WJHL – Two former mayors and two state legislators are called “DC snakes” and accused of voting “to raise your taxes and give your money to illegal immigrants” in an attack ad released Friday by fellow First District Congressional candidate Diana Harshbarger’s campaign.

The ad goes after State Senator Rusty Crowe, State Representative Timothy Hill, former Kingsport mayor John Clark and former Johnson City mayor Steve Darden. It also accuses the group collectively of “lying, trying to discredit my lifetime of hard work.”

Diana Harshbarger

Harshbarger, a Kingsport pharmacist who is largely self-funding her campaign and has never held elected office, was the front-runner in a late June poll conducted for News Channel 11.

Our news organization is fact-checking as many negative ads as possible in an effort to provide a public service.

Clark and Darden both disputed the ad’s facts in phone interviews. Darden called the claims “a bizarre allegation” and Clark said “I really don’t know what she’s talking about.”

The ad begins with the camera on Harshbarger, who says “they’re lying about me, trying to discredit my lifetime of hard work.”

That is probably a reference to ads released by two political action committees that link Harshbarger to a business, American Inhalation Medication Specialists (AIMS), which was the center of a federal case that landed Robert Harshbarger Jr., her husband, in federal prison for four years.

The ad continues with a voiceover that says “these four snakes have been in politics for 80 years combined. They voted to raise your taxes and give your money to illegal immigrants.”

News Channel 11 sent the Harshbarger campaign a list of questions about the allegations but had not heard back when we posted this story.

They’re lying about me

Fact check: A PAC affiliated with the Club for Growth, which endorsed Hill, released an ad last week linking Diana Harshbarger to AIMS — something she and her campaign denied when asked in May and again last week, saying she had nothing to do with the company.

News Channel 11 reported earlier this week that Diana Harshbarger was the company’s secretary, a director, and was listed as a shareholder.

As our investigation found, while that meant it was legally and factually incorrect for Harshbarger to say she “had nothing to do with” the company, no documents directly proved — or disproved — that she profited from AIMS.

Another PAC, “Bless Your Heart Coalition,” released a similar ad last week. News Channel 11 has not been able to determine whether that PAC supports any particular candidate or who has donated to it.

Steve Darden

Aside from Hill’s endorsement by Club for Growth and its attack ad, Clark and Darden both said they’d made no mention of AIMS in ads or on the campaign trail.

“That is a matter of public record and some of the other candidates have brought up that issue, the fact that her family’s been involved in a criminal business,” Clark said.

Reached by phone as was Clark, Darden said: “I’m not the one who brought up her company’s previous business dealings so I’m not sure why she’s attacking me. I can only assume it’s because of the momentum that is behind my campaign.”

Taxes, immigrants and political tenure

Many years in politics — but not 80

That is an easy allegation to fact check unless one wants to quibble over the definition of “in politics.”

Rusty Crowe

Rusty Crowe was elected to the Tennessee senate in November 1990. Timothy Hill was elected to the Tennessee House in 2012. Steve Darden served 10 years on the Johnson City Commission. John Clark served eight years as a Kingsport alderman and mayor.

Rounding up, that still adds up to 56 years, with Crowe accounting for more than half of it. Throw in Hill’s time as an aide to one-term First District Congressman David Davis and the total remains shy of 60 years.

‘They voted to raise your taxes and give your money to illegal immigrants’

On the tax front, it is not completely accurate to claim to all First District voters that the two former mayors “raised your taxes,” but Clark was happy to review the record.

He said Kingsport didn’t raise taxes during his 2012-2019 tenure but did implement its first-ever garbage fee of $8 a month. State records and the city’s own annual report, though, do show a 13-cent increase to Kingsport’s property tax, from $1.94 to $2.07, in 2014.

John Clark

The city’s rate dropped to $1.975 after a countywide reappraisal in 2017 but increased again in 2019 to $2.06.

In Johnson City, taxes increased once, by three cents, during Darden’s tenure. Darden also wondered aloud about the reference to illegal immigrants.

“That’s a bizarre allegation,” Darden said. “I never allocated any money at all  from a Johnson City budget to illegal immigrants during my 10 years of presiding over balanced budgets.”

What about the Nashville duo?

Crowe and Hill both responded to the ad’s contents via statements. Crowe didn’t directly address the question of tax increases.

“Diana continues to show her corruption with her false attacks and lies against me and my conservative record of service to our country and our state,” Crowe said.

He said he “hadn’t gone down that road” and wouldn’t, added that the district needed “a proven conservative leader” and said he was ready to “take on the liberals” and “work with President Trump to create jobs…”

Crowe does have some votes to increase taxes on his 30-year Senate record, including a gas tax hike pointed out in a mailer criticizing him earlier this week. He explained to News Channel 11 that the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform scored as not violating its “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” because it was offset by tax cuts exceeding its projected revenue.

As for immigrants, Crowe voted in committee in 2017 to advance fellow Republican Ron Gardenhire’s bill that would have approved in-state tuition for undocumented students. That bill came close to passage but never succeeded.

Crowe said the students in question were those brought “due to no fault of their own, to this country by their illegal alien parents.”

Fact check: Rusty Crowe has voted to raise taxes at least once during his Senate tenure. And if Gardenhire’s bill had passed, it would have indirectly “given money to illegal immigrants” by decreasing the amount of tuition they owed if they attended a state university.

Timothy Hill

We couldn’t find any votes Timothy Hill has cast on undocumented immigrants that could pertain to them receiving money directly or indirectly. He also voted against the 2017 gas tax joining 34 other Republicans in opposition.

That tax passed the House 60-37 with 36 Republicans voting in favor.

Hill stood by his record on taxes in a statement.

“I have one of the most consistent records opposing tax hikes in Tennessee, and I have led the fight to repeal and decrease taxes like the Hall Income Tax and the tax on groceries.”