Veteran legislator, longtime Holy Ghost Parish member honored for his service to the state and pro-life movement
By Bill Brewer
Rep. Bill Dunn, a state legislator whose 26 years in the House helped swing Tennessee from a pro-abortion General Assembly to one that has become decidedly pro-life, received the 2020 Lifetime Advocate Award from Tennessee Right to Life at an annual banquet Oct. 27.
More than 300 East and Middle Tennessee prolife supporters gathered at the West Knoxville event venue Bridgewater Place for the Celebration of Life dinner.
Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, presented the award to Rep. Dunn as the longtime state lawmaker ends his legislative tenure. Rep. Dunn, who also briefly served as speaker of the House of Representatives during a tumultuous time last summer, announced earlier this year that he was retiring from the General Assembly and would not seek another two-year term.
Rep. Dunn and his family are lifelong members of Holy Ghost Church. Father Bill McNeeley, pastor of Holy Ghost Parish, gave the banquet invocation.
Mr. Harris said he first met Bill Dunn in 1993 at a Tennessee Right to Life state board meeting when Mr. Dunn was still president of TRL’s Knox County chapter, just before his election to the House. The TRL president remarked that as he has worked closely with Rep. Dunn through the years on important sanctity-of-life issues, he has come to admire Rep. Dunn’s “servant leadership. His courage, humor, and his humility.”
“Bill has proven to be a man of few words. He doesn’t raise his voice. He does not pontificate. But those of us who have watched over the decades know to listen carefully when he speaks,” Mr. Harris said. “The writer of Proverbs tells us that pride will ruin people, but those who are humble will be honored. That’s why we are here, and I am pleased to present to Bill, on behalf of the board, the staff, and members and voters of Tennessee Right to Life, with the 2020 Lifetime Advocate Award to our friend, mentor, and servant leader, the Honorable Bill Dunn.”
In addition to Rep. Dunn, Mr. Harris recognized the pro-life contributions of a number of Tennessee lawmakers, several of whom paid tribute to Rep. Dunn during the dinner. Mr. Harris singled out Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and former Congresswoman Diane Black, who also is a former state representative and state senator, for their work on behalf of the sanctity of life.
“We’ve talked about warriors, and many of these legislators are warriors. But there have been some generals. And I would be remiss not to acknowledge the longtime work and leadership of Congresswoman Diane Black and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally for the unborn,” Mr. Harris said.
He also recognized the Dunn family, who have defended the sanctity of life since the earliest days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that gave women in every state the right to an abortion, superseding local, state, or federal laws.
“It’s a tremendous honor to join with all of you in paying tribute to one of our state’s most committed and effective pro-life heroes; not only to Honorable Bill Dunn, but also to his entire family, especially his wife, Stacy, his parents, Paul and Mary Dunn, and his brother, Paul Dunn III, who have devoted their lives to paving the road toward victory,” Mr. Harris said.
Several current and former lawmakers paid tribute to Rep. Dunn, not only for his support of the sanctity of life but also for his efforts on state fiscal matters, education, and other legislative initiatives.
Lt. Gov. McNally, who is a member of St. Mary Parish in Oak Ridge and a longtime colleague of Rep. Dunn, presented the retiring House member with a state of Tennessee proclamation signed by him and House Speaker Cameron Sexton.
The proclamation read, in part, “Whereas Bill Dunn has wholly committed to the noble precepts of public service that have earned Tennessee recognition as the Volunteer State and should be honored in this special occasion. Therefore I, Randy McNally, speaker of the 111th General Assembly of the state of Tennessee, in conjunction with Cameron Sexton, speaker of the House of Representatives of the 111th General Assembly of the state of Tennessee, do hereby proclaim that we honor and commend Rep. Dunn for his meritorious service to the state of Tennessee and extend to him best wishes for continued success and happiness.”
“It’s been a pleasure serving with you. For a while, the Knoxville area had the speaker of the Senate, the speaker of the House, and the governor, Gov. Bill Haslam. It was just a pleasure, over the years, that I’ve had the privilege of working with Bill. He has not only been a leader in the legislature in pro-life issues but also in fiscal matters. I really do appreciate his leadership and what he has done at a very tumultuous time when he stepped in and took the reins of the House of Representatives, which was a difficult thing to do. It was three times as hard as in the Senate, and he did a great job. Thank you, Bill, for all your efforts,” the Senate speaker told Rep. Dunn and the audience.
