From Digger to Deal Maker: Steven Reynolds’ unlikely path to Congress

It’s very possible that the best political ad of 2018 has been released right at the start. Steven Reynolds is running for Congress in TN-04. He sat down with me just before Christmas to talk about the district and how he is planning on giving voters in Tennessee something to vote for. As a candidate he wants potential voters to know, yes what they are voting against but also what they are voting for: rebuilding the American Dream and providing the opportunity to those willing to work to attain their version of it. It’s why I support him and I hope you will too. 

Tennessee’s fourth district is shaped like a Chinese dragon thanks to Republican Gerrymandering. (It was, after all, Tennessee that had gerrymandered so badly in 1961 that the Supreme Court had to step in.) It stretches from Smyrna to Chattanooga and is everything that’s beautiful about the Volunteer State; it offers incredible scenery from farms to forests, to the growth and opportunity of big towns like Murfreesboro and Smyrna. Steven Reynolds grew up in Manchester, population almost 8,000 where in 1988 he was student body president at Coffee County Senior High. “Thinking back it seems like ‘Mayberry,’” Steven tells me. We met at an IHOP in Murfreesboro. Sitting across from me at a corner booth, he described his home town as “a very close community, neighbors always helping neighbors. I’m so appreciative of the public education I received there. My teachers had a huge impact on making me the person I am today.”

Some of Middle Tennessee has changed a lot in the years since Steven Reynolds rode his bike through the streets of Manchester. But the people of the district know the value of a hard day’s work and how interconnected local economies are. “As a child and teenager I worked as a walking horse groom, a farm hand, a short order cook and drove the delivery truck for the local florist. The community there gave me the foundation to succeed in life. Hard work and honesty really do pay off, and I’m living proof.” As a young man, Reynolds got a job at the local quarry. He began as a general laborer working the shovel and later operated the Pug Mill. “The company I worked at was supplying the construction materials for the Nissan plant in Smyrna and my job was to load trucks at the mill from 6am to 3pm, six days a week. I would then rush home, clean up and go to my afternoon and evening classes at MTSU. Those were some of the longest years of my life, I believe.”

It’s important to remember, it wasn’t long ago when no one would know what a “gig economy” was. “My first job was at the quarry when I was 18. After a couple of years, I was promoted to the Pug Mill. Later, I was promoted to mobile machine operator, plant operations, QC and finally landed in sales after 6 years of operations experience. I learned the business from the bottom up. There is no substitute for practical experience.”

But in 2016 Reynolds hit a wall. He’s not a politician by trade and so when he entered the race just five months prior to Election Day, he had to start from scratch against the Republican machine that propped up the scandal laden incumbent, Scott DesJarlais. It wasn’t pretty. He lost by a margin of 30 points. I didn’t sugar coat it. “You got hammered in 2016,” I said bluntly. “How will you run differently to win in 2018?”

“Sure, well, if you look here in Rutherford County we actually got 42% of the vote as a first time candidate and over 45% of the total votes are here in Rutherford County. Where we really got pounded was the 15 rural counties. And so it’s almost that Brexit affect—it’s the disconnect between the urban/suburban, and the rural areas. I think I’m the only candidate who can build a bridge between the two. I was born and raised in rural Tennessee but I’ve spent 30 years of my life here in the suburbs of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County. So I think what we must do is continue to bring our message out to those [former] Democrats out there who are voting Republican now. My message to them will be that I want to be your grandfather’s Democrat, and I want you to come back home. Because Democrats aren’t the party of the wealthy, we do stand for the middle class.

“How we’re approaching our campaign differently is by learning from the issues we ran into in 2016. By getting in the race so late, most of your volunteers—and your political junkies who are excited and interested in getting involved in a campaign—were already associated with other candidates. So it was difficult for us to get people to help us even though they were for us. They were already committed. This time, people across all 16 counties committed to us early. My staff here in Rutherford County is 26 people, all 100% volunteers. And so one of our most important messages is that we are not about the special interests and the big money. We’re not about the large donors that don’t live here. There aren’t a lot of wealthy Democratic donors in these 16 counties.

“The average income here is about $33,000 a year. And when you talk to people, just the average joe on the street and say, ‘what’s wrong with politics?’ Money continues to be what everyone says. We’re offering the people of the 4th district of Tennessee a different type of campaign where we can say, ‘we’re focused on earning your vote, we’re focused on voter contact and being a part of the community.’ Accessibility and transparency are what we’re offering instead of a top-down campaign that’s heavily reliant on donors outside the district and that are relying on the special interests in Washington D.C. We’ve taken a pledge early; we will not accept a dime of money from pharmaceuticals. The opioid crisis has devastated the 4th district of Tennessee.” The Reynolds’ family takes the opioid crisis personally. Steven’s stepson passed away after an opiod overdose in 2015. “In Marshall County alone, for every citizen there, there are 17 opioid prescriptions. And that’s just one county. And now we know the pharmaceutical companies were paying our politicians in Washington to stop the DEA from doing their job. We won’t accept money from health insurance companies. We won’t accept money from the banking industry or the defense industry because we believe that these industries typically don’t act in the best interest of the American people. By not courting the large donors outside the district, we are operating purely with volunteers in a 16 county race. The issues in Bradley County or Pikeville in Bledsoe County are completely different from Rutherford County, so it’s imperative that the candidate understand how the federal government could impact them in their own communities. By having these county by county volunteers and my 35,000 miles in five months last year, I know what their issues are and I know what I can do immediately to hit the ground running.”

