In 2018, the Tennessee House of Representatives race in District 49 was decided by just 1,041 votes. Rep. Mike Sparks, the Republican incumbent first elected in 2010, beat Democrat Chris Mayor by five percent.
In 2016, Sparks, who was first elected in 2010, beat Democrat Brandon Thomas by a margin of 61%-39%.
Sparks and Thomas are facing off for a second time and Thomas says he has evolved as a candidate since his first run.
“I’m a father now. I crack a lot of dad jokes,” Thomas says. “My son is two, but he’s going to be going into public schools. I’ve always supported public schools and funding but to have it directly affect you gives you a different perspective.”
District 49 in Rutherford County includes Smyrna, portions of Murfreesboro and La Vergne. If elected, Thomas would be the first Black person to represent the district and also the first openly LGBTQ state representative.
Thomas’s main campaign platform is to create a “family-friendly economy that works for everyone, no exceptions.” A graduate of Smyrna High School and Middle Tennessee State University, he worked at the Smyrna Walmart before this campaign and says he values worker’s rights.
On his website, Thomas lists increased school funding, criminal justice reform, protecting a woman’s right to make decisions on her reproductive health, a worker’s bill of rights and expanding Medicaid as issues. Expanding Medicaid should have been a “no-brainer” given that taxpayers give their dollars to the federal government for healthcare funding, he says.
“We have free money on the table,” Thomas says. “People are paying into a system but cannot benefit from it. We need to get these dollars into Tennessee.”
In February, two Republican lawmakers introduced a Medicaid expansion bill. Medicaid expansion became an option under the Affordable Health Care Act, with the federal government providing about 90% of the cost to cover the increased, uninsured population. The Republican-backed bill came five years after Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Insure Tennessee” plan failed, and Tennessee is currently one of 13 states that have not taken advantage of the expansion. Thomas says 700,000 uninsured Tennesseans are at a greater risk because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Only really extreme folks do not want to expand Medicaid,” Thomas says.”I see it as stealing. What does it mean to get a [COVID] test but you can’t seek treatment because you can’t afford it?”
After multiple attempts through several platforms, Sparks did not respond to requests for comment. Donna Barrett with the Rutherford County Republican party said she was not aware of any poll data on the race, and the Tennessee Republican Party also did not respond to a request for comment about the Sparks-Thomas faceoff.
Prior to his election to the legislature, Sparks served as a member of the Smyrna Planning Commission for almost 10 years and as a member of the Rutherford County Commission for eight.
An entrepreneur, Sparks lists no campaign issues on his website,
However, Rep. Sparks has been vocal about his platform online and in the press. In 2018 the Murfreesboro Voice reported that Sparks doesn’t believe teachers are underpaid. At the time he was promoting a bill requiring teacher salaries to be posted online.
Sparks has also been vocal about his support for keeping the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in the state Capitol. In July, the Capitol Commission voted 9-2 to remove the bust from the building and relocate it to the State Museum. Sparks spoke at the hearing in favor of keeping the bust in place, adding he would like to see more attention paid to Sampson Keeble, Tennessee’s first Black lawmaker.
In the legislature, Sparks serves on the Insurance and Consumer and Human Resources Committee and chairs the Consumer Subcommittee. He was a member of the Electronic Delivery of Healthcare Committee, which focused on extending telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic, during August’s Extraordinary Session II. During the last session of the general assembly, he sponsored 23 bills, four of which passed and became law.
Sparks has also been an advocate for Democratic lawmaker John DeBerry, who was removed from the August Democratic ballot by the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee, penning an opinion piece in July supporting DeBerry. He also wrote a letter to President Trump encouraging him to finalize the rollback of emissions testing in Tennessee.
Thomas said he wants Rutherford County voters to know the issues he’s running on create a better district for conservative voters, too.
“We know these issues touch everybody, so that’s why we’re fighting for them so hard,” Thomas says.