Election 2020

Leatherwood, Mills clash in Republican primary for House District 99

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 20, 2020 4:51 PM CT | Published: July 19, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles about all the races on the ballot as the July 17-Aug. 1 early voting period for the Aug. 6 election begins.

State Rep. Tom Leatherwood says his experience is needed to help steer Tennessee in the right direction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Challenger Lee Mills calls his opponent a “career politician” who “left a mess” in the Shelby County Register of Deeds Office.

Leatherwood and Mills are squaring off in the Republican primary Aug. 6 for state House District 99. The winner will represent Arlington and parts of Bartlett, Lakeland, Millington and unincorporated Shelby County. No Democrat is running for the seat, so the winner of the primary will capture the race for a two-year term.

<strong>Tom Leatherwood (left) and Lee Mills</strong>

Tom Leatherwood (left) and Lee Mills

“I think opening the economy is the first issue, and along with opening the economy up we need to continue reviewing our taxes and regulations and just becoming even more business- friendly – especially for small business, which we know is the backbone of the economy, hires more people, helping them recover and get back to where we were at the beginning of this year,” said the 63-year-old Leatherwood, a former teacher and father of five.

The Arlington Republican served two terms in the state Senate, then a long tenure as Shelby County Register of Deeds. He lost a local county race before landing the District 99 seat after state Rep. Ron Lollar died in 2018. Republican executive committee members selected Leatherwood as their candidate, and he defeated Democrat David Cambron to win the post.

When Mills, 45, a FedEx airline captain, announced his candidacy in August 2019, he said he wasn’t going to attack Leatherwood, whom he called a friend.

Yet his election mantra takes plenty of digs at his opponent.

While on the campaign trail, he tells people he’s running against a “career politician,” someone who flipped his vote on the state’s Education Savings Account vote after feeling pressure.

“He’s been in office nearly 30 years and it’s really hard to name one accomplishment. He left a mess in the Register of Deeds Office. … 15 years out of compliance with state public records. The cleanup that was begun is probably going to cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” Mills said.

Leatherwood was the Register of Deeds when he reached an agreement with then-county Mayor AC Wharton to store county records, but at the time funding was not provided for 10 employees to maintain, scan and retrieve records. The register’s constitutional duties include keeping the county’s historic archives, though not the records for other elected offices. And new Register of Deeds Shelandra Ford is trying to restructure the records retention center, which could cost millions of dollars.

Records storage isn’t the only issue Mills is using to hammer Leatherwood.

Mills, an Arlington resident who previously chaired the Shelby County Republican Party, contends his opponent told local leaders he would not support Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher proposal in 2019. In fact, Leatherwood voted against it in an education subcommittee.

On the House floor, though, Leatherwood said he was satisfied with changes to the program, including removal of home-school students, and wound up voting for it.

Mills said Leatherwood caved in to pressure from the governor, then-Speaker Glen Casada and “outside money groups,” and “suddenly swapped his vote.”

The measure, which would provide state funds for qualifying students in Shelby and Metro Nashville schools to enroll in private schools, barely passed after Casada held the board open for nearly 45 minutes and worked the chamber. He finally persuaded state Rep. Jason Zachary, a Knoxville Republican, to break a tie vote.

Shelby County and Metro Nashville filed suit against the state to stop the program from taking effect, and a Davidson County chancellor this year found it unconstitutional. On hold for at least a year, it is to go before the Tennessee Court of Appeals for arguments in early August.

“Representatives have to represent the district and he didn’t represent the district, because there’s not one mayor, not one school board member or one superintendent that supported vouchers,” Mills said.

Leatherwood still supports ESAs, calling it a “good program” and saying it won’t harm municipal school districts. Those districts, however, receive funds through Shelby County, which stands to lose tens of millions eventually, according to opponents of the program.

“I support school choice, as does the National Republican Party platform and Donald Trump and Gov. Lee. And my district supports school choice,” Leatherwood says. “But it does give some kids in failing schools an opportunity. So it is very worthwhile. I think it was the moral and right thing to do.”

The incumbent didn’t poll the 99th District, instead saying he bases his view on the district’s conservative Republican politics; support for Trump, who tweeted backing for the ESA bill; and the popularity of Lee, who campaigned on school choice. The governor didn’t unveil his plan for vouchers until after he was elected.

Leatherwood also defends the Legislature’s June action on 4% teacher pay raises, which were eliminated from the state budget because of the pandemic after the state cut them in half as part of an emergency budget in March.

