Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 23, 2016

View from the Hill: Democrat state rep. learns to work with majority

Bipartisanship forms the backbone of state Rep. Karen Camper’s legislative philosophy.

The Memphis Democrat from Whitehaven recently received the honor as one of the 2016 Elected Women of Excellence, an award established by the National Foundation for Women Legislators to recognize hard work and legislative efforts.

But being recognized by other women lawmakers for her efforts was just part of what made it special.

“It was phenomenal because this particular group is probably, out of the various legislative organizations, the one that’s the most bipartisan, in my opinion, of representation in terms of women that participate,” Camper says.

For Camper, 58, being well-rounded is simply part of life.

Retired from the U.S. Army as a chief warrant officer, she owns Key II Entertainment and serves as executive director of a nonprofit, The Humble Hearts Foundation. She entered the Legislature after getting involved in neighborhood issues and making a run for the Memphis City Council.

Camper also chairs the Shelby County Legislative Delegation, a position requiring a strong personality and the ability to make people from varying backgrounds work toward the same goal.

“She’s a good leader,” says fellow Memphis Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson. “I’ve kind of watched her evolution in the time I’ve been there as a legislator, and she’s doing good things.”

With Democrats making up only 25 of the 99-member House as the 110th General Assembly prepares to convene, working with Republicans is “a given in the culture we’re in,” Parkinson points out.

“It’s very important for a legislator to find areas where there’s common ground and to file legislation that’s suitable for the entire state, because at the end of the day what we do affects the lives of citizens across the state of Tennessee, not just in our particular districts,” Parkinson says.

Camper holds a similar outlook as she and the Legislature’s Black Caucus prepare to make a push in 2017 on criminal justice reform, minority business and education initiatives.

“For me, (bipartisanship) has always been important, keenly important, particularly on the committees I’ve served on here,” she says.

As a former member of the Judiciary Committee, Camper saw bipartisan support as crucial for moving legislation and working with constituents.

“Whatever the issue is, there’s somebody that’s impacted by it, so when you have people coming together to resolve problems for people it just means a lot,” she adds.

Gun violence prevention

Camper recently attended a White House roundtable at which legislators focused on methods for stopping gun violence nationwide.

She received the invitation after passing legislation this year designed to alert authorities in case a person under an order of protection tries to buy a gun. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would be required within one day to inform any agency entering the order into the National Crime Information Center.

Several similar bills failed across the nation, especially in other red states, Camper points out, but she found success by framing it as a measure to protect families instead of to restrict guns.

Likewise, the gun violence prevention roundtable didn’t target gun ownership rights or weapons legislation but searched for ways to “change our message” and become more effective in quelling deadly shootings, she points out.

Coming from Memphis, which has its share of problems, Camper says the city and Shelby County need to take a different approach.

Reports in early 2016 showed the Bluff City’s murder rate on track to bypass Chicago’s. Memphis reported 60 murders in the first three months of the year, giving it a homicide rate of 9.13 per 100,000 population, compared to Chicago’s rate of 5.5. Memphis reported 161 homicides in 2015, according to the report.

“We can’t just think about stiffer penalties and harder sentencings and things like that. We’ve got to think in an intervention way: How do we stop it from getting there?” she asks.

Questions must be raised about where local and state government and put their resources to prevent gun violence, Camper says.

A bill dubbed “constitutional carry” is expected to be renewed in the 2017 session allowing people to carry a handgun without obtaining a conceal-carry permit.

Camper, though, doesn’t want to get caught up in a constitutional debate.

“I have a firearm, I was in the military. I believe in the Second Amendment to the fullest extent,” she says. “However, there are still some things we can do to prevent people from dying at the hand of gun violence. It’s not about whether people need to give up their arms.”

Camper hopes to sit down with the Tennessee Firearms Association to see what their concerns are and how they can work toward “compromise” to reduce gun deaths without infringing on people’s constitutional rights.

In the mix

Camper won selection this year as an executive member at large of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, a post she is honored to take considering the organization was founded by the late Rep. Lois DeBerry. She also was re-elected treasurer of the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus and is a key voice in the Legislature’s Black Caucus, a group she says she believes can make a “greater impact.”

“I think we’re poised to do that now,” she adds.

Black legislators make up more than half of the Democratic Caucus and are gaining leadership positions, which means, she says, they can be “at the table” when policy is being formed.

“The opportunity is great. A lot of our members have great relationships here,” she adds.

“We have people we have served with, came in with, on both sides of the aisle. They’ve been friends with (them) forever, they understand them, they can get in a room and talk to them and make them see things their way.”

One area of focus is economic development and making sure minority-owned and black-owned businesses gain access to government contracts, Camper says. Out of a $33 billion budget, those types of businesses get an $87 million piece of the pie.

“That’s not a lot,” she says. “We’ve definitely got to move the needle on that.”

The governor’s Office of Diversity may have optimistic goals, but nothing is mandated and “there’s no real aggressive push to make sure they meet the goal,” Camper explains.

Criminal justice will be another focal point in 2017, and Camper is working to realign juvenile justice in Tennessee.

Initially, she thought it needed its own department and commissioner because juvenile justice is a sub-department within the Department of Children’s Services.

In taking on realignment, she discovered juvenile justice is “very decentralized” with no one agency pulling it all together, but rather than try to create a new department, she is working toward more cohesion to reduce expenses.

Housing violent offenders costs an average of about $100,000 annually across Tennessee, and in Memphis, it rises to about $125,000, according to information that came out of hearings over the summer. The extra care and protections put in place for juveniles makes those costs rise, she says.

“Some over here know what’s going on and others don’t,” Camper adds.

Better coordination between agencies is a necessity if the state is to become more efficient and extend justice to juveniles, she points out.

3-Star Healthy

A member of House Speaker Beth Harwell’s 3-Star Healthy Task Force, Camper remains optimistic the state will be able to expand TennCare, its Medicaid program, to serve the uninsured and underinsured.

With President-elect Donald Trump set to take office in January, uncertainty surrounds any measures regarding state insurance programs. But she says the 3-Star Healthy effort isn’t floating in la-la land.

“I’m still optimistic. I’m still hopeful. I know there’s a lot of concern about the fact that now we have someone of a different party coming in at the White House level. I just don’t believe it’s going to be rescinded,” she says, “I think because there are a lot of people, here again, regardless of party that’s benefiting from the Affordable Care Act.

“Now, there may be some things we can do different. There may be some compromises we could make. I personally think Tennessee, with TennCare, was really the model for what other states are doing.”

Led by state Rep. Cameron Sexton, a Crossville Republican, the 3-Star Healthy initiative is an effort to come up with an alternative to Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee proposal, which never garnered enough support to come to a floor vote in the Senate or House.

So far, 3-Star is a pilot plan projected to serve tens of thousands of people suffering from behavioral health problems in its first year and then catch the rest of those in a gap between TennCare and Affordable Care Act subsidies.

Nobody knows where it’s heading, Sexton says, but he hopes to gain more direction from the federal government by February or early March as the committee continues to work on a broad approach.

Nevertheless, Camper will play a role in guiding the state’s response.

“Karen is a common-sense legislator that looks at the issue and tries to work toward some type of solution,” Sexton explains. “She understands the most complex issues that we face, and she’s always been more than willing to work with anybody to come up with a solution that will benefit all of Tennessee.”

No doubt, dealing with matters such as state-sponsored health insurance and juvenile justice will take a good dose of bipartisan cooperation, the hallmark of Camper’s legislative career.  

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.