Congresswoman Black presented Rep. Dunn with a 26-year-old photo of the freshman House member, pointing out how a few things have changed since he first took office in January 1994, notably his gray hair and eyeglasses he now wears.
“However, there are a lot of things that have not changed about Bill, and that is the basic person that he is. What an honor it was for me to serve the 12 years that I was there in the state General Assembly, six of it in the House with Bill and six of it in the Senate, where we still worked together,” she said. “He did a lot for this state; he did a lot for education and children, and making sure that families and teachers had the decision to make what was best for the children. He fought for them. He fought for fiscal responsibility. I remember us fighting to make sure we didn’t have a state income tax in this state. He fought for the business community, making sure that we kept taxes low so that we would have a vibrant business community in our state.”
“But the thing we all remember him for is his fight for life. It is the thing I will remember him the most for,” added the 2018 candidate for governor. “Bill, you and Stacy are two of the most important people I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
A video clip of Gov. Lee congratulating Tennessee Right to Life for its work and Rep. Dunn for his years of service was played, as were similar videos from former Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Congressman Tim Burchett, and House Speaker Sexton.
“Rep. Dunn, thank you for your unending advocacy for the pro-life cause. Throughout your tenure in the state legislature, your efforts have made all the difference. It has been my pleasure to serve with you these last two years. I wish you well, sir, in your retirement,” Gov. Lee said.
“Tennessee Right to Life, while I can’t be with you in person, I want to applaud the work that you’re doing on behalf of unborn children and their families all across our state. I am committed to protecting the lives of the unborn because every human life is precious, and we have a responsibility to stand up for our most vulnerable. This year alone in the General Assembly, we passed the most sweeping piece of prolife legislation in the entire nation. Today, it’s a pleasure to join you in honoring Rep. Bill Dunn, who has played a critical role in emphasizing the importance of unborn life during his time in the House of Representatives,” the governor continued. Gov. Haslam offered a very personal video tribute to Rep. Dunn, emphasizing the number of years they worked together on legislation. Prior to the two four-year terms he served as governor (2011-2019), he served two four-year terms as mayor of the city of Knoxville (2003-2011).
“Bill, it is an honor to be a part of this celebration for everything you’ve done for Tennessee Right to Life, and really on behalf of the state of Tennessee. We met each other a long time ago, and, fortunately, our relationship that began in Knoxville had a chance to bear a lot of fruit in Nashville on things that we worked together on. I don’t think many Tennesseans will ever appreciate everything you’ve done for this state. Your mature, seasoned, thoughtful, selfless leadership—and I mean every one of those.
“You’re, to me, a picture of what a selfless leader looks like. It never felt like it was about you; it was always about better outcomes for kids, better outcomes for the state, and better outcomes for everyone. I think what that stems from is your true belief that we are all created in the image of God. And that includes unborn children. Your passionate commitment to that truth that we’re all image-bearers here has been to me what has set you apart as a great quite frankly, as a great friend,” Gov. Haslam said.
“I’ve truly, truly appreciated the chance to work with you. I’ve appreciated your thoughtful leadership. And I was sad when you decided that you weren’t going to run again, because it is a big loss for the state. On behalf of all of us who care about life, who care about life in all of its forms, I want to thank you. You have been a passionate advocate for all, in particular for those who are unborn who didn’t have anyone else to speak for them. So thank you. I’m grateful for your friendship, and I’m grateful for what you’ve done for Tennessee. There are literally thousands of people who have benefited from your service who may or may not know that, but I know that. And I appreciate what you did. Thanks,” he added.
Rep. Dunn witnessed as much or more controversy in the legislature during his last year than he possibly did in the first 25 years. Elected by his colleagues as speaker pro tempore, which is the deputy House speaker, Rep. Dunn was thrust into the seat of House speaker when then- House Speaker Glen Casada was forced to resign that post in August.
Rep. Dunn served as House speaker from Aug. 2 until Speaker Sexton was elected and sworn in to the post on Aug. 23. The House speaker is the ranking House member and is second in line for succession to the governorship in the event the governor leaves office prematurely. Rep. Dunn had already announced his decision to not seek re-election to the House.
“Thank you all for honoring Bill Dunn for the tremendous work he has done for our state. He’s been the most successful speaker we’ve ever had in the state of Tennessee. He has really laid the foundation that has led our state to where we are now. We owe him a debt of gratitude for his service and for the honor and integrity in which he served. Bill, thank you for everything you’ve done. We will always call you a friend, and we will still call you and ask for your help. Thank you and God bless you,” House Speaker Sexton said via video message.
