I don’t think we have the support.”

That’s when I knew. That’s when we all knew, I think.

The death came less than an hour later – it materialized so quickly.  Insure TN reared its head one last time – in the form of a rousing speech made by sponsor Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville). He knew the stakes. He spoke of fear and hesitation and questions and duty.

“I ask this committee not to be the one to stop this process,” Overbey said. “If you vote no, that stops it.”

7 nays, 4 yays.

insure tn

An hour later, House and Senate leadership walked into the Governor’s office.

The tones were hushed and muddled, but I caught four words coming from Haslam.

“Thanks…. I appreciate it.”

I’ll let you read the nuts and bolts here: Insure Tennessee killed in committee hearing.

The final countdown


That’s how many references Gov. Bill Haslam made to ‘Obamacare’ in his speech to the General Assembly Monday.

The term was repeated Ad naseum during the House Insurance and Banking Committee meeting the next morning – and the theme continued during pretty much all of my interviews that day.

Critics make several arguments against Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan, but their most potent rebuke lies in a single word: Obamacare.

“This is absolutely Obamacare,” said Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin). “We’re increasing entitlements using money appropriated by Medicaid expansion and Obamacare to do what we’re doing today.”

Haslam has denied that notion time and time again. He’s spent the last two weeks of his life trying to convince people this is not Obamacare.

“This is not Obamacare,” Haslam said during his speech. “If it was, it wouldn’t have taken us this long to negotiate.”

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) echoed his statements on Tuesday, labeling the comparisons as misconceptions.

Will Cromer, the governor’s director of policy and research, explained how Insure Tennessee is different from Obamacare: The plan is tailored to Tennessee, and providers and member can choose whether they want to participate.

Whatever you believe, we can all agree the Obamacare argument is politically loaded.

And whether the argument is true, it’s gaining traction with people.

On Tuesday, I spoke with men and women from across the state. One woman named Sharon woke up at 4:45 a.m. to catch a bus in Sevierville just so she could make it to the committee hearings. (If that’s not commitment, I’m not sure what is.) The conservative group Americans For Prosperity rallied at least 200 people to converge on the Capitol. I interviewed four activists who travelled from different corners of Tennessee.


What are your issues with Insure Tennessee? I asked them.

All four said they didn’t want Obamacare to come to Tennessee.

They spouted many beliefs the Haslam administration has spent the last week trying to dispel. Most involve whether Tennessee can back out of the program after two years if the feds derail the funding structure or their part of the agreement. Officials with the Governor’s office maintain the answer is “yes” –  citing a Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion and a letter from the feds saying the state can end the program when it chooses.

When I bring up these points to opponents, they don’t budge. They don’t want to.

“Let’s make [health care] affordable, let’s get people employed so they can get their own,” said Jason Arthur, of Knoxville.

One man drove from Lawrenceburg. He’s a hardworking, part-time machinist. He also lacks health insurance, for the most part. Theoretically, he is someone who could possibly benefit from this plan.

“I’m all for [people] getting health coverage,” he told me. “People need help that can’t get coverage, but I’d like to see it done through something other than the federal government.”

It’s clear many – citizens and lawmakers alike – oppose the idea based on principle alone. That is their prerogative. It’s also a prerogative that could cost the Insure-backers their battle.

But supporters came armed with a rather effective rebuttal yesterday: personal stories.

Haslam’s plan could expand health coverage to almost 400,000 people. Lisa Yattaw is one of them.

“I’m going to go into kidney failure if I don’t get the operation I need,” said Yattaw, of Murfreesboro. “I can’t get it right now because I’m without health insurance.”

Yattaw, a college graduate, said she quit her job for medical reasons, but she doesn’t qualify for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. She said she sees Insure Tennessee as the solution to her problem.

“We’re not asking for handouts, we’re not asking for a free ride, we’re asking for temporary help to get people better,” Yattaw said.

Then, we met Kenneth Wilburn.

“I’m not a lazy man,” Wilburn told me. “I’ve picked cotton since I was five years old.”

