Closely contested Democratic primary foreshadows November showdown for Senate District 20

Screenshot of a Senate District 20 candidate forum hosted by the Donelson-Hermitage Neighborhood Association July 15. Clockwise from top left, Zaia Thombre, moderator, Heidi Campbell, and Kimi Abernathy. (Photo: Facebook)
Screenshot of a Senate District 20 candidate forum hosted by the Donelson-Hermitage Neighborhood Association July 15. Clockwise from top left, Zaia Thombre, moderator, Heidi Campbell, and Kimi Abernathy. (Photo: Facebook)

As government appointments go, the Solid Waste Region Board and the Foster Care Review Board would hardly be viewed as the launching pads to the top levels of state government. But, Tennessee Democrats believe one of those humble agencies is home to their newest state Senator.

Serving on the solid waste board, which oversees trash and recycling policy for the Nashville area, isn’t even Heidi Campbell’s most impressive political accomplishment. Campbell, 51, is also the mayor of Davidson County satellite city Oak Hill and launched her political career by leading the neighborhood movement that beat back a multi-million-dollar commercial development.

Heidi Campbell. (Photo: Submitted)
Heidi Campbell. (Photo: Submitted)

But, being appointed to the board represents one of Campbell’s most vital political skills: the ability to network and accomplish an ambitious goal. After being elected to represent Oak Hill in 2014, Campbell discovered the small, wealthy town needed to improve its relationship with Metro. She networked, took meetings and eventually was appointed to several notable boards, including solid waste by then-Mayor Megan Barry.

Campbell’s persistence to improve the working relationship paid off last year when then-Nashville Mayor David Briley made a $2 million capital improvement commitment to Oak Hill. Campbell says that victory is proof that she knows how to get stuff done.

For Campbell’s opponent in the District 20 Senate race, Kimi Abernathy, service on the foster care board is the latest accomplishment on a resume chock full of bullet points showing her commitment to helping needy children.

Abernathy, 60, has spent four decades working in and around public education. Among other jobs, she’s been a special education teacher, a teacher in an extremely poor public school district, served as an appointee to a local school board in North Carolina and worked as a guidance counselor.

The foster care review board, which is a court-appointed role, is gritty work that involves oversight of how the state and its contractors provide care to children without permanent legal guardians.

Though Campbell has outperformed Abernathy at raising money, both campaigns are well-funded and boast prominent political backers. Only one will advance to take on incumbent Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, in November.

What’s clear is that whoever wins, Democratic insiders are excited about their chances to defeat Dickerson in a district that is genuinely viewed as split even between Democrats and Republicans, but has been trending to the left in recent years.

“This is a critically important race for Democrats, as the nominee will likely have the best shot of flipping a state Senate seat from Republican to Democrat – something that hasn’t happened in many election cycles,” Nashville attorney and prominent Democratic fundraiser Dave Garrison, who is not backing either candidate in the primary, said.

Garrison is correct. A Democratic Senate candidate hasn’t defeated a Republican incumbent since 2006.

Career in education, personal tragedy pushed Abernathy to run

Abernathy has spent most of her career working in and around education. As a military spouse, Abernathy has moved around often with her family and settled in Nashville in 2013 on the same street where her husband grew up.

She’s worked as a teacher, board member, administrator and most recently operates her own educational counseling practice. Because of her expertise in that area, Abernathy ranks education, especially equitable funding for schools, among her top issues.

Kimi Abernathy (Photo: Submitted)
Kimi Abernathy (Photo: Submitted)

“I believe having lived overseas and having experienced it here in the United States, the government can be the most powerful way to support and uplift our citizens if used correctly,” Abernathy said. “So that’s why I’ve always been politically active. I’m a 30 year Army wife, so I’ve also had the experience of being in that environment, which is generally apolitical, but used very politically.”

However, it was a personal tragedy that motivated Abernathy to pursue the Senate seat, her first time seeking public office. Abernathy’s godson, Henry Granju, died following an opioid overdose 10 years ago. Abernathy said she was in the room when Granju, who was 18, passed and the experience was formative for her.

She cites the need to improve healthcare and address the state’s opioid epidemic among her top issues. Dickerson is an anesthesiologist and cofounder of a pain clinic that was sued for $25 million last year by the federal government and TennCare over fraudulent billing practices. Dickerson denied any wrongdoing.

To address the opioid epidemic and for other reasons, expanding Medicaid is especially important to Abernathy.

“Though I had always worked in political campaigns, I chose to be the face of a campaign for the need to remove this man from office,” Abernathy said.

Former music industry executive with a track record of getting stuff done

Campbell is a Nashville native whose first professional pursuit was the music industry. She began as a singer and songwriter and played in a band before eventually licensing some songs to film and television.

