To political pundits, late-night comedians and partisan fundraisers, state Sen. Stacey Campfield is the gift that keeps on giving. “Extremist,” “opportunist” and “buffoon” are words his detractors have used to describe the Knoxville Republican.
His supporters say he is “brave,” “dedicated” and “effective” for his sponsorship of culture war bills that gin up support among his base.
Whatever you may think of Campfield, it would be wrong to simply dismiss him as a clown. Passage of his legislative agenda would have a very real and very negative impact on many Tennesseans.
That makes him a dangerous fellow.
One Capitol Hill insider told me last week that Campfield is probably better known nationwide than Gov. Bill Haslam. More Americans learned of Campfield this month when Jay Leno cracked jokes about him.
Campfield has introduced an even more insidious version of his infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would require school officials to report any suspected gay behavior on the part of students to their parents.
He is also sponsoring legislation (dubbed the “Starve the Children Bill” by Tennessee Democrats) to reduce welfare payments to families with children who are failing in school.
It was a cable TV interview Campfield gave on the latter bill that Leno thought was so funny. Campfield told MSNBC that while he doesn’t expect poor children to be what he called “rocket surgeons,” he does believe they should earn good grades.
None of Campfield’s critics are laughing at his legislative package, and leaders of his own party are showing signs they have lost patience with his antics. The 44-year-old bachelor blogger has waged a one-man war on gay rights, telling TMZ interviewers that homosexuals are bullies. Comments like that have earned Campfield the ACLU’s contempt and praise from right-wing cultural warriors.
Before being tapped as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s communications director in 2011, A.C. Kleinheider was an award-winning political blogger for NashvillePost.com. He wrote a column in 2009 in which he expressed admiration for Campfield’s work ethic and the lawmaker’s “testicular fortitude” for often running afoul of his party’s leadership.
“His principles may be wrong, but his politics are immaculate,” he wrote.
Kleinheider’s boss, however, is showing signs that he has grown weary of Campfield’s stunts. In a recent “Pith in the Wind” post on NashvilleScene.com, Betsy Phillips writes Ramsey was visibly uncomfortable and seen rolling his eyes when a reporter asked him about Campfield’s latest attempt to pass his “Don’t Say Gay” bill. (A video of the exchange can be found on the website.)
Ramsey said Campfield’s legislation wasn’t even on his “radar screen,” and told reporters that there “are some things that should be left inside the family and some things don’t need to be in public.”
That being said, it remains to be seen if Ramsey has asked Campfield to dial down the crazy. For better or for worse, Campfield is a rising star of the Republican Party in Tennessee.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.