Congressman Burchett also delivered a video tribute to Rep. Dunn, apologizing for not being at the dinner in person to salute the lawmaker with whom he first entered public office. Reps. Dunn and Burchett were elected to the Tennessee House in 1993 and took office together in January 1994.
“I’m sorry I can’t be at the pro-life dinner. I am very glad that you are honoring my good friend, Bill Dunn, for his years of work. We both came to the state House together, and Bill stayed and advanced his career. Of course, mine took an ugly turn. I went to Congress as you all well know,” Congressman Burchett said jokingly. “It’s a pleasure for me to honor my good friend, Bill Dunn. I can’t imagine how many little babies’ lives have been saved because of the great work he and Stacy and their great family have done. I want to thank you all so much, and I want to thank the pro-life community for what you’ve done to save all those little babies. There’s nothing more important that we do in the United States Congress than to defend the right to life. You are honoring the best of the best.”
Congressman Burchett said he was unable to attend because of a campaign commitment he had in Claiborne County that night. The congressman was in a contested race for the 2nd Congressional District and won re-election on Nov. 3.
Sen. Blackburn gave a video tribute as well, issuing her regret because she was in Washington, D.C., taking up Senate matters, including the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Like nearly all of those paying tribute to Rep. Dunn, Sen. Blackburn first served with Rep. Dunn in the state General Assembly.
“I regret that I could not join you all at the annual Tennessee Right to Life dinner this year and be there to honor my good friend, Bill Dunn. But as you know, times are interesting in D.C., and one of the most important things that we, as Judiciary Committee members in the Senate, do is to fill out the federal bench. So far, we have appointed 216 federal judges, constitutionalists, to the bench. And we have a Supreme Court nominee that we are focused on right now and we will soon move through committee and to the floor for a confirmation vote,” Sen. Blackburn said just before the Senate confirmation vote on Justice Barrett on Oct. 26.
“I have to tell you Rep. Bill Dunn is someone I enjoyed every minute of service with, working alongside him when I was there in the state Senate. After I went to the Senate, I learned there is no stronger, more forceful, quiet, and calm advocate for life than Rep. Bill Dunn. The legislation he has shepherded, the explanations he has provided for Tennesseans and for his colleagues, has been appreciated as has his depth of understanding, his wisdom, and commitment. We applaud those efforts. He will be missed. Thank you, Bill Dunn,” Sen. Blackburn added.
During a question-and-answer segment of the dinner program, emceed by Tennessee Right to Life lobbyist Will Brewer, Rep. Dunn recalled his years of service, going back to the beginning when he entered the legislature with then-Rep. Burchett and first working alongside then-Rep. Black, then-Sen. Blackburn, and Sen. McNally.
Rep. Dunn recalled nominating Rep. Black to be Speaker of the House more than 20 years ago in a bid to unseat powerful Democrat House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh.
The floor speech he remembers giving in nominating Rep. Black “was very short, and it ended with, ‘The best man for the job is a woman.’”
Rep. Dunn and Congresswoman Black laughed as they reminisced about that losing effort, but the congresswoman said, in a serious tone, how much she appreciated Rep. Dunn’s courage in nominating her amid considerable opposition.
Mr. Brewer asked Rep. Dunn what led a young 4-H agent for the U.S. Agricultural Extension Service in Grainger County to run for a House seat representing the North Knoxville-North Knox County district in which he grew up.
Rep. Dunn said he and wife Stacy prayed about the decision, weighing the fact that they often had to drive to Knoxville to attend Tennessee Right to Life meetings. “We said, ‘Lord, please open the doors we’re supposed to walk through or close them.’”
He said events began to fall into place, including moving into the house in which he grew up in Fountain City. Also, the state representative for that district had decided not to run for re-election. When he and Stacy returned to Knoxville, he became president of Tennessee Right to Life’s Knox County chapter.
Rep. Dunn and his wife made the decision that he would run for the 16th District House seat. His family of eight brothers and sisters plus mother and father Paul and Mary Dunn joined in the effort to get him elected.
“We didn’t know any better, so we decided to run for it. Mom and Dad said you can’t come to Sunday dinner unless you help with the campaign. So we were able to get out there and make things happen,” Rep. Dunn said, noting that one of the local newspapers announced his candidacy by saying, “Bill Dunn, the skinny guy nobody’s ever heard from.”
