Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rebuilding The Democratic Party In Tennessee-- Meet Khristy Wilkinson


You want to know how red Tennessee has become? Obama didn't even break 40% in 2012 against Romney. All statewide officials are Republicans, including both U.S. Senators. The congressional delegation is made up of 7 right-wing Republicans, one progressive Democrat from Memphis, Steve Cohen, and a very conservative Blue Dog from Nashville, Jim Cooper who could just as well be a Republican in terms of his voting record. Both Houses of the state legislature have GOP super-majorities. In 2004 the GOP won their first majority in the state Senate since Reconstruction. Today they hold 28 of the 33 seats. Democrats hold mayor's jobs in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville, but that's pretty much it. The DCCC isn't running a single candidate in the state, not even for the open seat in Jackson and the Memphis suburbs or for the Murfreesboro seat held by sex predator Scott DesJarlais. A corrupt old establishment Democratic Party passed away and what's left calling itself the Democratic Party is just next to nonexistent. 854,445 Republicans voted in the presidential primary this year and only 371,082 Democrats showed up. Hillary won every county on of the state's 95 counties except for 3 tiny ones in the northeast corner of the state that went for Bernie.

So how are they going to rebuild this mess? In 2014, we introduced you to Mary Mancini, who was running for a state senate seat in Nashville. She didn't win that primary but was soon after elected state party chair. She's working on rebuilding the part from the ground up. And one of the best shots is in the southeastern part of the state, where a Bernie activist and UT adjunct professor, Khristy Wilkinson, won a surprise victory in a 3-way race August 4 for the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP incumbent Todd Gardenhire. Although the establishment candidate vastly outspent her-- he raised $79,455 to her 2,835-- she came out on top, 2,662 (43.58%) to 2,111 (34.56%). Her biggest issue was a full-throated promise to work towards expanding Medicaid and the state's health care system, something that has been backed by Tennessee's Republican governor but opposed by the incumbent state senator, Todd Gardenhire. So now what?

The 2012 redistricting created a slight Republican lean in the district, which is made up of the urban areas of Hamilton County (Chattanooga) and the rural southeast area of Bradley County. Gardenhire is the first Republican to hold the seat in 40 years, making this race a particularly important one for the Democrats to take back. The seat was previously held by Chattanooga's now-mayor, Andy Berke. there's a great deal of resentment towards Gardenhire his role in keeping Governor Bill Haslam’s InsureTN plan to expand Medicaid under the ACA from going to the floor for a vote. To boot, the loud-mouthed Gardenhire has a reputation for being hostile toward his critics, calling one activist an "asshole" when he pressed him on his Insure TN decision, and later telling a reporter who asked what he thought about emails from those who disagreed with him, "That’s what the delete button is for."

In addition to voting against affordable health care, Gardenhire votes indicate he's all in on the Republican War Again Women. The first bill he co-sponsored was the very controversial Fetal Assault law which made it possible for women to be charged with fetal assault for using illegal drugs during pregnancy. Critics of the law claimed that it would prevent or discourage at-risk pregnant women from seeking prenatal and substance abuse care; it was recently allowed to expire. Gardenhire also stripped $400,000 from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at UT-Knoxville, thereby compromising the department’s ability to effectively enforce Title IX, and other anti-discrimination measures on campus. He initially wanted to spend $100,000 on putting "In God We Trust" decals on law enforcement vehicles. Gardenhire is no friend of workers, supporting the prohibition of local-hire initiatives, local minimum wage increases and equal pay requirements, and sponsoring legislation that prohibits teachers from having their membership dues automatically deducted from their payroll checks. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, which is why Senator Gardenhire was challenged by three Democrats in the primary.

The Democratic challengers included Nick Wilkinson, Deputy Administrator of Economic Development for the Berke administration, and two former UTC Philosophy and Religion adjuncts, Ty O’Grady, a local entrepreneur who spent nothing on his campaign, and Khristy Wilkinson, philosopher-mom and community activist. The Wilkinsons are not related. Nick Wilkinson was supported by the Mayor’s office and probably the vast majority of the City Hall crowd. Khristy, inspired in part by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, carried every precinct in Bradley County. We asked her to share her thoughts on winning the primary, how she got there, and the path to victory in November. After you read it please consider clicking on the Blue America state legislative thermometer on the right and contributing to her very grassroots campaign.

Bernie's Revolution Is Alive And Well In Chattanooga
-by Khristy Wilkinson

Goal Thermometer On election night, I invited my closest friends and supporters over to watch the returns come in. I was in a late-running meeting when the polls closed, and was surprised when I began getting text messages saying that I had the lead in early voting. After months of grassroots effort, late night letter writing, phone calls, meetings, forums, canvassing expeditions, and a debate, our scrappy little campaign won the Democratic nomination for Tennessee State Senate. Thanks to dedicated volunteers and true believers, we carried every precinct in Bradley County, and most precincts in Hamilton County. We were overwhelmingly outspent and out-machined and yet we won by almost ten points. In the days following our incredible victory in the August primary, we received encouraging messages from strangers in Kentucky, Texas, California, Michigan, Virginia, and New Zealand, all with the shared sentiment of renewed hope in democracy and its process, and renewed faith in the grassroots movement. I couldn’t be more excited or more optimistic about our chances in November.