Reynolds can feel the change in the air after the 2016 election. Scott DesJarlais is on the ropes. All indications are that the DesJarlais victory was largely based on the (R) next to his name, not his job performance. Having moved to the state at 30 years old and having been exposed for drug use, adultery and pressuring a mistress to get an abortion, he has now added voting for the bait & switch tax bill that will eventually lead to “The wealthy continu[ing] to see bigger savings while less wealthy Americans will see their tax bills largely revert to where they are now.”  It will also have the added affect of raising health insurance premiums and possibly even the closure of more rural hospitals.

The Manchester native believes this is all wrong. Reynolds says there are three things that the 4th district needs to lift it up into the 21st Century and make it competitive. “First, we must invest in traditional infrastructure,” he ticks them off using his fingers. “Roads, bridges, water, sewage, electric etc. and we must invest in digital infrastructure. Tesla is not coming to Fayetteville unless they can ‘plug in.’” Steven doesn’t seem to want to wait for November. His enthusiasm is infectious as he goes into the second point of his three prong approach. “We must invest in our educational system, especially STEM and vocational education. Global companies are looking for educated, trainable work forces. Tennesseans are known for hard work. We need to make sure they are ready with the skills required to match that work ethic.” The third prong is more complicated and could become even more complicated since Scott DesJarlais voted to close the rural hospitals in the 4th district. He’ll deny that his vote to repeal or cripple the Affordable Care Act (all too often referred to as “Obamacare”) more than 50 times including his vote on the tax bill which killed former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s health insurance mandate that was built in to the Affordable Care Act. Tennessee’s rural hospitals depend on the ACA to remain viable. Reynolds argues that the third prong in a 21st Century 4th district is, “Investment in our healthcare. Once again, large employers and start ups and small businesses are looking at the quality of life in areas they are considering investment. Quality of life all starts with healthcare and the availability of it. Apple is not going to invest in Lewisburg if there is no hospital there.”

“Today,” Reynolds explains, “the trend is to give tax credits to corporations to get them to invest in an area. This is nothing more than a corporate subsidy.” Considering politicians like DesJarlais (who received a third of his money raised by just 20 donors) depend on these corporations to fund their campaigns and to hire them as lobbyists when they leave Congress, it’s no surprise that establishment Republicans support corporate welfare. Reynolds disagrees with this [way of doing things].. “I would like to move away from this trend. I want corporations to come to the 4th district because we check all the boxes of [their] requirements, not because we are willing to subsidize their investment. It’s also important to have a Congressional rep who will actively advocate for companies to come to the district as an ambassador of the people.”

With the current political climate it can be hard to come up with things that Republican and Democratic voters in the South agree on but both hate corporate welfare and while they have some disagreements on how to get there, they’d all like to see the South rise from being a cobble of donor states and find prosperity and opportunity. So I asked Reynolds how we get there. Instead of dodging the question or offering pie-in-the-sky fantasies, he says, “We need a TVA type of government initiative to bring Fiber optics to all of the rural areas of the 4th and all over the country. Private companies are never going to invest in areas where they cannot make a profit. I believe that digital infrastructure is a highway just like an actual highway. What if we never built a highway in Grundy County?  That community would be isolated from the rest of the world. By neglecting digital highways we are isolating communities from the rest of the world. I believe it’s the legitimate role of the federal government to connect people. Communities deserve equal chances at education and commerce. That is not the case today. For the 4th district,” Reynolds pledges, “I would attempt to secure funding for a high speed commuter rail line from Rutherford County to the Davidson County line…for water resources in Marshall County…for the expansion of Hwy 127 in the Sequatchie Valley. This area is landlocked with no rail, no water transportation infrastructure. Hwy 127 is the only way in and out and it’s a two-lane safety nightmare. I would seek federal funds for a new interchange at Ennon Springs Road and I-24 in Smyrna and for flood control in the Lavergne area…for the expansion of I-65 in Maury County and for the expansion of the Cowin Highway in Franklin County. The list and needs are endless all over the district. I could go on for days.”

Fall Creek Falls Spencer, TN.

Before we end our talk, Reynolds folds his hands and looks focused. “I’d like to add one other point here that’s infrastructure related. Van Buren County is home to Fall Creek Falls. It’s the crown jewel of TN state parks. I believe this park qualifies as a World Heritage Site with UNESCO and the United Nations. I would seek to apply for World Heritage status with the UN to preserve this park forever. If successful, this status would bring millions of dollars and global visitors to Van Buren, Bledsoe and Warren counties. This status would create thousands of jobs and infrastructure investments, lifting many from poverty in that area.”

Reynolds isn’t under any delusion that bringing the resources he wants to the 4th district will be easy. But the important thing is that his motivation is the people of the 4th district, not himself or his donors. DesJarlais has had his chance to work for the people of the 4th district. He squandered it. Now it’s time to send a home grown Tennessean—time to send Steven Reynolds— to Washington and bring the 4th district into the 21st Century.

-Adam James is the editor-in-chief of Majority 60 and a political scientist. Before founding “M60” as a place for Democratic movers and shakers to meet and discuss important topics, he traveled the United States while earning his MBA and later his MA in political science. He now lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife. Follow him on Twitter @adamjamesm60 Majority 60 was founded in 2016.