“Without a doubt, the individuals who I had met through Tennessee Right to Life and family got out and outworked everybody. They were passionate about what we were doing. So it wasn’t a ‘me campaign,’ it was a ‘we campaign,’” he added.
Rep. Dunn thanked Mr. Harris of Tennessee Right to Life for introducing initiatives for TRL to track legislation affecting the right to life and also to track legislators’ support for pro-life legislation. Those efforts, Rep. Dunn said, prompted legislators to start taking notice of Tennessee Right to Life and its efforts.
Rep. Dunn pointed out that as Mr. Harris was leading TRL’s new initiatives years ago, a benefactor donated a house in Nashville to TRL, “but the only catch was you have to move it. Brian had the wherewithal and thoughtfulness, so he bought a lot right next to an abortion clinic and moved the house right next to the clinic so there was a pro-life presence right next to it. Brian, thank you for your leadership.”
Mr. Brewer then noted that the Nashville abortion facility has since closed and the Tennessee Right to Life offices are still open.
In a lighter moment, Rep. Dunn remembered how he had joined a group of pro-life supporters during a prayer vigil at an abortion facility on Concord Street in Knoxville. He said he noticed while he was holding a sign that a church group of young pro-life supporters across the street kept pointing to him and then talking among themselves before one young man began walking across the street toward him.
“Being a politician with an ego, I thought they’ve recognized that I’m Bill Dunn. They’re over there asking each other ‘is that really a state representative who’s here?’ I just knew what they were talking about. Suddenly this young man started crossing the road, and I was thinking he was coming over to verify who I am. He came over to me and said, ‘Mister, your sign is upside down.’ So, we stay humble,” he recalled.
As a footnote to that anecdote, Rep. Dunn pointed out that the Concord Street abortion facility also has since closed.
Mr. Brewer asked Rep. Dunn about the Tennessee Supreme Court inserting into the state Constitution an amendment allowing for a fundamental right to abortion.
Rep. Dunn said in the Tennessee lawsuit Sundquist v. Planned Parenthood, the Tennessee Supreme Court expanded provisions for abortion even more than the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade did.
“Then it was up to Tennessee Right to Life to undo this damage,” he added.
Rep. Dunn mounted a challenge to the powerful Speaker Naifeh and successfully led a House floor vote to get on the 2014 state election ballot language undoing the state Supreme Court amendment into the state Constitution supporting abortion.
The Yes on 1 ballot initiative passed in 2014, with most of the state’s metropolitan areas voting to retain the Supreme Court proabortion amendment and most all of Tennessee’s rural counties voting to replace it with the pro-life language.
“It may be the first and only time in state history that a challenge to the chair of the Speaker of the House was successful because in a bipartisan way that General Assembly stood up for the babies,” Rep. Dunn said. “Tennessee is about the only state, and you all are about the only people who have changed your Constitution to put in a pro-life provision. Thank you.”
According to media reports, the House floor vote was 46 to back Speaker Naifeh and disallow the Yes on 1 ballot initiative and 47 to overrule him and allow the ballot initiative.
Rep. Dunn said that in 2011, Gov. Bill Haslam took office, and the legislature had a pro-life majority. “It’s very good that both the House and Senate and the governor had the votes to pass pro-life legislation. It’s always good to have the governor on your side. With Gov. Haslam, we were very fortunate.”
Rep. Dunn worked with Gov. Haslam and Tennessee Right to Life to defund Planned Parenthood, putting into law a provision that state tax dollars can’t be used to fund Planned Parenthood.
Rep. Dunn also credited Gov. Haslam for getting legislation passed making it illegal in Tennessee for individuals or groups to profit from the sale of aborted babies or their body parts. This was in response to the 2015 videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the harvesting of aborted baby body parts and selling them as a revenue stream for the organization.
Rep. Dunn said the victory of the Yes on 1 vote in 2014 opened the floodgates for pro-life legislation in Nashville, such as the 48-hour waiting period for women and girls seeking an abortion, and informed consent, which requires abortion facilities to provide to women and girls seeking abortions accurate information about the abortion procedure.
Rep. Dunn noted that Gov. Bill Lee, who succeeded Gov. Haslam, also is pro-life and has been working with Rep. Dunn and other supportive lawmakers on pro-life legislation. Rep. Dunn credited Lt. Gov. McNally and Gov. Lee for their leadership in getting key pro-life legislation passed into law during the COVID-19 interrupted General Assembly.
