Thumbnail: Tennessee Senator Brian Kelsey mixes his elected office with his right wing employer’s agenda in Nashville.  Once again, he’s pitching a constitutional amendment as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.


It’s impossible to tell whether Tennessee Senator Brian Kelsey is representing his constituents or the right wing lobbying group that employs him.

And his employer, the Liberty Justice Center, likes it that way.

Mr. Kelsey’s latest is his so-called right-to-work law constitutional amendment. 

Once again, he sets out to stir up a culture war on an issue that is a priority for Liberty Justice Center, another one of those hyper-conservative groups hiding behind a patriotic-sounding façade that is in truth a dog whistle for the far right. 

That’s where Mr. Kelsey comes in.  He is a senior attorney for the Liberty Justice Center.  It proudly states that “we work for people, not profit.”

That’s not precisely true because the profits it cares about are the ones for corporations.  Its view is that government exists support capitalism at all costs, including exploitation of workers.

A Familiar Play

After all, if Mr. Kelsey and the Liberty Justice Center were really concerned about workers, they would be doing just the opposite.  After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said workers in states without “right-to-work” laws earn an average of $9,000 a year more than those who work in states without these laws. To compound the problem for workers in “right to work” states, they are less likely to be offered health insurance and if they are, they are more likely to pay higher premiums. 

The grandstanding by Sen. Kelsey is of course a regular feature in Nashville, and his latest call for a constitutional amendment is a replay of his greatest hits: the successful push to amend the Tennessee Constitution to prevent an income tax in the future. 

We’ve seen this play by him before: his push for an amendment is a solution in search of a problem.  There’s already a 74-year-old state law about this, but that’s not enough for Mr. Kelsey who customarily plays to the lowest common denominator definition of leadership: anti-union, anti-urban, and anti-Black.

In this case, as he has done in the past, he resorts to his playbook with what should be a rare action – a constitutional amendment – to handcuff democracy in the future.  Because of the far right’s rigid beliefs in their positions – not to mention themselves – acolytes like Mr. Kelsey see his purpose as limiting the options of future generations in the context of their times.

It is a form of legislative demagoguery by people who are such true believers on their partisan high horses that they are not content to legislate but to mandate. 

Pandering: A Priority

The fact is that Mr. Kelsey’s elected position and his reactionary successes here are leveraged by the Liberty Justice Center as door openers in other cities and states.  Meanwhile, back here, his legislative job is essentially lobbying Liberty Justice Center’s agenda and introducing his employer and its far right agenda to his fellow legislators.

It’s no wonder that the Tennessee Legislature is considered one of the worst in the nation.

While the state economy fails to compete with other states, while the racial income gap continues to grow, and while the educational system remains low in the rankings, legislators like Mr. Kelsey are more interested in dredging up hot button issues.

With all the problems facing Tennessee, they focus on transgendered children in order to stigmatize them and marginalize them at a time when they most need understanding and empathy.

While wrapping their positions with their hyperbole in God, they step in and play God by getting between a woman and her doctor and her God with sensationalized and anti-scientific terms like “fetal heartbeat.” 

They block Tennessee from taking advantage of Medicaid expansion which would save the lives of thousands of our fellow citizens.  They fight old culture wars on LGBTQ rights and regularly use their Bible as a cudgel to beat up God’s children who look different, who act different, and who love different.

Anti-Union, Anti-Urban, Anti-Black

They push vouchers under the rubric of “school choice” as a way to reward private schools despite its negative impacts on public schools.  (Mr. Kelsey’s employers are also filing lawsuits on school vouchers.)  They’ve worried about Sharia Law and beat up Muslims when that was politically fashionable.

Mr. Kelsey has fought against absentee voting expansions in the midst of a pandemic as part of the Republican Party’s voter suppression plans.  He has pushed for state interference to push Shelby County Schools students back to the classroom and questioned the integrity of Superintendent Joris Ray as merely a tool of the teachers’ union at the same time Sen. Kelsey is a tool of the Liberty Justice Center.

Most of all, he has proposed more amendments to the Tennessee Constitution than any politician in modern history.  One of them prevents Tennessee from instituting a personal income tax which institutionalized one of the most regressive, upside down tax structures in the U.S.

Looking at the present constitutional amendment proposal, Irvin Calliste, president of the AFL-CIO Labor Council, summed it up well: “It follows the same logic as school privatization or defunding our community programs – whatever lifts up poor people and Black and brown people especially.”

Arrogance At Work

The constitutional amendment is couched in a lot of high-flown wording, but the truth is that it’s all about union-busting and putting a thumb on the scales to give corporations the edge in contract negotiations with workers. As the Liberty Justice Center proudly puts it, it is fighting union strongholds and “freeing” workers from their unions, bragging about taking away $162 million in dues for California unions alone.

While the Liberty Justice Center spends some of its $2.2 million budget to mobilize its all-white staff of attorneys to decry unions for using their dues for political advocacy, at the same time, it’s using special interest donations to do the same.

In pursuit of this, Senator Kelsey appears in other cities to talk about the special interest organization’s latest lawsuit.  The fact that he is a state legislator leading efforts in his home state adds cachet to his appearances elsewhere as a star of Liberty Justice Center.

Sadlly, it’s governing that’s equal parts arrogance, self-righteousness, and a certitude that he is always right.  

The case study for the real world consequences of this me-first politics is in destroying Insure Tennessee – former Governor Bill Haslam’s common sense Medicaid expansion plan. 

They sacrificed the health and lives of Tennesseans on the altar of their own political ambition.

More Lies

Just as he did when he pushed an amendment to the constitution to preserve a tax structure that disproportionately puts the cost of government on lower income families, Mr. Kelsey and other legislators claim that his latest constitutional amendment would protect Tennessee’s economy. 

It defies reality since Tennessee’s economy is far outpaced by states with higher tax rates and no right-to-work laws. But in an environment where the Big Lie regularly accompanies the political posturing of the state’s legislative super-majority, the facts hardly register at all.

They contend that they are fighting for workers’ freedom. Of course, they do just the opposite when it comes to women and that men know best when it comes to their freedom when it comes to their own bodies.

Such is the hypocrisy and duplicity that dominate in the Tennessee Legislature but it is also an operating principle for the Liberty Justice Center. 

Selling A Legislator

It claims that it was founded “with the vision of restraining government,” but that’s a lie.  Rather, it wants to restrain government policies it opposes while injecting government into all kinds of personal and private decisions.  Like many right wing organizations, it defines “restrain” to its purpose. 

Liberty Justice Center also muddies the dividing line between Mr. Kelsey’s elected office and his right wing employer.

In pitching him outside of Tennessee, Liberty Justice Center writes that he “partnered with Daniel Suhr to spreadhead LJC’s school choice practice, starting with two cases in Brian’s home state of Tennessee that defend a 2019 school choice law for which Brian was a critical advocate in the State Senate and drafted the final language of the bill.”

In selling its services, it also boasts that Mr. Kelsey “is the only legislator in Tennessee history to sponsor two successful amendments to the state constitution.” 

In other words, it’s never possible to tell who Mr. Kelsey really works for – the citizens of Tennessee or Liberty Justice Center.


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