“That’s what we wanted to do,” Leatherwood said of giving the raise, “but then COVID came, revenue plummeted. And there’s another principle, a conservative fiscal principle -- we balance the budget in Tennessee, and I believe that’s the right thing to do.”

Funding was increased for education overall but not for teacher pay, he pointed out. State law requires the Legislature to pass a balanced budget.

Leatherwood, whose wife teaches in public schools, said teachers are “very happy” they didn’t experience any pay reductions during the outset of the pandemic, as thousands of other Tennesseans lost jobs or businesses.

He contends the decision on teacher pay is being “mischaracterized” but argues that the Legislature did not slash teacher pay.

“We will get back to our boom days again, and then we can fulfill our goals for the future in education we were unable to fulfill this year,” he said, arguing his “experience” will be a factor in state leadership.

Backing small business

Leatherwood supported a COVID liability immunity bill that would have put tougher litigation rules in place to give businesses, schools and other organizations greater protections from potential “frivolous” lawsuits.

It also would have been retroactive to April 2, which even House Republican argued would be unconstitutional. The House declined to approve an agreement hammered out by a conference committee of House and Senate members.

The incumbent also says he backs the elimination of the professional privilege tax, which was not approved, and phasing out the Hall income tax on interest and dividends.

A House version of the budget would have kept 1% of the Hall tax in place until 2025, but the Senate version kept it on track to expire by 2021 and was ultimately approved.

A special session of the Legislature is being considered for the second week of August, though the governor has not called lawmakers back to Nashville yet.

Leatherwood said he would continue to support passage of the COVID liability immunity, which still doesn’t appear to have agreement between the Senate and House.

He also backs a telemedicine bill that has been caught up in disagreement between the two chambers, and he believes the Legislature needs to review the rules for states of emergency to determine whether the General Assembly should have more authority.

Endorsements abound

Leatherwood received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and the National Federation of Independent Business. He also has a significant funding advantage over Mills, raising more than $82,700, with contributions from House Republican leaders, Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, state Rep. Michael Curcio and Majority Leader William Lamberth, as well as Zachary. He had $74,750 in his account on July 11 after spending $12,000 on signs and advertising.

Mills had $8,400 in the bank as of July 4 after spending $5,000 on advertising and campaign mailers. He also made $2,000 in self-endorsed loans to his campaign and spent that money on shirts, hats, signs and advertising.

Mills knows he’s the underdog, so he and his team have gone on an extensive door-knocking campaign to spread his message. He said he also has the support of the Tennessee Firearms Association and A rating from the NRA, as well as the support of the Shelby County Deputy Sheriffs Association and endorsements from school board members throughout District 99.

He hits Leatherwood hardest on education issues, mainly his vote on vouchers and the final decision on teacher pay this year. He and his wife, Shelby County Commissioner Amber Mills, have two children in Arlington City Schools.

“Let’s say I did support vouchers. How can you support the way that it was passed? How can you support the bribes? How can you support the pressure that the governor and the speaker of the House put on those members?” Mills asked.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and FBI conducted probes into the vote to determine whether any bribes were made, but no indictments have been made.

Mills, who also said he supports term limits, said he would have made a stronger stand for the teacher pay increases, which would have cost about $115 million.

“We’ve got to support our teachers in our public schools. In the municipalities – Bartlett, Arlington, Millington and Lakeland in District 99 – those are the most important things out there,” Mills said. “Low taxes and great schools, and if you lose the great schools, you’re going to start losing population, and I don’t want to lose great schools.”

Other Republican primary races

After winning a special election two years ago, state Sen. Paul Rose of Covington is seeking a four-year term against challenger Scott Throckmorton of Collierville for the Senate District 32 seat. Throckmorton served 25 years in the Navy and Army Reserve.

On his website, Throckmorton, a security director at Hutchison School, says he does not support school voucher programs “due to potential negative impact on our public schools in various ways.”

Rose, owner of Rose Construction, spoke in favor of the governor’s ESA program on the Senate floor and voted for it.

With veteran Republican state Rep. Jim Coley stepping away from the House District 97 seat because of his health, John Gillespie, a grant coordinator for Trezevant Episcopal Home, and Brandon Weise, a Shelby County Register of Deeds Office employee, are running to replace him.

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Tom Leatherwood Lee Mills Paul Rose Scott Throckmorton John Gillespie Brandon Weise
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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