Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, November 3, 2023

Voters are ‘fed up with the meanness’

Johnson’s uphill US Senate run banks on GOP fatigue. Hard to imagine in solid-red Tennessee

As a former teacher, Tennessee Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knox) knows how to deliver a message in front of a noisy room. She’s had to do it quite a lot since first being elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in 2012. And it’s a skill that’s coming in handy as she ramps up her race to become the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in the November 2024 elections.

It’ll be a battle. Her opponent, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, is well-funded and has a deep base of conservative support to draw on as she faces her first challenge as a Senate incumbent.

She also has plenty of cash. The most recent Federal Election Commission filings showed Blackburn had raised almost $9.2 million, with $6.5 million in cash on hand. Johnson brought in $1.3 million and reported $1.2 million in cash on hand.

And then there’s polling. A year out those numbers are thin on the ground, but a recent Emerson College Polling survey found Blackburn notching 50% support for reelection, with Johnson at 25%. That 25% who said they supported someone else, or are undecided, however, is where Johnson says she sees opportunity.

After a failed vote to expel her from the state Legislature following protests over inaction on gun-control legislation, she became nationally known as one-third of the “Tennessee Three” along with fellow representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, (who were expelled, then regained their seats in special elections). That culminated in a White House visit and a sit-down with President Joe Biden and vice president Kamala Harris. That was April. She announced her run in early September.

The Blackburn campaign took notice the day of Johnson’s announcement, with spokesman Abigail Sigler replying: “It’s no surprise that radical socialist Gloria Johnson decided to jump into the race at the urging of liberals in Washington, joining Marquita Bradshaw and others in the race for the Democratic nomination. State Rep. Johnson is as woke as they come, and she would be a puppet for Joe Biden, the Squad, and Chuck Schumer in the Senate. While Sen. Blackburn is working hard to fight back against Biden’s woke agenda, State Rep. Johnson is pushing that divisive, destructive agenda here in Tennessee. Tennesseans deserve a United States Senator who is committed to fighting for our conservative values. Sen. Blackburn will continue her record of getting things done and fighting for Tennessee families.”

Ledger: Was there one thing that spurred your decision to run for U.S. Senate?

Rep. Gloria Johnson: “It was a lot of things over time. I spent my early life in Mississippi, where my family was threatened by the KKK. [Johnson’s father was an FBI agent who was part of the investigative team following a synagogue bombing.]

“We had to move out of our house for a few weeks because my father was threatened, and that’s when I first saw what racism and extremists can do to a community. Later, during my career as a teacher working with families and kids of all different backgrounds, I saw even more of the struggles that those who are disadvantaged can have.

“I see a lot of discouraging things around Tennessee in that respect, and it’s time to stand up and push back. I have a history of standing tall for Tennessee’s hardworking families against the wealthy and well-connected.

“I don’t believe my opponent works for those families, but instead works for corporations and lobbyists. She’s taken no action on reducing the cost of prescription drugs and medical costs and has voted against negotiating drug prices and capping insulin prices.

“Gun violence is a huge issue in Tennessee now, and we don’t see her taking any meaningful action on reducing that.”

Ledger: If you’re chosen as the nominee, you’ll be carrying Democratic talking points, which Sen. Blackburn will be rebutting with Republican points. How do you plan to connect with voters on specific issues?

Johnson: “We’re building a multigenerational and multicultural movement across the state because we want to talk to and include everybody.

“People want a senator who will work for them on the issues they care about. I’ve mentioned gun violence, but Tennessee women also don’t want legislatures, or legislators, in their doctor’s office when they need care and are making decisions.

“It’s going to take a broad coalition to take this seat; my opponent has been in Washington for 21 years. She’ll be running on her record, and not everyone is happy about that record.”

Ledger: Tennessee has 95 counties and pretty much everyone running for statewide office says they’ll visit them all. How’s that going?

Johnson: “When people call, I come. In the last few weeks since announcing we’ve been to more than 20 counties, many rural, to events they were holding or to speak at a function.

“When I say I’ve been from Mountain City to Memphis so far, I mean it. We’re going to every county because every county matters. We need representation from all corners of the state.

“People feel left out of politics, they think all the decisions are being made by and for Nashville or the other larger cities.

“Rural people in this state have a lot to say and that’s why I talk about hardworking families and their needs. They care about what health care costs, and is available, not about tax deals for corporations.”