She parlayed that success into the business side of the industry, working in licensing. Campbell earned a masters in business administration at Vanderbilt University, and then worked on Music Row, handling the marketing for record labels and working as a band manager, before striking out on her own and founding her own company.

Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Donald Trump in the district in 2016. Two years later, state Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, flipped the House seat long held by Republican stalwart Beth Harwell, the state’s first woman to be elected Speaker.

Campbell’s first foray into politics was in St. Paul, Minnesota, where her family moved while her husband was pursuing a graduate degree. There, she won a district town council seat, hyperlocal elections with just a handful of voters.

“I won by seven votes and the whole entire number of votes was 16,” Campbell said, laughing off her election win. “I asked my husband’s friends to vote for me and that’s how I won it.”

It may have been a modest victory, but Campbell has shown a knack for winning. After returning to Nashville, she began organizing her neighbors against a large mixed-use development planned for the intersection of Franklin Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard.

When the opponents of that project needed someone from within their ranks to run for Oak Hill town council, Campbell was drafted, winning the job in 2014 and then becoming mayor. The project was supposed to be roughly the size of Cool Springs mall, Campbell said.

Heidi Campbell (Photo: Submitted)
Heidi Campbell (Photo: Submitted)

“I just thought, ‘Oh my god, no,’” she said. “I’m not much of an activist, never really have been, but that was not cool because we’re residential-only. So, I started a group called Save Oak Hill and put signs up, and put several bunnies on the signs, and we won. We saved Oak Hill.”

In the process of being mayor of Oak Hill, Campbell came to realize the small, affluent town needed to improve how it dealt with Metro, the local government for almost all of Davidson County. She was appointed to and volunteered to serve on various boards, including the Greater Nashville Regional Council, the solid waste board, the mayors caucus, the Transit Alliance and the South Corridor Task Force

Campbell falls on the typical Democratic side of most social issues, but she said those issues are not the main reason she’s running. She touted her experience running a tight fiscal ship as mayor for a key reason voters should pick her.

And Campbell said environmental issues are especially important to her.

“I think if we don’t have an inhabitable planet, I think the rest of it is irrelevant,” said Campbell, adding she hates guns, is pro-LGBTQ rights and is proud to say black lives matter.

Dickerson seen as susceptible

Up until a minor flare up last week, the race between Abernathy and Campbell has been civil, with online forums focusing on policy stances. Things got a little salty when Campbell questioned whether Abernathy, who is backed by former Mayor Karl Dean, a prominent charter school proponent, also supported charter schools. Abernathy said she disagreed with Dean on that issue, but her campaign manager, Courtney Wheeler, took to social media to criticize Campell.

A campaign photo of Kimi Abernathy. (Photo: Submitted)
A campaign photo of Kimi Abernathy. (Photo: Submitted)

By modern political standards, it wasn’t a very intense disagreement, perhaps more of a byproduct of a seemingly close, important race reaching the finish line.

While Abernathy and Campbell disagree on who is best positioned to beat Dickerson, they agree that their district is trending to the left.

Hillary Clinton narrowly defeated Donald Trump in the district in 2016. Two years later, state Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, flipped the House seat long held by Republican stalwart Beth Harwell, the state’s first woman to be elected Speaker. In 2018, the district voted for two former mayors who unsuccessfully ran for statewide office, Phil Bredesen for Senate and Karl Dean for governor.

Dickerson has carved out a reputation as an independent voice and a moderate Republican in the Senate. To many Nashville government insiders, it’s important that Davidson County have at least one elected voice inside the Republican-led General Assembly. For instance, Dickerson partnered with U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, to help register young people to vote.

If Dickerson lost in November, Davidson County would almost certainly be all blue in the state legislature.

This will be the first race where Dickerson has had to address the legal troubles at his pain management clinic, which both candidates cited as a motivation for running.

But, Dickerson also faced a strong challenger in Democrat Erin Coleman four years ago, and he breezed to reelection, besting her by over 11,000 votes, 56 percent to 44 percent.

What’s clear is that Democrats view this as one of their best opportunities to flip a Senate seat, something that hasn’t happened since Lowe Finney won his west Tennessee district 14 years ago.

“Steve Dickerson has been in the state senate for eight years and in all that time has done nothing for the people of Senate District 20,” Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini said. “He may say all the right things, but when it comes time for him to vote on important issues like public school funding, increased access to healthcare, protections for our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, workers rights, and the right of women to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions, he’s missing in action.

“The voters in the district have the opportunity to elect a real leader who they can count on to listen and make important decisions on their behalf. Leadership is more important now than ever before and both Kimi Abernathy and Heidi Campbell have already shown more leadership during this campaign than Sen. Dickerson has demonstrated the entire time he’s been in office.”