On a clear Tuesday morning in September of 2001, thirty-year-old James Mackler experienced something that he thought his grandfather might have felt 60 years before. It was a natural response for him based on the reality that the country which he loved was under direct attack. For his grandfather, it was the Japanese attack on the Navy base at Pearl Harbor. For him, it was the vicious attacks on civilians in New York and Washington D.C. (a portion of which was thwarted—leading to the deaths of an additional 40 people and their 4 killers). It was a call to action; a call to serve. He joined the Army, became a helicopter pilot and eventually a JAG lawyer, and served his country. As the 2020 Senate election approaches, Mackler once again heeds the call to serve. On January 8, he announced his intentions to run for the Democratic nomination to the US Senate to fill the seat being vacated by the retiring Lamar Alexander. I sat down with James for an extensive interview at his office just outside of Nashville, TN.
With the 2018 midterms behind us, the blue wave that hit much of the United States seemed to narrowly miss the Volunteer State. Donald Trump, despite his alleged criminal behavior, his dubious rise to the head of the executive branch, and his affinity for the country that attacked our democratic process in 2016 to help him to narrowly win the Electoral College, still clung to a 56% approval rating in the state and Republicans maintained control of the governorship and the open Senate seat. It’s an uphill battle for Democrats in Tennessee, but Mackler has a friendly, Captain America vibe to him. I could easily imagine him saying, “I could do this all day,” in the midst of a tough general election.
Mackler grew up in-between two worlds, with his parents dividing his time between Chattanooga and New York. He’s passionate about Tennessee and affectionately refers to Chattanooga as a childhood hometown. “I think about my story because it’s really my story of service and sacrifice,” said James, with joy expressed in the word sacrifice that I generally don’t hear when people normally invoke the concept.
“I was practicing law on 9/11. I’d been practicing for about seven years at that point,” Mackler explained. “Because of the 9/11 attacks, I felt the way I think my grandfather’s generation felt after Pearl Harbor. And I mention that specifically because I lived with him so that had a real impact on me in terms of his views of service. He was a police officer for his entire career after being in the Army and my mom was a public school teacher, so I was around all of these people who believed in service.”
It wasn’t long after the Twin Towers fell that Macker found his own path to service. “I left my law practice and joined the Army, became an Army helicopter pilot, and was deployed to Iraq. And one of the things that really struck me during my time there was how much this country had come apart because of becoming so tribal and so divided. The rule of law had really broken down.” Then Mackler wanted to find a different challenge, a way to serve stateside. “I decided I wanted to become an attorney again. And I went to the JAG Corps where I was fortunate to represent the victims of military sexual assault and harassment for about three or four years as a senior trial counsel, a senior prosecutor, for the Division of Fort Campbell.”
Mackler still serves in the Air National Guard. Having joined a large law firm, he continues to serve by being a member of the Federal Public Defender’s Office Panel. Federal Public Defender’s Organizations don’t often make a lot of headlines, but perhaps they should. According to the United States Court’s website, there are organizations like the one James Mackler serves for 91 federal judicial districts (there are 94 districts total). Private attorneys provide their services at drastically reduced rates when the public defender’s office has a conflict. For Mackler—beyond being a resume builder voters should pay attention to—it’s part of a greater mission. “I believe very strongly in criminal justice reform and it’s a chance to get to know these defendants, get to know the system, get to be in front of the judges and get an inside view of how this stuff works.”
So, how will he use his experience far outside of politics to power a winning campaign for US Senate? “Everything I’m doing is talking with people about my values and then listening to what they really need. That is, I think, one of the most important things we can do to motivate people to get them out to vote.”
I asked him about one of the things that I believe will be the biggest hurdle for him and any other candidates running as a Democratic nominee in Tennessee in 2020—the “D” next to their name. Mackler was an attorney, an active duty Army helicopter pilot, a JAG, and an Air National Guardsman, but other than a brief candidacy prior to the announcement of former governor Phil Bredesen’s entrance into the 2018 race, he’s never had the title politician or political operator. He’s a total outsider and between now and November 2020, he’s going to have to convince party loyalists that he’s a Democrat, and independent voters (persuadable) that he’s not a part of the caricatures that Republicans have created in the minds of, especially rural, voters who used to vote Democrat in decades past.
“The only banner I carry is for the people of Tennessee,” Mackler explained. “My values are more closely aligned with what I would consider the values of Democrats. I’m not even really saying the Democratic Party.” What followed was a lesson on how to talk to TN voters skeptical about a political party. Mackler said, “When I look at how I feel about education, I believe that public education is the surest pathway to opportunity. To my mind, it’s Democrats that are looking to protect public education. That’s what I see. Access to health care is a right. Again, I see the Democrats on the right side of that issue. And the same really holds true as I go down the list of most issues. But it’s not about where I fall on the national Democratic Party platform or anything like that, I just believe that politicians should represent people. Not corporations. To me, those are things that more closely align with the Democratic Party.”
