WJHL – Recent political mailers alleged political sins committed by Congressional candidates Rusty Crowe and Timothy Hill make claims that are quite open to interpretation, some fact-checking has shown.

Crowe bears the brunt of the attacks, with two mailers labeling him a “liberal” and a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) sent by a political action committee (PAC) that has endorsed Hill.

A third mailer, which lumps Crowe and Hill together as “political pests,” is being sent by the Diana Harshbarger campaign.

Hill, Crowe and Harshbarger were the top three in a June poll among 16 candidates vying for the Republican nomination for the Tennessee First District Congressional seat being vacated by Phil Roe.

News Channel 11 fact-checked some of the claims in the negative mailers and also got comment from the Crowe and Hill campaigns.

Rusty the RINO?

The Club for Growth PAC endorsed Timothy Hill July 7. A few days later, the well-funded PAC that bills itself as committed to economic conservatism began spending money — more than $500,000 — for ads backing Hill and criticizing opponents (so far, Harshbarger and Crowe).

Last week Club for Growth Action released TV ads attacking Harshbarger. News Channel 11 fact-checked those ads and released a story Tuesday.

This week, at least two mailers have been landing in people’s mailboxes that include the same short, bullet-pointed list of allegations.

As a whole, they aim to support the main messages: In one, that Crowe and former Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are “three liberal peas in a pod.” In the other, that with his “liberal friends” and “liberal values” “RINO Rusty Crowe Can’t Be Trusted.”

So, what to believe?

The specifics and citations meant to back them up are the same in both mailers.

One claim is that Crowe “raised taxes on Tennessee families and businesses” (one mailer) and “voted for the largest tax hike in state history” (the other).

That claim relies on two citations. One is a reference to House Bill 534 in 2017, which enabled passage of an increase in Tennessee’s gas tax. According to the VoteSmart website, the bill increased the tax on regular gas in Tennessee by 6 cents per gallon over a total of three years, and by 10 cents for diesel fuel.

VoteSmart shows that the measure passed the Tennessee senate 25-6 with 20 Republicans, including Crowe, voting yes and six opposing.

Fact check: Crowe voted for the gas tax along with more than 75 percent of the Republican senate delegation. The increased taxes were offset by tax cuts in other areas, including taxes on groceries, the Hall Income Tax, and additional favorable tax treatment for some veterans and elderly Tennesseans.

In response, Crowe sent a March 2017 “Nashville Post” article about the opinion a conservative group, Americans for Tax Reform, delivered about the proposed gas tax increase. The Post included a letter from that group’s president, Grover Norquist, saying they did not oppose Tennessee’s proposal and that it didn’t violate ATR’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”

“If a gas tax increase is offset with an equal or greater tax cut elsewhere in the same bill, ATR does not score a vote for such a deal as a tax increase or Taxpayer Protection Pledge violation,” the letter read. “The amended version of SB 1221/HB 534 represents such a Taxpayer Protection Pledge compliant deal. The recent amendments made by the Senate, and supported by Gov. Haslam, have improved the bill to the extent that the bill is now a net tax decrease, and thus not a violation of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. The bill no longer indexes the gas tax to inflation, which means gas tax hikes will not be put on autopilot.”

For his part, Crowe said he “singlehandedly stopped the state income tax,” and listed numerous other examples of what he said amounts to a strong record of tax cutting.

“It’s a shame that my opponents have to resort to negative attacks on me and my service to Tennessee,” Crowe said. “I have proudly served Tennessee and will continue to use our conservative principles to make Tennessee an even better place to live, work and raise a family.”

Another allegation is that Crowe “supported expanding Obamacare in Tennessee.” That allegation cites a Johnson City Press article from 2015 that reported on Crowe’s Senate committee vote in favor of then Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” proposal.

Fact check: Technically correct but skimpy on context. Crowe voted yes when Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal came before the senate Health and Welfare Committee. The plan, which never fully passed the General Assembly, was an effort to get a waiver to expand Medicaid rather than expanding it according to the Affordable Care Act’s guidelines.

Earlier, Crowe had voted “no” on the initial plan as a member of an appointed panel that rejected it 7-4.

Crowe voted with all 22 other senators in 2014 to approve a bill that prohibited Tennessee from expanding Medicaid.

As for his committee vote, he said it came after substantial adjustments to Haslam’s initial plan.

“The governor did put together a Tennessee market based, personal responsibility, non-entitlement plan for needy Tennesseans,” Crowe said. “I did support our Republican governor’s plan.”

