THE BLOG
10/29/2014 03:39 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

Hobby-Nobbing: Company Men and Republicans Attack Privacy This Election

More than half of Americans support privacy, including women's right to choose abortion, and say stronger limits against government intrusion should be a priority for lawmakers. Many Republicans, gunning for complete control of Congress, make appeals to liberty, individual rights, and undoing a federal health care law they call a government overreach central to their pitch.

Joni Ernst, Iowa's Republican candidate for Senate, even went so far as to justify gun violence in defense of privacy. "I believe in the right to defend myself and my family, whether it's from an intruder, or whether it's from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important," she said, referring to her 9-millimeter handgun.

So why are Republicans at every level of government waging an assault on privacy in the state of Tennessee? And why should Americans care that some of the state's biggest names in business, one tied to past health care fraud, are leading the charge?

Tennessee's Amendment 1 would overturn privacy safeguards in the state constitution. It's a permission slip for government meddling in residents' private lives. Republicans' all-out push to pass it shows a concerted program to demolish both state and federal precedents that protect privacy, including the landmark 1965 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v Connecticut, recognizing a married woman's right to use contraceptives.

Conservatives responded to alarms about the Supreme Court's ruling this June in the Hobby Lobby case by saying consumers' health and right to exercise their rights freely were not endangered. Bill O'Reilly on Fox called allegations of any threat to privacy "propaganda" and ridiculed them as "this stuff."

The ruling handed some private corporations greater control over women workers' access to FDA-approved contraceptives. GOP candidates mostly stuck to a common response to the dramatic 5-4 decision, cheering it as pro-business but denying any broader onslaught against women or privacy. Yet the full-scale Republican attack on a constitutional protection now occurring in Tennessee, and business executives' investment in the attack, show the dimensions of their lie.

For more than a decade, Republicans in Tennessee bided their time until they had the political power to attack a state supreme court ruling from 2000 that guaranteed protection against government interference in reproductive privacy. Election results four years ago gave them control of the legislature and the governor's office. But that wasn't enough. To undo a constitutional protection for privacy, voters would have to approve a change. Enter Amendment 1, which Republican legislators and GOP governor Bill Haslam placed on the November 4 ballot. The ballot measure asks voters to rewrite the constitution and hand over to lawmakers the authority to ban abortion even in the case of rape, incest, or risk to a woman's life.

Amendment 1 represents a test case in conservatives' effort to build on Hobby Lobby by using political power to remove legal and constitutional foundations for individual privacy. The campaign to pass it highlights the pivotal role of corporate money in that strategy.

According to the most recent campaign contribution reports filed this month with the state ethics commission, executives from Pictsweet, a family-owned frozen vegetable company, gave more than $11,000 in the most recent quarter. That built on support by a local franchise of the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain, which sponsored a June fund-raising event in Smyrna for Amendment 1. The restaurant weathered a firestorm of backlash in 2012 after its chief operating officer Dan Cathy assailed same-sex marriage. And last year, several Tennessee women joined in a protest against a Knoxville Chick-fil-A that broke a state law by asking a customer who was nursing her child on premises to stop.

Another contributor is a member of the wealthy Gregory pharmaceutical family: James Gregory of Bristol, Tenn., gave more than $50,000.

The Gregorys are no stranger to legal and political attacks on privacy. Nor are they unfamiliar with the ability of companies to profit from such attacks. In 1998, Monarch, a subsidiary of King Pharmaceuticals then headed by James' brothers Jeff and John Gregory, acquired the drug Altace, a treatment for high blood pressure. Altace, though bringing in about $90 million a year in sales for its prior owner Hoechst, had become something of an orphan. That's because Hoechst and two of its subsidiaries had come under a boycott threat from U.S. anti-abortion activists in 1994 over another Hoechst subsidiary, Roussel Uclaf, and its product RU-486, or mifepristone.

Mifepristone is a manufactured steroid that inhibits fertilized eggs from implanting in a woman's uterus. It allows for patients, under a doctor's guidance and with a prescription, to end an unwanted pregnancy safely up to 9 weeks after conception without surgery. Political interference in the drug-approval process by the extreme right wing delayed but did not ultimately quash access to RU-486 in the U.S. In 2000, the FDA approved mifepristone for American physicians to use. It has proved remarkably safe and effective, and reduced the need for surgical abortions. More than a third of abortions in the first two months of unwanted pregnancies now involve the treatment.

Meanwhile, the acquisition of Altace by Monarch and King amid the anti-abortion politicking, proved immensely lucrative for the Gregorys. They became some of the most generous donors in conservative politics. John founded the Tennessee Conservative Political Action Committee and helped create the Family Action Council to lead the attack on the rights of LGBT people and families in the state. Federal campaign financial disclosure records indicate that in 2005, he tried to give $250,000 to the Republican National Committee, nearly all of which it returned because the sum vastly exceeded allowable donation limits. James Gregory, like his three brothers, became one of the most generous donors to far-right, Tea-Party candidates, such as Sharron Angle in Nevada and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who called pregnancies resulting from rape "something that God intended to happen."

In the decade before Pfizer acquired King Pharmaceuticals in 2010, allegations of impropriety touched the company and the Gregorys. In 2003, the company faced a class-action lawsuit that cited deceptive dealings with large quantities of unused flu vaccine that it sold through channels back to a nonprofit controlled by the company itself. In 2006, King settled a Medicaid fraud case for $124 million after facing allegation that for eight years, it had misreported prices of some of its drugs to the federal government and underpaid rebates to states through the federal Medicaid Drug Rebate Program, created under legislation signed by former Republican president George H.W. Bush.

The Gregory name on donations to pass Amendment 1 highlights the role of corporate money in attacking privacy. But the Gregorys, among the largest donors to Republican politics in Tennessee, need the GOP and its Tea-Party extreme to carry out the assault. Congressional Tea-Party caucus member Stephen Fincher gave $10,000. He made headlines in 2013 for invoking the Bible to call food stamps a handout and demand cuts, all while having accepted more than $3 million in federal farm subsidies. His fellow Republican member of the House, Marsha Blackburn, gave $1,200. More than 15 state lawmakers, including a who's-who of the Republican-dominated state House, made financial donations. So did several county Republican parties. Even Republican U.S. senator Lamar Alexander got into the act, donating $200.

In an awkward and contradictory twist for a policy change promoted as "pro-life," the campaign to pass Amendment 1 also accepted $1,000 from a firearm business called The Shooting Shop.

Under the guise of conservatism and limited government, Republican politicians are leveraging corporate donors to build on the Hobby Lobby ruling and roll back legal safeguards on privacy. In 2006, one of the advocacy groups now waging the battle against privacy in Tennessee gave the Gregory family "much credit for the shift in Tennessee's political landscape." For women and residents worried about government intrusion into their personal decisions, that shift tilts the playing field severely, against ordinary people.

Less than a century ago, in 1920, Tennessee lawmakers ratified the 19th Amendment that allowed American women the right to vote in federal elections. The current drive by Republicans and corporate allies to uproot safeguards for privacy and women's rights undermines that legacy. And it threatens basic rights at the core of our republic, as more than two generations of Americans have come to know it.