Republicans in the Tennessee state house seem more determined than ever to protect Ku Klux Klan heritage and restrict reproductive rights (see the dead of night anti-abortion bill passed this week). It is in this moment that we’ve seen more women and people of all races becoming inspired to run for office. Majority 60 spoke with one such woman, Jerri Green — an educator, an attorney, a human rights worker, and a mom who stepped forward to run for a state House seat (TN-District 83.)
We asked Green what she thought about the midnight assault on liberty and reproductive freedom this past week. “If you’re not angry,” she said, “then you’re not paying attention.”
This is not where we expected to begin this interview. Indeed, Republican strategists seem determined to focus on so-called wedge issues that they believe will be enough to convince the public to vote against their own interests. If it’s not attacking the autonomy of women, it’s passing bills for the gun lobby and extending privileges that nobody is asking for. “There is no ambiguity as to my position on both of these issues,” Green said. “We must pass gun-sense legislation and work to end the epidemic of gun violence that plagues our society and we must protect a woman’s right to control her own reproductive healthcare.” Green quickly added, “While the radical right tries to paint this as a “far left” take, my views are shared by a vast majority of Tennesseans and Americans and our common ground is easy to find.”
Of course, she’s right on both points. Tennesseans believe strongly in the right to own a gun, but fervently support gun safety laws that prevent criminals and others from getting guns and even — by a slim majority — favor a ban on assault-style weapons. What’s needed most on these divisive issues are honest brokers in the state legislature.
The situation is similar for the right to choose. Research done in 2019 showed that a majority of the voting public supported upholding Roe v Wade, the landmark case that protects the right of women to control their own bodies as men do. “A majority of Americans believe the difficult and deeply personal decisions around a woman’s reproductive health care should be between her and her doctor, and if she chooses, her partner, her family, and her faith leader,” Green said. “The government should be nowhere in the equation, and it certainly should not be interfered with by a legislature that is made up of mostly men.” Green sees opportunity in policy that supports new mothers as a possible bridge on this issue. “If the government wished to assist pregnant women, they would not continually cut from their budget prenatal care and postpartum insurance assistance to help both the new mother and child in very critical months. This is where I would put my focus; a place I would hope we could find common ground,” Green explained.
Green has a tremendous amount of credibility on these issues. “When I graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center, I decided to dedicate my career to one of service. I started as a public defender and have continued that through today. I am currently an advocate for those who otherwise would not get access to justice at the Community Legal Center. My job has always been to be a voice for those whose stories were going unheard,” Green told us.
“My years as an advocate for those in need, my time spent as a volunteer, and my experiences as an educator will help me not only understand the importance of issues like paid family leave or criminal justice reform, but recognize where our government should prioritize its resources to have the greatest impact. As an attorney, I understand how our laws function in the real world. I also understand the concept of judicial review and the place the legislature holds in the government. I see our current legislature wasting so much time and taxpayer money on advancing blatantly unconstitutional agendas. Arguing policy is one thing; writing sound law is another.”
People who have seen Green on the trail have heard her campaign moniker: “One tough mother.” It’s not just a fun play on words to Green who explained, “Ask anyone, it’s the hardest job out there. And with it comes a special set of skills — like cleaning up a mess in house that you didn’t make. Seriously, I have three wonderful children who are my only special interest. Were it not for them, I would not be running at all. They are my legacy and making our community a better place for them in the future is my driving force.” Green added, “Currently, there are no women with school-aged children in the Tennessee legislature. That means I am not under-represented; I am unrepresented. And I am not alone. I will fight for children, parents, families, everyone who feels their voice isn’t currently being heard in our legislature.”
It can be challenging in a state where Republicans run pretty much everything to convince Democrats that the fight is worth the effort and expense. Green not only refuses to back down from that challenge, but she pays tribute to the strong Democratic women and former Governor Phil Bredesen for proving that it’s possible. “Two years ago, when there was no presidential election, there was a hotly contested suburban mayoral race that drew out a high water mark for Republican voters, and the Democratic candidate for this seat, Danielle Schonbaum, received 44% of the vote.” That was an increase of 14% from the election prior to that. “These were the first two elections where the Democrats even fielded a candidate,” Green said.
Former Governor Phil Bredesen also won the district in his senate race against Marsha Blackburn. And Green points to a trend of young, progressive families moving to the district. “This seat is being called one of the most flippable in the state,” Green said adding, “I am by far the best funded and most seriously backed candidate District 83 has put forward.” Her Republican opponent, Mark White, has occupied the seat for 10 years and has green lit years of reckless legislating in a party that has blocked two Republican governors from expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act and watched as rural hospitals closed across the state. Jerri Green implores Democrats to fight for Tennessee.
“One or two votes in the State House means there must be compromises on legislation. One or two votes in the house means an end to gerrymandered congressional districts. One or two votes in the house means the governor does not have unfettered power,” Green said. “While the country has literally burned in the past few weeks, the Tennessee GOP legislature has passed laws that are anti-family, anti-gay, anti-gun sense, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-education. It will only be more of the same unless change is made, and I think the voters of District 83 get that.”
Failure of leadership has been a hallmark of state Republicans, Green said, “When the Covid-19 crisis hit, Gov. Lee refused to make a definitive statement about whether businesses and localities should shelter in place, whether schools should close, and then for how long.” During the pandemic, “It was left to local leaders like those in Memphis and Nashville, and Shelby, Davidson, Williamson, and Sevier Counties to pave the way for their citizens’ safety. Since then, Lee has done little to nothing to improve the safety of Tennessee residents. He even issued a bid-less contract to a company out of North Carolina for face masks to hand out. These masks turned out to be glorified porous socks treated with toxic chemicals and completely unusable.”
Healthcare is still the issue most important to Tennesseans and when asked what can be done, Green explained, “First, we can start by rolling back the block grant that allowed the state to cut benefits and reduce enrollment. With this legislation, the GOP was able to restrict access to core services such as hospital and emergency care, PT, hospice, and reproductive care, without any federal oversight. The grant capped funding for children, low-income parents, and people with disabilities. In other words, the most vulnerable were stripped of the funds that were designated by the federal government for them so they could be allocated elsewhere. From there we need to look at the benefits of expanding medicaid through the ACA. This would benefit millions of Tennesseans immediately, and importantly help them during a global pandemic.”
Tennessee has a well documented problem with rural hospital closures. Republicans in the state legislature have watched the system break. Green explained why that is so personally painful for her to see. “My father lived in a rural area in Arkansas. He died of a stroke, and the nearest hospital that could properly treat him was hours away. I know all too well how important these hospitals are and how we have to work hard to stop the closures. We need look no further than the current pandemic to see that the closure of rural hospitals has been completely shortsighted — Covid-19 is not limited to cities. While District 83 is not rural, it is home to two large regional medical centers and an extraordinary number of healthcare professionals. Rural closures put strain on the first responders in urban areas all the more. Tennessee’s priorities should be in providing health care to its people, not taking it away.”
Candidates like Green can’t be overlooked. Voters are ready for a substantive change in their representation. They are ready to have leadership that better reflects their values, goals and priorities. “My job has always been to be a voice for those whose stories were going unheard,” Green said. She promises to be that voice when she gets elected in November.