I’ve always been a Democrat. My first election was the 2000 presidential election, the year of the hanging chads. I was young and impressionable, and I loved Al Gore. I vividly recall casting that ballot, my heart racing with excitement-- I believed Gore would win, and that my vote would matter. The results of the 2000 election were a crushing blow, watching as the popular vote went to Gore and the electoral vote went to Bush, affirming his presidential win. The Florida controversy added insult to injury. I wondered how our electoral mechanics could be considered "democratic," and why more people weren’t demanding election reform. When I asked these questions, the general sentiment was that those in power were not likely to try to change the system that put them in power. I lost a little faith in the American experiment that year.

The 2004 presidential election gave me renewed hope in the form of Howard Dean and Barack Obama. Dean’s passion and excitement rekindled the political fire within, and Obama’s speech at the DNC made me optimistic about the future of American Democracy. I have always been drawn to charismatic and passionate leaders with a strong moral compass, a bright vision for our country’s future, and a solid record of defending progressive values, which is why I supported Senator Bernie Sanders in this year’s presidential primary election. I volunteered for his campaign in Tennessee for months, and even had a paid internship at his field office in Chattanooga. Our society is plagued with socio-economic inequality, and our electoral system favors candidates with big money and special interests. Bernie is the first major presidential candidate in recent history to bring these issues into hyper-focus, the first presidential candidate to say aloud what I’ve been thinking since 2000, the first presidential candidate that seemed willing and eager to change the political system in the interest of the greater good and for the sake of true democracy. Although unsuccessful at winning the nomination, Bernie Sanders has moved the needle toward progress, and some of the candidates running for office as part of the revolution he called for are actually making headway, myself included. Our smaller victories make up for our greater loss.

I’m also excited to share the ballot with Hillary Clinton. I’m proud to be a part of this moment in history. I’m proud of my friends who are supporting her campaign and who are her true believers. I’m also proud of the cohort of amazing women running for state legislative offices all across Tennessee, some of whom are fellow "Berniecrats," also inspired to continue this political revolution. I’m proud to be able to say "I’m with her" and mean it so many times over and for so many different candidates in so many different races. I’m proud of my friends who are supporting Jill Stein and petitioning to get her on the ballot in Tennessee, and I’m proud of my friends who are #bernieorbust. In fact, I’m proud of each and every person who is willing to take the time to cast an informed ballot this November, because frankly, there’s a lot at stake. I believe that the strongest democracy is a robust democracy, and the only way that works is if we each get to use our voices, and we each commit to our civic duties. Our differences form a beautiful tapestry, but ultimately "we are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America." I’ve heard that when people sing in unison, their heartbeats synchronize. I think that is a beautiful thing. Unity is vital. Divided we fall. It is time for us to come together to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions, and for the job they are privileged to do, and to create a political system that empowers people and works for us all.

I am not running for Tennessee State Senate to advance a presidential agenda. I am running to put people over politics in the State of Tennessee, and to represent the people of the 10th Senate District, regardless of who they vote for. Our state is facing some significant challenges and there is a significant amount of work to be done to get our State on the path to progress.

Because of the legislature’s failure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans lack access to affordable health care, billions of taxpayer dollars have been lost, hospitals have closed, and families have gone bankrupt under the burden of medical debt. In my district, 1 out of 5 parents relies on government assistance to feed their families, many of them working and earning less than a living wage. Tennessee has the highest percentage of low-wage workers nationwide. Urban poverty is up in the Hamilton County part of the district by over 70% in the last decade, in the Bradley County part of the district it’s up by over 50%. Chattanooga is seventh in the country for economic inequality and is home to two of the top ten zip codes for racial displacement. We have an affordable housing shortfall of 5,000 units. Tennessee schools rank among the lowest for per pupil spending nationwide, some of our schools are among the poorest in the state. 60% of Hamilton County third-graders aren’t reading at grade level; 60% of Hamilton county students live in poverty. These are all symptoms of deep systemic issues that we have to face in the interest of the greatest good. When we make decisions, we have to be thinking about people, and what we can do to promote their interests, not just the political agenda. Our State legislature isn’t doing that, and it’s time for that to change.

I’ve spent the last few years working in my community and the last several months traveling around the district, and what I see and learn from others is that a lot of good, hard-working people are struggling to survive. From the veteran suffering from PTSD and unable to afford the health care he needs, to the single mother working multiple jobs and missing out on time at home with her kids, or her third-grader who is living in poverty and isn’t reading at grade level-- one cannot fully participate in society if their basic needs aren’t being met. I know what it’s like to struggle to get by, and I have overcome tremendous adversity. I know what it’s like to need a handout, and I know that a firm hand up can make all the difference. For me, overcoming generational poverty and violence took building strong relationships with amazing people, numerous educational and employment opportunities, and quality affordable health care. Not everyone has access to what it takes to overcome; I believe it is time for that to change. I will work to create equitable opportunities so that our communities and families are stronger; and an effective government that is held accountable for its obligations to the people of the State of Tennessee. We must fully fund public education from early childhood to higher ed, make quality healthcare accessible and affordable for all, and take concrete steps toward empowering the citizens of our society. I see the role of State Senator as a chance to give back, to use my voice, my experience, and my talents to not only help others, but to inspire change. It’s going to take someone with courage, grit, and tenacity to move the needle toward progress in Tennessee. I am confident that I can get the job done.

If you’d like to help me get to Nashville, please consider making a contribution to the campaign. Whether it’s time, talent, or money, each and every contribution helps us spread our message a little further and puts us closer to the win in November. This is our campaign website; please stop by anytime.

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