After National Spotlight, Here’s What Hasn’t Changed In Tennessee — And What Might

Daja E. Henry

Originally published by The 19th

As the dust settles in Tennessee after the past few weeks, there have been allusions to change. But still, much remains the same.

There was a mass school shooting in Nashville, a protest over gun violence that left two Black lawmakers expelled from their seats and then their return to the legislature. Republican Gov. Bill Lee slightly changed his tune on gun control measures, though he is already receiving pushback from his party and gun lobbyists. 

But the cameras have left and, while promises of reform have yet to be determined, the fundamentals of the state’s politics have not changed: White Republican men still rule.

The expulsions of Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson illustrate what happens when power is concentrated among White men and wielded to maintain control, using tactics like gerrymandering. Progressive organizers say they are building multiracial coalitions across the state, but it will take time and resources for foundational change to take place in Tennessee. The national spotlight has brought them one bright spot, though. Run for Something, a group that recruits and supports young diverse and progressive candidates for office across the country, has experienced a record uptick in signups of people interested in running for office, with more than 10 percent of those candidates being from Tennessee.

Tennessee Republicans “are laying it all out, saying the quiet parts out loud,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something. “I think that in many ways really helps clarify for people thinking about running for office what the stakes are.”

Experts say that the events of the past couple weeks were just one egregious example of an underlying issue that runs much deeper — a case study in how racism and partisan politics have shaped the state.

“Everyone at the national level should be deeply concerned and deeply invested in Tennessee and in the rest of the South,” said Lisa Sherman Luna, an organizer and executive director of TIRRC Votes, an advocacy group for immigrant and refugee communities. Luna said the past two weeks provide a glimpse into how Republican extremists plan to keep power concentrated in their own hands and away from what she called a multiracial, multicultural democracy.

The spectacle in Tennessee speaks to a larger dynamic between state and national governments as Tennessee Republicans fortify their control over more and more aspects of the political process.

“This is not an accident. It is part of a concerted effort of the Republican Party to win control of the offices that can then control the levers of power,” Litman said.

“Once you control the statehouses in particular, you can rewrite the rules around voting, you can rewrite the rules around unions, you can rewrite school curriculums to change the way that young people are learning American history, which in part changes the kind of voter they may grow up to become,” Litman said. State courts are often the ones making decisions that impact the country as a whole. Litman cited decisions like in Mississippi, which led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, or like in Texas, where debate around mifepristone could have major implications for medication abortion access.

Under pressure following the protests and expulsions, Gov. Lee, who was previously staunchly against gun control measures, signed an executive order strengthening background checks and called on the state legislature to pass what are commonly known as red flag laws, which keep guns away from people who present an imminent danger to themselves or others. Though Democrats have been calling for change on gun control inside the legislature, the shift comes only after thousands of constituents protested consistently over multiple days at the Capitol. Lee also said he was close friends with a victim of the shooting at the Covenant School. His proposed restrictions were met with mixed reactions, and it is unclear whether they will pass.

Republicans ran uncontested for nearly half of the state House seats up for election in 2022. In deeply Republican-controlled states like Tennessee, Litman said, Democrats will need more investment on the local level over a sustained period of time to make headway in the state, especially on issues like gun control and abortion access. Litman said these types of changes could happen gradually over periods of up to 20 years.

Race and party go hand-in-hand when looking at the state’s politics, experts say. While Jones and Pearson were expelled, Rep. Gloria Johnson, a White woman who stood with them in protest, narrowly avoided expulsion.

“The move to expel the Tennessee Three was certainly enabled by the rules and the numbers that allowed them to do it, but it was motivated by race,” said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

“Hyperpartisanship was the secondary explanation. That was what allowed it to happen. But racial animus motivated the targeting of Justin Jones and Justin Pearson,” Gillespie said.

Jones and Pearson are two of just 15 Black lawmakers in the state House.

Tennessee’s Republican-controlled legislature also does not reflect its constituents in terms of gender. Women, who make up 51 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. census, make up just 14.4 percent of the state legislature. The state ties with Mississippi, ranking 48th in women’s representation in its state legislature. Johnson is one of two Democratic women in the state House.

While the expulsions have provided an extreme enough to garner national media attention, local political scientist Sekou Franklin said that the underlying culture of White Republican politicians in the state is much more nefarious. Franklin, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, said these abuses of power by Tennessee Republicans are not the first, nor will they be the last. “The national audience is going to leave Tennessee by the end of the week. And unless Cameron Sexton, the House speaker, overreaches again, they’re going to claim victory,” Franklin said. But, he said, where the cameras aren’t rolling, retaliation is imminent and steps have already been taken to further undermine democracy in the state.

“There will be bodies they can take … They can do things policy-wise through paper and pen that can kill us,” Franklin, a Black man, said. He referenced legislation such as one that would dissolve community-led police oversight boards. 

Nashville provides a keen example of how one party can take control at the state and local levels.

In 2020, the state completed redistricting maps for its congressional districts. The result was heavily gerrymandered, cracking the liberal city into three Republican-leaning districts. The popular vote in the 2020 presidential election suggests the state is about 60 percent Republican and 40 percent Democratic, but Republicans hold about 77 percent of seats in the state’s General Assembly.

Gillespie said this kind of action, effectively diluting the voices of Black and progressive voters, is not just a function of gerrymandering, but the intent.

She said it’s one of many ways that Black representation becomes devoid of power, by setting up Black legislators to always be among the minority voting coalition.

Franklin and Luna echoed the call for resources and investments at the grassroots level.

“We’re not going to beat them just through one week, two weeks of outrage that’s captured the attention of national media, national political commentators or national politicos that have no clue how Tennessee gets down,” Franklin said.

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