I challenged him to describe how he would reach the Tennesseans who felt left behind by the Democratic Party at large. “It starts with listening and going to the places where people aren’t listening to them. I think that folks running for office too often neglect that. They don’t want to take the time to go to a rural area and listen to people maybe because they feel there aren’t enough votes there, or maybe they feel they already have the answers. I know I don’t have the answers to solve all of the problems that rural Tennessee is facing. I haven’t lived that life necessarily. And so it’s important to me to get out and listen to what folks need but aren’t getting from Washington.”
The listening tour method has proven successful at varying levels in several parts of the country, but Mackler is still bringing his own ideas forward. “It seems to me that we need to be working very hard on digital infrastructure. No one wants to locate a business or even live in a rural area if they don’t have access to broadband. Similarly, rural hospitals have the highest rate of hospital closures in rural areas across the country. You don’t want to live in or work in or locate a business in an area that doesn’t have a hospital. So we need to be focused on healthcare broadly but health care very much helps rural areas and on technology and other infrastructure programs which is also big for rural areas.” These are the kinds of things that he believes will win over the rural blue collar votes that used to uniformly vote Democrat. “Rural Tennesseans, of course, want the same thing as urban Tennesseans in the sense of making sure that their children are educated, that we have health care, that we have strong jobs, that if you work hard you should earn a living wage. Those are all unifying issues.”
Winning back rural voters is especially important in red states, but urban voters have been under attack by Republican officials who use their power to set up roadblocks for low income, minority, and student voters who often vote more reliably Democratic. I asked Mackler about how these issues can be responded to, especially when he reaches the US Senate where the need to renew the Voting Rights Act has been met by Republican obstruction.
Mackler immediately reflected on the most recent exchange between the Democratically controlled House of Representatives and the Republican controlled Senate. “Recently, Democrats in the House introduced the idea of making Election Day a national holiday. And [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that’s just a partisan ploy by the Democrats. A power grab. Which is remarkable candor really, you know, admitting that by making it easier for folks to vote it helps Democrats.”
Mackler argues for a more holistic approach. “Our political culture is really, if not entirely, broken and has been horribly damaged by the role of corporate money. And we can’t have really good, thoughtful discussions about fixing voter turnout or any of these other things; jobs, education, healthcare, until we can reduce or eliminate as much as possible the role of corporate money. I mean, individuals want to have their voices heard. And yet their voices are drowned out by this flood of corporate PAC money. Until we get rid of that, it’s very hard to address these other issues because it is the big corporate donors who benefit from voter suppression to such a large extent. It’s one of the reasons I’m not going to take corporate PAC money because I think I need to lead by example.”
That’s not to say that the specific methods of voter suppression can’t be mitigated. Mackler explained that, “We can certainly make it easier to obtain an ID. We can allow provisional voting, we can allow registration right up to or even on the day of elections. We can make Election Day a national holiday. There are lots of things we can do that make perfect sense that strengthen our democracy and increasing participation but we’re not getting thoughtful discussions about any of those things. And I think it’s because, to a large extent, politicians are motivated by their next contribution and not by truly helping out their constituents.”
I asked Mackler what his approach would be to move a polarized Senate in his direction, and with the modesty to say that he has no delusions of grandeur that leads him to believe he can get 99 Senators to agree with him, he credits his wife, Shana—a rabbi at The Temple in Nashville—with inspiring him to harness a principle of Judaism called Tikkun Olam meaning repair the world. “It’s basically the idea that just because you can’t solve all of a problem doesn’t relieve you of the obligation to try. So I start from that perspective. I know I’m not going to get to D.C. and fix it, but I also don’t think that relieves me of the obligation to try.” Mackler went on to say, “I think that there are alliances to be built in Washington, particularly among people with military service. Every time I hear someone on the radio, almost every time, if I miss the introduction but listen to what they’re saying, I’ll often find myself thinking, ‘that guy’s really got a good approach to this.’ They’re talking about accomplishing missions, working with a team, finding common ground and then, more often than not, I find out they are a veteran and maybe Republican or Democrat, but they’ve got the same approach to problem solving that I too have which is really encouraging to me. So I think there are opportunities there.”