Ledger: You’ve named gun violence and, in broader terms, health care and the post-Dobbs abortion debate. What other issues are you looking to focus on in the run-up to the primary and, if you win there, in the general?

Johnson: “What I’m hearing most, from Democrats, Republicans and Independent voters, are what’s been mentioned – gun violence and reproductive rights. Those are in the news right now.

“People are also fed up with the meanness and divisiveness they see from the state’s current supermajority. People know they will disagree, and at the same time want someone who respects the human dignity of every single Tennessean, not just those at the top.

“We’re not seeing that. It’s just not happening. People want someone who will listen to them, even if they disagree on issues.”

Ledger: How will your experience in the state Legislature, where you are in a distinct minority, inform your campaign?

Johnson: “I’m one of a handful of people who have flipped a red district repeatedly, even after it was redrawn to beat me. I’ve overperformed the presidential candidates every time.

“My experience in the legislature means I know how the whole process works, from drafting a bill to make sure it has no unintended consequences to working to get it passed.

“Right now, I see a lot of bills being passed with no research into what they’ll actually do. Another thing I know how to do is work to delay and defeat legislation that is bad for Tennesseans.”

Ledger: What is the one piece or package, of legislation you’re most proud of to date?

Johnson: “My community schools bill. I truly believe that community schools are the solution to so many of the problems we have.

“Charter and voucher schools will never be a solution to improving public schools. Vouchers and charter (schools) don’t perform better. Community schools lift up kids who are struggling, they are a true solution to families.

“The community schools model we piloted in Knoxville are open from 3-7 p.m., so kids can stay and do extra coursework or get tutoring, and also learn more in a fun way.

“These are kids who want to get in extra participation in areas like art, music, physical education, theater, that type of thing. And their parents can come in during the evening and take a GED course or resume writing or computer skills.

“There can be social workers, doctors and dentists, and mental health professionals on-site. It’s a great way to bring the community together not just for learning, but for full, wraparound services that support the whole family.

“We’re seeing these schools open up now across the state, and it’s so great to see the model being utilized.”

Ledger: If not already, you’ll be tied to President Biden and Democrats on issues that your opponents will see as damaging. What’s your response?

Johnson: “If you talk to Tennesseans, you’ll see that what I’m talking about aligns with what they want.

“Polling shows the majority of Tennesseans wanting sensible gun legislation. They want reproductive rights protected. About 84% want paid family leave, a bill I’ve carried for the last four years, and 81% want cannabis reform. And more than 70% want some form of Medicaid expansion of better access to affordable care.

“You can say that my opponent is the extremist, and I’m in line with the majority of Tennesseans of all parties.”

Ledger: What lessons did you learn from former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s campaign from 2018?

Johnson: “We’ve talked to his team, and they’ve all been very helpful. We wanted to hear from him what the experience was like, and what we might do differently.

“A lot has changed since he ran, like the Dobbs decision and the continuing escalation of gun violence. These front-and-center issues are making a huge difference in elections now, because they are getting a whole new group of independent and Republican voters to take a look at a campaign like ours that they may not have before.

“Now I need to show that I want to work for the whole state, to help create opportunity for everyone. It’s about fairness. It’s about helping people get off the ground. It’s about fighting for the human dignity of every single person in this state.”

Ledger: The primary is next; what’s your schedule over the next few months? How’s fundraising going?

Johnson: “Having as many conversations with people across the state as I can. Listening to the things they care about. It’s not about what I care about, or what the special interests care about. This campaign is going to be about those families who are not getting heard, and what they need for a better future.

“I received donations from all 95 counties in the first week of the campaign. Now we’ve heard from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Island, American Samoa and Guam.

“Even so, 75% of the money is coming from Tennessee, and the average donation is around $48. That shows that people are receptive to this campaign and its message. People are coming to fundraisers.

“I spoke to a group of mostly Democratic women recently in Collierville, and one lady told me as we were leaving that she was a Republican and I was the first Democrat she’d ever donated to in her life.

“It’s about conversations. It’s about getting out and listening to people, and they are showing up to ask questions and be heard. The energy is amazing.

"People are signing up to volunteer and we’re so excited to see that. They want a representative that comes out and talks to them, who holds town halls and takes questions from everyone.”