Marquita Bradshaw knows what it’s like to be left out, to be the person whose voice is ignored by the power structures.
After years of fighting politicians from Memphis to Washington with mostly disappointing results, she’s decided to do something about it.
Bradshaw is the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in what she calls a “Marquita versus Goliath” race against the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate, Bill Hagerty. The Memphis activist is also the only African American woman running for Senate in the entire country this cycle.
She is not discouraged by those that say she has no chance of winning. Nor does she fear the power of the Republicans, their war chests and army of workers. All that makes her willing to fight harder.
“Politics in Tennessee are not helping hard-working people,” said Bradshaw, who works as a health caregiver in Memphis. “I’ve seen how the effects of a weak environmental policy and a poor labor policy have hurt the working people. I’ve felt the frustration of trying to get something accomplished and being ignored. I feel like some of those representing us now are nothing short of treasonous. I want to change that.”
Bradshaw is a fierce fighter for environmental reform, a fight she started in 1995 when the Memphis Army Depot was closed, leaving behind an environmental disaster. There are 29 Superfund sites in the state, 10 in Shelby County alone, and another 348 sites around the state under investigation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. She said the depot site remains a hazard.
“They contaminated the soil and water, dumped dangerous chemicals into the Cane Creek, which runs through our neighborhoods and into other creeks and rivers,” she said. “The aquifer was polluted, as well as the air and soil.”
The depot was designated a Superfund clean-up site. The EPA said much of the site has been cleaned up over the years, but that the process is ongoing.
“The chemicals there were used in bio-chemical warfare,” she said. “People in the area suffered from illnesses and diseases, including nine people who died from heart attacks or strokes in one block near the plant.”
Lamar Alexander’s legacy
She is particularly anxious to take the seat held by Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander since 2003 as he announced he will not run for another term. At age 80, he felt it was time to retire.
“He was a problem,” she said. “We tried to get environmental legislation through and he just sat on it,” she said. “That’s one of the things that made me decide to run.”
Bradshaw talked about “environmental racism.”
“Environmental laws in black and poor neighborhoods are not enforced the same as sites in white neighborhoods,” she said. “And under Trump, environmental rules have been rolled back. We’ve been fighting the same battles for years and years.”
Her platform mirrors its national Democratic counterpart, calling for the banning of gerrymandering; voters’ rights; improving physical and mental health services to addicts, legalization of marijuana, a $15 minimum wage, the right to unionize, the environmental Green New Deal, Medicare for all and a fully-funded educational system for all.
The big issue for political candidates is always money. Bradshaw said she raised about $20,000 to defeat party favorite James Mackler in the Democratic primary, though published reports said she raised less than $10,000.
Now, she said she needs to raise at least $4 million to fight the Republican candidate Hagerty for the Senate seat. She said she has raised about $250,000 as of late August.
According to published reports, Hagerty’s campaign had raised more than $10 million for the primary election. The campaign would not comment on how much has been raised for the general election.
Bradshaw said there’s more to an election than money.
“Our most valuable resources are the people working together to win,” she said. “That’s what they underestimated in the primary. We are used to fighting. We have the people who want to fight. We had great representation in 45 counties in the state, (almost half of the 95 counties in Tennessee.) We are working with the state Democratic party to make sure that, as a top ticket candidate, we can help those lower on the ticket.”
But not everyone is as confident of Bradshaw’s chances.
Chip Forrester, of Nashville, is the former chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party and has been active in Tennessee politics for 35 years. He is currently working with Sen. Chuck Schumer’s PAC and previously was a fundraiser for Joe Biden.
When asked the chances of Bradshaw had to becoming the first Democratic Senator from Tennessee since 1993, Forrester was brutally direct:
“She has no chance at all,” he said. “There’s nothing she can do to win. It takes millions to run for the Senate. The donor group in Tennessee is pretty sophisticated on who they support, they know their money is better spent in other states where there is a chance to win. No one knows her.”
Before becoming Bill Clinton’s vice-president, Gore was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984 and re-elected in 1990. When he became vice-president, the governor appointed Democrat Harlan Mathews to serve the remaining two years of his term.
Forrester said the problem is that Tennessee is a Trump state.
“Tennessee is a solid Trump state,” Forrester said. “Maybe not as solid as four years ago, but the state is comfortably for Trump. It will be a long time before (not voting the Republican ticket) filters down to rural Tennessee, maybe a generation away. There was a time when people split their ticket, they don’t do that anymore. They start in one column and go all the way down.”
Further, Forrester said Bradshaw won the primary election mostly because of her placement at the top of the ballot and her identification as a Black woman, which gave her a huge leg-up in Shelby County and Memphis.
He said he is one of the major fundraising players in the state and Bradshaw has not asked him for his help, beyond a single, short phone call months ago.
“She never followed up,” he said.
Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University who previously ran the office of longtime Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon, said the ballot placement theory is nonsense.
“Candidate names have always been listed alphabetically,” he said. “I don’t believe being at the top of the ballot is enough to win an election.”
Forrester said in addition to her name placement, Bradshaw ran in a race that lacked a lot of interest.
“This was a very low information primary,” said Forrester. “Regular voters had little information about the five people on the ballot. African American voters saw the name Marquita Bradshaw that they surmised was an African American woman, someone they could relate to and voted for her.”
James Mackler’s name was at the bottom of the ballot. The party favorite, he raised $2 million and spent a lot of it in other parts of the state.
“He needed to have opened an office in Memphis and staffed it with African American workers to make an impact,” Forrester said. “I told him not to worry about Chattanooga, worry about Memphis.”