That’s not all, Mackler said, “You have to have to go to Washington willing to leave Washington, and that has to be the mindset as well. If you get there and you are determined that you’re going to spend the rest of your natural life in D.C. then everything you do is directed to winning that next election, satisfying your big corporate donors, and maintaining the status quo. And that is wrong. It’s not why we should be electing people. It’s not why people should be serving.” With that kind of statement, it demanded the next question: is Mackler promising to set a “term limit” for himself? He balked at the idea of a specific pledge but did say, “I don’t intend to be in Washington for more than a couple terms. I’ve got two daughters. They’re seven and eight. And one of the things my eight-year-old asked me, and this was before Alexander got out, but she said, ‘Why doesn’t he have to give someone else a turn?’ It makes good sense. My eight-year-old has a lot of good insights into politics.”
I asked Mackler about the Senator he’d like to replace. Lamar Alexander has a reputation in the Senate, real or imagined, for being a consensus builder and he easily won reelection in 2014. Marsha Blackburn is a sycophant of Donald Trump who seems to see consensus building as a euphemism for losing and she won in the same state against a moderate, immensely popular former two-term Democratic governor. Without a current Republican nominee or even any announced primary candidates so far (Mackler is currently unopposed on the Democratic side), I asked Mackler if he would run as a fighter or a consensus builder.
“I think it says something—not something good—about our current political environment that both Alexander and Corker, who both had reputations as statesmen and as fairly moderate Republicans, that both of them chose not to run again. On the other hand, although Alexander and Senator Corker, by demeanor, are fairly moderate Republicans they were also pretty much ‘go along to get along’ and supported the Trump agenda. Neither of them really stuck their necks out at critical moments when they could have. And one thing I hope to differentiate myself from both of them is as being someone who is willing to do what’s right every time, even when it’s a hard decision and even though it could cost me a future election. I’m going to be willing to stick my neck out. I wouldn’t say that either of them really did that in an effective manner.”
Mackler did offer this: “I’ll give Alexander praise, for example, for his bipartisan bill to stabilize the health care exchanges. It was great. You know, a good bipartisan effort in a very divisive time to deal with the real problem. Unfortunately, it never even came up for a vote in McConnell’s Senate. So, it was an idea. A great idea. I’m glad he put it put it out there, but he never really used the weight and stature that he had to push it any further than that. So, of course, I want to be a consensus builder. I very much want to seek solutions to problems and to the extent that people see Lamar Alexander as a consensus builder, I want to follow in that role. But I also want to be someone who will stand up for what’s right. Every single time. Even if it bucks my party, and even if it might cost me a future election.”
There’s a lot of demand from the center in American politics to focus on so-called bread and butter issues and to stop the partisan rancor. Trump himself has done a good job of characterizing the slightest effort of Democrats to fulfill their Constitutional role of oversight as a partisan attack. But the Democratic base voters are energized by it, and are ready for a political smack-down. Striking that balance between offering practical solutions versus throwing punches could be the key to victory in 2020. I asked Mackler where he sees himself on that spectrum.
“The only way I know to run a race is to be true to myself, to speak my mind, tell people what I believe. They’re going agree with me some of the time, hopefully more often than not, but they’re not always going to agree with me. I think people will respect a person for speaking their mind. I don’t have the mental energy to try and always calculate who’s going to believe what and how is this or that going to help me or hurt me. And I believe that the voters we’re talking about are going to respect someone—do respect someone—who’s going to say, ‘I’m fighting for you. This is what I believe. These are my values. This is what you’ve told me you need.’ And so I’m going to fight for that. And you might not agree with me on this thing, but I hope you are with me on the next thing and understand that I’m here to fight for you as a Tennessean—not to fight as a Democrat, not to fight as a Republican. And that’s something I tell people all the time; I’ll be your senator, not the Democratic senator, not another Republican senator, I’ll be your senator and we don’t have enough of that anymore.”
Mackler is banking on his ability to convince Tennessee voters that he won’t be a puppet on a string for any president, or for any party leaders. He is going to be an independent voice in the Senate to have the backs of Tennesseans across the state. “l hear pundits say all the time that a Democrat can’t win in Tennessee, but I really believe that’s only true if folks believe it to be true. I think that one of the greatest voter suppression tools that the Republicans have is to convince people that their vote doesn’t count. We absolutely can win elections, but people have to get involved, get very excited, and get motivated, not just to go vote themselves but to bring their friends and family with them to vote. It only happens when you’re excited about the candidate, about their values. We can win.”
This is a unique opportunity for the state of Tennessee; they will be able to choose between a Republican politician or a political outsider who has led a life of service to his country. Don’t bet against Mackler.
You can follow James Mackler on Twitter @James_Mackler. You can also donate to his campaign or volunteer by visiting https://www.jamesmackler.com