He testified that between his disability and his pension checks, he makes too much money to qualify for health insurance. He said years of physical labor resulted in pain. He’d like to get some MRIs done. Maybe attend some physical therapy sessions. That likely won’t happen if Insure Tennessee fails.

“I can’t understand why they would knock somebody who’s been trying to get help, who’s worked all their life, that paid in,” Wilburn said.

It makes me wonder where we’d be now had supporters presented these individuals sooner. Do these personal stories possess the capacity to change the minds of conservative lawmakers?

Haslam’s most recent pitch failed to do that, at least according to Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin).

“As I walked through the hallways, I didn’t hear one single lawmaker say, ‘Hey, I’ve changed my mind,'” Casada said after the governor’s speech.

Some tell me they believe a misconception has hijacked the campaign to expand health care. Others view it as a legitimate concern. As of this morning, we truly don’t know whether the proposal has enough votes to pass the House Insurance and Banking Committee. Chairman Steve McManus (R-Cordova) indicated a vote could happen today, but nobody really knows.

And so, the governor fights on.

His spokesman, David Smith, released this statement Tuesday afternoon:

“The majority of Tennesseans support Insure Tennessee, both Republicans and Democrats, and the governor believes the committees in the Senate and House are doing exactly what they should do. They are taking the proposal seriously, having productive discussions, and are asking questions to better understand it.”

Senate Health convenes at 9 a.m.

Today is critical to the future of Insure Tennessee. What happens today will decide whether the resolution dies – or moves forward.

‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 19(65)’

People had varying opinions going into the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Some predicted it would be an informative discourse on Insure Tennessee.

But far more people did not think that.

Okay, here’s the rationale behind that camp. Members convened for the purpose of discussing the legal issues surrounding the governor’s health expansion plan. But, at that point, the resolution had not been introduced, and at this point, it’s still unclear whether this committee would even see this measure.

On top of that, Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) had posed several questions to Attorney General Herbert Slatery earlier this month. That list of questions was the only item on the agenda.

Then, one day before the meeting, Slatery issued the opinion on his website. He told me this was an intentional move by his office.

“We felt like it would be a benefit to the members,” Slatery said. “We think the way [the governor’s office] proposed [Insure Tennessee], there’s no legal obstacles to it.”

But the meeting moved forward.

Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), the chairman of the committee, said several things in his opening remarks.

-Kelsey asked his fellow members to discuss legal issues – policies could be debated another time, he said.

-Kelsey voiced his concern that Tennessee taxpayers would be left paying for the plan if the federal government changes the rules involving Insure TN. The feds will fund the pilot program for the first two years, then hospitals have pledged to pick up the tab. Some Republicans have argued it just can’t be that simple.

-Then, Kelsey turned to classic rock.

“I’m concerned that this will be like the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, where you can check in, but you can never check out,” Kelsey said.

That’s when the sparks started flying – well, as much as sparks can fly in a committee meeting, at least.

Apparently, Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) thought they were all just prisoners there, but not of their own device.

“Ever since you called me a couple Sunday nights ago and mentioned this meeting, I have been wondering what the purpose of it is,” Overbey said. “And so far, it seems the purpose of it is to advance your opposition to Insure Tennessee.”

Overbey continued:

“Why are we reviewing a member’s request to the Attorney General for an opinion?…We now have it, we have that opinion, which to me, underscores as to why we are having this hearing.”

It should be noted now that Gov. Haslam announced yesterday Overbey will carry the legislation in the Senate.

Kelsey maintained he had legitimate questions about the legal issues. So he called on two experts to testify before members.

The first, Robert Alt, heads the Buckeye Institute, a public policy nonprofit. He previously worked at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Alt called the plan a “bad gamble for Tennessee,” claiming it’s foreseeable the feds would change the matching rates, leaving a tax burden on citizens.

This info seems contrary to what Gov. Haslam’s office is telling us. The state could drop the coverage expansion without hurting existing Medicaid dollars or financial penalty, according to a letter from Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of the Health and Human Services released Tuesday.

The second speaker, Vanderbilt professor James Blumstein, conveyed a milder reservation. He said the choice of discontinuing the program down the road, would be a “painful” decision. The ordeal would involve backing out of an expansion that deals with people’s lives, people’s health insurance. His bottom line to the committee? Wait. Talk to the feds. Learn more about this agreement.