Likewise, Gregory Gleaves, the former executive director of the Tennessee GOP and the former chief of staff to the former Speaker of the House, said Bradshaw has no chance of winning.
He said the Democratic Party in the state has sent the wrong person to run in the general election in the last four major elections.
“In the primaries the candidates that would have the best chance to win keep losing,” he said. “Once, there was a guy named Charlie Brown who won, I suspect, out of name recognition.
“Hagerty has a well-oiled machine,” Gleaves continued. “Trump will win the state big and Hagerty even bigger.”
General election is tougher
The Nov. 3 general election will be a different story when Bradshaw faces Hagerty, who is endorsed by President Donald Trump.
“That endorsement carries a lot of weight in the state, which voted solidly for Trump,” Forrester said. “Plus, he has the donations to run a heavy ad campaign all over Tennessee.”
He said Hagerty’s campaign will spend a small fortune on television, radio and media spots to win over voters in the state.
Forrester said Bradshaw should lower her political sights.
“She needs to start smaller, build up a name and reputation,” he said. “School board, council, then a state representative seat,” he said. “She went right to the top, to be one of the 100 senators in the country, that’s huge.”
He said Bradshaw could use her current standing to start that process.
“She should use her Primary election win to campaign for other candidates lower on the ticket,” he said. “As a Senate candidate, she has some standing that could help others and herself in the process. That’s how you gain allies.”
When asked about his platform, a spokesman for Hagerty said the platform was to oppose the Democratic platform, but gave little information about where Hagerty stood beyond that.
“Tennesseans sent a strong, clear message on primary night earlier this month – this is a conservative state,” Abigail Sigler, campaign spokesman replied in an email in late August. “They do not want the Socialist policies of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders such as free health care for illegal immigrants, open borders, sanctuary cities and the Green New Deal.”
She did not respond when asked what Hagerty wanted to do beyond opposing the Democratic platform.
State Democratic support
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini, agrees that Bradshaw could help bolster the chances of candidates lower on the ticket and said Bradshaw is doing that as she campaigns.
Mancini disagrees with Forrester about Bradshaw’s chances and said she is thrilled to have Bradshaw in their camp.
“We’re incredibly excited,” she said. “She is the first African American woman to run for the U. S. Senate for Tennessee from either party and the only one running for Senate this election cycle. We are 100 percent behind her.”
While noting that she has a tough race to run, Mancini said Bradshaw won counties all over the state in the primary, including historically Republican strongholds in rural and suburban areas. Of course, she was not running against Republicans.
“This is about getting out the Democratic base,” Mancini said. “It’s also about closing the margins in other places, like Eastern Tennessee.”
Several politics watchers have noted that this election is unique because of the conflict and chaos coming out of the White House.
“People are rethinking their allegiance to the Republican Party,” Mancini said. “With someone like Bradshaw, we have a lot of votes up for grabs.”
One of the biggest challenges of the election will be coming up with the money to compete with the Republican deep pockets behind Hagerty.
Mancini said they are working with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to see if they can get some money to help Bradshaw.
I think people need to put party aside and vote for what's good for the country. Marquita needs to listen to what people are saying, what they care about, the real Tennessee values and work to accomplish what they want. – State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville
“It’s an opportunity for them as well,” she said. “Bradshaw is an incredible fundraiser and capturing the imagination of voters and donors.”
“We have a very Trump-like governor (Bill Lee) who refuses to listen to medical experts and scientists about the coronavirus,” Mancini said. “A majority of our state’s legislature is not listening either even as we face overwhelmed hospital, business closings, job losses, and an education crisis. No, they would rather focus on ‘extreme emergencies,’ like protecting the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest than real problems.”
(Forrest was a Confederate general. His bust has sat in the state Capitol for decades. After protests, the Tennessee Capitol Commission voted to move the bust to the Tennessee State Museum, which is expected to happen in 2021.)
Governor Lee’s office declined to return calls for comment.
Mancini said the party is very concerned about election interference from the Republicans, based on recent actions and comments by Trump. They hired an “Election Protection Director” who will look for improprieties.
“We also have an army of poll watchers, a roomful of lawyers and have set up a hotline for people to call to report problems, 1-855-4VOTETN (1-855-486-8386,” Mancini said.
Tennessee State Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, who is up for re-election in November, said Bradshaw is popular in Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, but faces a tough time is surrounding counties.
Johnson said the Democrats in Knoxville are “Pretty engaged. Marquita has campaigned in Knoxville many times and has a good following. But the county and surrounding counties are pretty red.”
But, Johnson thinks that color might be changing.
“Many people from both sides of the aisle are unhappy with the negative campaigning from the Republicans, locally and nationally,” she said. “I spoke to a 73-year-old woman who said she was so turned off by the negativity that she was voting straight Democrat for the first time in her life.”
She said Bradshaw has a shot at winning the Senate seat.
“She’s just getting started, if she can catch fire and bring in people who are unhappy with the way things are across the country,” she said. “I think people need to put party aside and vote for what’s good for the country. Marquita needs to listen to what the people are saying, what they care about, the real Tennessee values and work to accomplish what they want.”
Johnson said the people of Tennessee overwhelmingly want to expand Medicaid, fix the public school education system and decent wages, all planks in the platforms of both women.
“We should be able to live on what we make in a 40 hour work week,” Johnson said. “And senior citizens should be able to live with dignity, which will not happen if Trump has his way to cut social security, which he has been trying to do for years.”
And, she said, it’s time to also restore the dignity of public office.
“People now say they expect politicians to lie,” she said. “That is not right and we need to stop acting like lying is acceptable. We need to elect better people to represent us and respond to our needs.”