The “high-tax agenda” reference also cites a Tennessean article from 2000, “Senate OKs use of tobacco money.” The mailer suggests that whatever action took place as reported in that article involved raising taxes on Tennessee businesses.

Fact check: We couldn’t find that article and can’t make a judgment, but the tobacco settlement itself was not a state-imposed tax increase. Crowe said he had no idea what that article might have been about, either.

The third claim is that Crowe “campaigned with Bill Clinton and Al Gore.” The citation is to a Kingsport Times-News article from October 1986, “Senator seeking help for homeless.”

That article, written six years before Al Gore became Bill Clinton’s running mate, refers to a visit from then-Senator Gore to the Tri-Cities. Crowe is shown in a photo with the visiting senator and future vice president.

Fact Check: Rusty Crowe ran as a Democrat when he won his first term in the state senate in 1990. A Feb. 21, 1992 brief in the Times News lists Crowe among 10 Washington Countians named to “presidential aspirant” Bill Clinton’s Tennessee campaign committee.

Crowe switched parties in late 1995 — a fact well-known to Tri-Citians who follow politics and have lived here long enough to remember.

Snakes in the capitol?

The mailer paid for by the Harshbarger campaign says career politicians “act like snakes” when they assume office. It refers to Crowe and Hill’s combined four decades in politics and say that time has brought over $30 billion in new government spending and “taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants.”

The flyer, which calls the pair “political pests” whose “voting records will disgust you” cites the following four examples:

  • Votes to give taxpayer-funded college tuition to illegal immigrants
  • Votes to let illegal immigrants get Tennessee driver’s licenses
  • Votes for tax hikes
  • Votes for billions in new government spending

Hill responds

Hill is actually only referenced in the point about the budget. Footnotes say he “has voted yes for every single budget” since 2013 as the state’s total budget has gone from $32.7 billion to $39 billion.

Hill had this to say in response: ” I voted against the gas tax hike, I voted against benefits for illegal immigrants, and have fought for the repeal of the Hall income tax and the reduction of the tax on groceries.  It’s sad that Diana Harshbarger, who’s lied about her business selling counterfeit Chinese drugs to veterans and seniors, is now lying about my record.” 

Hill’s campaign also noted that the budget increases amount to an annual increase of about 2.5 percent.

Fact check: The mailer does seem to paint Hill and Crowe together regarding all four bullet points, and only a close look at the footnotes reveal that the only actual reference to Hill is on the budget.

Crowe and illegal immigrants

The mailer’s footnotes don’t reference any particular tax hikes. They do refer to a 2002 Crowe vote “for a bill that would allow drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants” and a 2017 vote for a bill that would give undocumented students in-state tuition at public colleges.

Crowe responded to both points. In 2002, he said, law enforcement officials from across the state were dealing with a situation in which illegal immigrants couldn’t take driving tests or prove their driving ability.

“That was a situation where they were killing people on the roads and law enforcement said, ‘please pass something so they can take a driver’s test,'” Crowe said. He said the card successful applicants received “could be used for nothing other than driving. It couldn’t be used for identification much less voting.”

Fact check: The mailer doesn’t actually refer to an article or Senate bill, instead referring again to the tuition bill after mentioning drivers’ licenses. A 2004 Baltimore Sun article, though, seems to back up Crowe’s claim.

That article talks about a “certificate of driving” in Tennessee that identified holders as non-U.S. citizens. The cards all said “for driving purposes only — not valid for identification.”

“The purple card represents Tennessee’s effort to solve a problem that has troubled many states,” the article said. “Faced with huge numbers of illegal immigrants driving the nation’s highways, legislators have searched for a way to license and insure them — without granting them a state-issued driver’s license.”

The card drew criticism from both immigration rights activists and conservatives, but it was not a drivers’ license.

As for the tuition bill, Crowe voted yes when the Senate Education Committee recommended 7-2 in March 2017 to advance Republican Sen. Ron Gardenhire’s bill that would have approved in-state tuition for undocumented students.

The measure did not pass the full general assembly in 2018. It would have applied to undocumented students who had attended school in Tennessee for at least their junior and senior years of high school, had graduated and were registered to enter or were enrolled at a state college or university.

Crowe said the students in question were those brought “due to no fault of their own, to this country by their illegal alien parents.” He said those students still would not have been eligible for Tennessee Promise, the Hope scholarship or what he called “any other ‘free’ higher ed.

“The bill in question would have only ‘allowed them to pay’ in-state tuition if they graduated from one of our high schools.”

Fact check: Crowe voted for this measure and owned up to the fact.