“I think that’s what we’re going to miss, the sure-fire voice for the unborn in the legislature who can get it done,” Mr. Brewer said about Rep. Dunn.
As he leaves office, Rep. Dunn said items still on the legislative agenda that are important to him include a monument to the victims of abortion on the state capitol grounds. The measure already has been approved by the legislature. Rep. Dunn said there already are monuments to the victims of slavery and the Holocaust.
The plan is to place the monument to abortion victims between the other two monuments, with a path connecting all three.
“Won’t it be great when schoolchildren come to the capital and hear about the horrors of slavery, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the horrors of abortion,” Rep. Dunn said.
Mr. Brewer noted that several pro-life laws, such as the 48-hour waiting period, that the state legislature has passed are currently being challenged in court by proabortion supporters like Planned Parenthood.
“It is not rainbows and butterflies all around. There is work to be done every day,” Mr. Brewer said.
Rep. Dunn shared an idea of his going forward. It would be language codified by state law for public school instruction that says:
“A unit on the right to life shall be taught at the appropriate grade level as determined by the state school board. The curriculum shall be designed with input from state right to life organizations and shall include:
- The Declaration of Independence and its statement that humans are created with inalienable rights, including the right to life;
- The Constitution’s 14th Amendment that protects the taking of an innocent person’s life;
- Times in our nation’s history when groups of human beings were denied the right to life, including African Americans and pre-born children;
- Without life, no other rights are possible.
“We could pass a law that makes our school systems teach this as a unit because it’s part of our history, it’s part of the truth,” Rep. Dunn said.
Mr. Brewer emphasized for the audience the importance of Rep. Dunn filling a very important role during his last term in the legislature. After controversy embroiled House Speaker Casada, prompting him to step down as the ranking member in the House in August, the state legislature was in turmoil. Rep. Dunn stepped up to fill the House Speaker seat and end the turmoil that surrounded Rep. Casada’s term.
Rep. Dunn’s colleagues credited him with steering the legislature back on a steady path.
Rep. Dunn concluded his remarks at the Celebration of Life dinner by joking, “This is like going to your own funeral, but better.”
Angel Brewer, with the Knox County chapter of Tennessee Right to Life, presented Bill and Stacy Dunn with an American flag and pole that will be erected in Tennessee Right to Life’s Choose Life garden on Cherry Street in Knoxville, adjacent to a Planned Parenthood abortion facility. The Dunns also were presented with a book of memories created by Carol Zimmerman, Tennessee Right to Life Knox County chapter president.
Mrs. Brewer told the audience how Rep. Dunn would go to the General Assembly each week during the legislative sessions, 26 in all, leaving his family behind while he spent the week in Nashville.
“When he used to leave on Monday morning, leaving his wife and five children behind like a man going to war, Stacy would say to him, ‘go slay the dragon.’ And slay the dragon he did,” said Mrs. Brewer, who appealed to those in the audience to help identify volunteers for the prolife effort, especially young adults to volunteer or serve in public office representing the right to life like Rep. Dunn has done.
She also appealed to young parents to teach their children about the sanctity of life and pro-life issues, educating them at an early age so they will grow to respect life at all ages and stages.
And she appealed to pastors to preach from the pulpit about the sanctity of life.
“If your pastor does not speak from the pulpit about this issue, if your pastor does not welcome his congregation to discuss this very hard issue, please invite him to do so. We have some very good pastors in this audience who have put on the armor of God and tell their congregations the truth. If your pastor is not one of those, please ask him to join you,” she said. “We need volunteers. We need all of your help.”
While Rep. Dunn is leaving the legislature, he isn’t leaving state government service.
Gov. Lee announced on Nov. 9 that Rep. Dunn has joined the Tennessee Department of Education as a senior adviser to Commissioner Penny Schwinn.
“Bill Dunn is one of the most experienced and thoughtful advocates for education in our state who has dedicated his career in state government to improving outcomes for Tennessee’s students,” Gov. Lee said.
“Bill is a man of impeccable integrity, and his counsel will be critical to our success as we navigate one of the most challenging school years in our state’s history. We’re incredibly grateful for Bill’s willingness to continue his public service at the Department of Education, and I look forward to working with him on behalf of all Tennessee students.”