In 2018, Republicans control entire state governments in 26 states. Because of this, the health care system has been strained. Women have lost access to health clinics and face anti-abortion laws where doctors can be forced by law to lie to their patients. Sensible gun laws have been stymied even when they have overwhelming public support. LGBT citizens have faced discrimination laws, and minorities have faced institutional racism resulting in mass incarceration (for profit) and being stripped of the right to vote. State races can be boring and often taken for granted, but this is a moment in our nation’s history. It’s a moment to right the ship, to demand representation of all not—just a small number of political donors.
Find out who your state representatives are and who is running to replace them. Choose your representative and throw yourself into supporting them or run for the office yourself. A giant blue wave is headed for the American political system but no one can get elected unless you get out there and vote. Republican control of TN happened largely based on the successful propaganda campaign against the Affordable Care Act and demonizing the Democratic president.
I met Chris Mayor, Democratic candidate for the Tennessee House seat in the 49th district, back at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in the town of Murfreesboro, TN. The first thing you notice about Chris is that he’s a giant. And the second thing is that he rarely lets a genuine smile slip from his face. The ballroom at the James Union Building on the campus of MTSU was packed with most of the activists and candidates seeking office in Tennessee in 2018, and Chris towered above them all. It was a particularly stark contrast when he introduced himself to his current representative in the TN state house and his 2018 political rival: Rep Mike Sparks.
After meeting and greeting the folks at the breakfast, we visited a local restaurant to talk about why he decided to get into a down-ballot race in a deep red district as a Democrat. I can only imagine what it feels like to have someone tell you that every person who has tried to do what you’re about to do has failed but Chris was undeterred when I pointed out the elephant in the room. The Democrats have a habit of losing the 49th district by about 4,000 votes. I asked him how he will find 4k more Democratic votes in his deep red district and if he would be overtly courting Republicans to cross over and vote for him.
He described a sleeping giant freshly awakened from its slumber. “Since the election of Donald Trump, Democrats have won almost 40 special elections while Republicans haven’t even reached double digits in wins.” He says with confidence that, “The Democratic base is fired up and ready to take back our governmental institutions.” Chris talked about bonding with his father over political conversation and reflecting on this, he said, “I honestly haven’t seen anything like what’s going on across the country right now. Breaking down my race specifically, I believe getting Democrats out to vote and persuading about half of the independents that I’d be a better representative for them will put me over the top. It’s my job to give independent voters a reason to go to the polls and pull the lever for me.”
And that brings us to Mayor’s primary pitch for voters in the 49th. He’s not attacking Sparks or Donald Trump; he’s talking about getting people to and from their paycheck. He’s talking about delivering on what has so far been an empty promise from the GOP majority: the expansion of a local highway that will alleviate traffic on the interstate highway that was listed as a contributing factor in 3 deaths and dozens of injuries. “I-24 is the 17th worst commute in the US according to transportation analytics company INRIX. “That’s unacceptable,” says Mayor, whose opponent recently published an op-ed offering the solution of cracking down on HOV violators to coerce drivers to carpool. Mayor disagrees with that proposal. “I want to get the funds to complete the Jefferson Pike widening project,” he explains. “It has been in the works for over 5 years and it would give drivers another way to reach TN-840, alleviating traffic on I-24.” For local residents who know the area and will be eligible to vote for him, he adds, “I would like to put in an interchange on Rocky Fork Road, to lessen traffic on Sam Ridley Parkway and Almaville Road.” Chris believes building a better Tennessee will actually involve building. To that end he says, “I also support a light rail system to join to Nashville’s proposed ‘Move Nashville’ system. The Middle Tennessee area is growing rapidly, our public mass transit system has to grow along with it.”
The Republicans have had control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state congress since 2018 Senate candidate Phil Bredesen was term limited out of the governor’s seat. Before that, TN had a very competitive political environment. Mayor (along with candidates like the aforementioned Bredesen, Steven Reynolds and Justin Kanew who are competing for federal office) hopes to buck this trend. “I’m still hopeful that the message will be heard loud and clear by the people of Tennessee, and the Democrats flip at least the [State House of Representatives]. If that doesn’t happen, I hope to at least break their super majority, forcing them to at listen and consult across the aisle.” Mayor wants to see pragmatism return to Nashville. “What I promise my constituents is that I’ll introduce and promote common sense legislation that is equitable to all every time the GOP tries to infringe on anyone’s Constitutional rights.”
Having watched as the TN legislature has tried to pass some crazy gun laws, I asked Chris for his views on gun laws in the Volunteer State. “I will only advocate city and county measures that strengthen state gun laws. Here’s the thing, Republicans love to talk about gun violence in spite of strong laws in Chicago. What they never mention is that most of those guns come from Indiana, a close neighbor with far less restrictive laws. New York City is surrounded by states with similar strong laws and had about 300 gun homicides in 2017. I don’t want Davidson County laws to be undermined by lax laws in [neighboring communities].”
As far as the other hot button issue currently facing the country, opioid addiction; Donald Trump, under intense pressure, declared the epidemic of overdoses and addiction to painkillers a national emergency. Republican governor Bill Haslam just revealed a plan this year to throw $30 million dollars at the issue saying, “It is no secret our country faces a huge challenge in the opioid epidemic. Tennessee unfortunately is not an exception to the problem.” In fact the Tennessean newspaper states that over 6,000 TN residents died of opioid overdoses between 2010 and 2015.
I asked Chris if he thought this was an issue the parties could find common ground on. “We have to,” he says. “People’s lives depend on it. I believe the only way we’re going to fight this tragedy is by expanding Medicaid, keeping rural hospitals open and allowing people to afford to seek treatment before their conditions deteriorate to the point that they need opioids, and legalizing cannabis for use as an alternative pain killer.”
Expanding Medicaid has been a struggle in TN even with the support of the Republican governor. Since the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, the GOP legislature has done everything they could to prevent people from getting covered. I had to ask if Mayor could accept the fact that a Medicaid expansion is likely to continue to face obstruction. “I WILL accept incremental improvements in our health care system. I’ll vote for anything that will improve the lives of Tennesseans, while fighting for even more. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I want single payer healthcare, but that isn’t going to happen overnight. And I support expanding Medicaid and decriminalizing cannabis.”
During our first conversation, we talked about what made Chris decide to step into the arena. His father was still alive and in hospice. His voice got stronger when talking about how politics had bonded him to his dad where sports never did. Having lost my own father, I recognized the look in his eyes as he told the story of his father maintaining focus when his mother told him Chris was running for elected office. His dad’s eyes had cleared long enough to say with pride, “He’s picking up the fight.”
Since we’ve talked, Mr. Mayor has passed away. So many of us can relate to picking up the fight for our loved ones, especially now, watching students around the country demanding change so they can be safe in their classrooms. “Family is a huge inspiration for us all,” Chris would tell me. “My father was so proud when I got involved in political activism. He had tried to fight for positive changes, but raising a family limited him to voting, writing letters to his Congressmen and conversations with family and friends. Before he passed he was so excited to know that I have a chance to actually make some of those changes he wanted so badly.”