Tennessee lawmaker under fire after interview comments

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, asks a question during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. T...

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, asks a question during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. T...

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A Republican lawmaker from Chattanooga is under fire for comments made during a local TV interview in which he blamed “inner city” obesity partly on people eating fried chicken and criticized the local police department's hiring practices.

“The obesity rate in the inner city is bigger than anywhere else. Because ... they go to a 7-Eleven or a convenience store, there’s fried chicken so they get them some fried chicken on the way home and have dinner on that. Well, that’s the worst thing you can eat,” state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who is white, said in an interview with WTVC-TV, which was aired Thursday.

Gardenhire, who did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment, is currently running for re-election against Democrat Glenn Scruggs, who is Chattanooga’s assistant police chief.

“Contrary to Gardenhire’s statements, health concerns are not limited to urban areas. These issues affect all Tennesseans, rural or urban, regardless of race,” said Scruggs, who is Black.

Also during the interview, Gardenhire briefly suggested that a police officer should not arrest a person caught driving drunk, but should instead drive that individual home if the officer knows the person.

“Do you throw them in jail for the rest of your life? No. You say, ‘Look, we’re gonna take you home. Don’t do this again. I know your momma. I know your daddy,’” Gardenhire said.

He made the comment while advocating for hiring more Black officers who were from Chattanooga. Gardenhire criticized the local police chief for not working with the community to boost diversity among the police department.

However, when pressed about whether he was in favor of letting drunk drivers go, Gardenhire later said he was talking about intoxicated people who were sitting in their car.

“You don’t throw somebody on the ground, throw handcuffs on them, everybody pile on them because they were drinking," Gardenhire said. "That’s my point. If somebody’s driving, if somebody’s driving the car DUI, that’s a different story. I didn’t say that.”

Mayor Andy Berke on Thursday told reporters that Gardenhire's comments were “out of touch" and he was proud of the city's police department commitment to be more inclusive.

Fred Fletcher, who served as Chattanooga's chief of police between 2014 and 2017, tweeted that Gardenhire's remarks were “bigoted and inflammatory.”

“If he had spoken with CPD, or accepted the invitation to debate me, he would know that we have spent the last 10 years actively recruiting from our local Black and brown communities,” Scruggs said.

Meanwhile, Senate Speaker Randy McNally defended Gardenhire, explaining that the lawmaker's “candid style often leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.”

"I am confident he did not intend any offense or disrespect,” McNally said.