One might argue that the AG opinion answered many of the questions that prompted the meeting in the first place. In general, I genuinely hope people glean something anytime they must sit through a three-hour meeting.

But on Tuesday, even if onlookers didn’t learn anything new after reading the opinion – at least one thing became a bit more clear: the true leanings of their lawmakers when it comes to Insure TN.

The calm before the storm

We’re less than a week away from special session, and a lull has befallen the Capitol. Sure, a meeting has popped up every now and then, and more than a hundred bills have been filed. But this might be considered the calm before the storm – one which might unceremoniously end today.
Today the Senate Judiciary Committee will discuss the legal issues surrounding Insure Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam’s health care proposal — his nessun dorma, if you will.
(You can read the agenda here.)
A slew of questions will be discussed. Most will involve whether the feds can legally change the funding structure of the program.
Gov. Haslam claims the feds will pay for the program 100% during the first two years. Eventually, the match drops to 90%, and hospitals have pledged to pick up the tab after that.
If either of those provisions change, the program apparently self-destructs and Tennessee can break its agreement. Lawmakers want to make sure that’s right, too. Gov. Haslam said “there’s a guarantee we can get out” as per the agreement with Health and Human Services.
It should be noted that Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) heads this committee. He’s been one of the most ardent opponents of Medicaid expansion, someone who’s been openly dubious of Insure Tennessee.
Many a lawmaker have sparred over whether Insure Tennessee is true ‘Medicaid expansion’. The plan uses federal funds made available under the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare.”
Gov. Haslam will spend the better part of this week urging people this is not Obamacare – at least that was his message last Wednesday at Jackson Madison County General Hospital.
Even he understands the task at hand.
“It will not be easy, I’ll be really honest,” Gov. Haslam told us. “Our task is to explain why this is the right thing and why it’s the right thing both financially and philosophically for the state.”
Obviously, some don’t buy it. As Justin Owen of conservative think tank the Beacon Center of Tennessee told me: “If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”
If it passes the legislature, Insure Tennessee would operate as a two-year pilot program.
Dueling reports/studies have emerged that either applaud Insure’s potential benefits or lambast its shortcomings. That slash indicates some people refuse to call either item scientific or legitimate.
A report conducted by Dr. William Fox of UT (and commissioned by a Medicaid expansion advocacy group) said the plan would reinvigorate hospitals burdened by uncompensated costs; pump millions of dollars into the state in the form of new income; and provide more than $1 billion in revenues.
A report released by the Beacon Center suggests Insure would ensure declining incomes for families and a shrinking of the private sector.
We all know that even if Insure TN does hurdle the legislature – and if it survives its trial run – some will still question whether the program is successful. So how will supporters measure that success?
1) Has the population become healthier because they’ve had a chance to be exposed to health care?
2) Has been there any financial impact for the state?
3) Has Tennessee moved forward on the reform efforts promised by the administration (i.e. provider reform taking costs out of system, user incentives, etc.)
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
As for today’s committee meeting, the governor basically says “bring it.”
“We obviously have full confidence in legal issues in this or we wouldn’t gov haslamhave done it,” he said Wednesday. “…If you have a committee, you can call a hearing. We’ll show up and give you the very best answers we have.”


Thanks for reading my blog! My name is Alanna Autler, and I’ll be covering the statehouse beat this legislative session. We’ve aired several stories since we heard the gavel drop a little more than a week ago, but I plan to write about “extra material” here in this blog. Here’s the sad part about TV: we usually need to tell a story in less than two minutes. This space will be used to explore some of the interesting topics and tidbits we overhear at the State Capitol and beyond.

Some of the big issues that will dominate the conversation include abortion, education, and health care. Gov. Bill Haslam has called a special session for February 2 to discuss Insure Tennessee, which is his version of Medicaid expansion. This week he kicked off a statewide speaking tour to tout the program. Selling the idea to lawmakers will probably be one of the toughest challenges of his career – and even he admits garnering support will be difficult.

I always welcome your feedback. Feel free to comment here or shoot me a message at

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