I spent several days last week in Tennessee, mostly to attend a fantastic music festival called Big Ears, but I also had the good fortune to spend several hours on Wednesday in Nashville with Knoxville State Rep. Gloria Johnson. She took me on a deep dive into Tennessee politics, the challenges of being in the minority in a supermajority legislature, and the depths of what her conservative colleagues would do to thwart democracy, dismantle public education, foster discrimination and racism–and much more. As you might know, the rest of the week turned out pretty eventful for Rep. Johnson—and for Tennessee. Given the national attention those events received, it’s not a stretch to say it may well be looked upon later as pretty eventful for our nation.
The day after I met with Gloria, well, you know by now, “Things got crazy,” as she told me. About a week and a half after she and two colleagues, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, protested on the floor of the House of Representatives to demand action in the wake of the horrific shooting in a Nashville school that had happened earlier that week, the Republican-led legislature moved to expel the three of them from the body for breaking House rules—speaking without being recognized.
The motion for Gloria’s expulsion–the only white lawmaker of the three–failed by one vote. When she was asked by reporters why she thought she was spared while the others were not, she was blunt. “It might have to do with the color of our skin,” she said.
In a statement before his expulsion, Justin Jones said, “The world is watching Tennessee because what is happening here today is a farce of democracy.”
It’s safe to say that the world is watching the Volunteer State now. President Biden met with the three by video and Vice President Kamala Harris flew down to a rally at Fisk. Former President Barack Obama tweeted, “What happened in Tennessee is the latest example of a broader erosion of civility and democratic norms. Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won’t lead to progress.” Hillary Clinton tweeted out a link about how to donate to the reelection campaigns of Jones and Pearson. And then a happenstance encounter at the Newark Airport led to a viral video of Justin Jones singing “We Shall Overcome” with Joan Baez!
You can google, read the press, or drop in on social media to follow what’s happening and the exciting movement of young people, musicians, and many more responding with force and inspiration.
So, what is happening in Tennessee?
School Vouchers: The Tennessee Senate took the first step towards expanding the state’s school voucher program beyond Shelby (Memphis) and Davidson (Nashville) counties to allow Hamilton County to join. The Assembly takes up the bill next.
Charter schools and Hillsdale College: Last year, the governor failed in his effort to bring ultraconservative Hillsdale College-connected American Classical Academies charter schools to Tennessee. Hillsdale is trying again and applying for five new schools.
Guns: Tennessee is for gun lovers. The state allows permitless concealed and unconcealed handguns for anyone over 21. The GOP majority was on the verge of loosening restrictions to allow permit carriers to bring weapons to college campuses and school staff members to carry a handgun. And it’s a Stand Your Ground state.
Pre-emption: Like a growing list of states with conservative legislatures, Tennessee prohibits local governments from enacting an ever-increasing number of policies, including minimum wages, fair scheduling, paid leave, gig economy protections, oil and gas pipeline prevention measures, and, of course, gun laws. (The Local Solutions Support Center has some great resources to combat preemption.)
Trans rights: Governor Bill Lee recently signed into law a total ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender children and also a law to prohibit “adult-oriented” entertainment, including “male and female impersonators.”
Medicaid: Tennessee is one of only 10 states that has not expanded Medicaid under the ACA, leaving about 118,000 of the state’s poorest residents in a coverage gap.
These are seemingly different issues and policy areas, but they are all interconnected assaults on democracy and essential public goods–such as public education, equal voice and rights, and safety from violence. And while all eyes might be on Tennessee at the moment, many states (yes, mostly Red) are confronting similar challenges, including the dangerous erosion of the respect for democracy and those leaders who have been elected to represent their constituencies.
But as we watch the young people lead who are organizing large protests and actions, Tennessee is also showing us that there’s hope. These activists know what they’re up against, but they are showing us a path forward and we should go with them.
Justin Pearson began his political career taking on the environmental racism of the oil and gas industry, leading a fight against pipelines. He won that fight.
“The issues, the David versus Goliath perspective on this, is the same,” Pearson said in an interview. “But the good thing about the story of David and Goliath is, we know how that story ends up.”