In May 2019, Jim Coley, the Republican state House member from Tennessee’s 97th district, announced he would not seek reelection upon receiving news he was in the early stages of dementia. Today, for the first time in as long as anyone cares to remember, his party is in danger of losing that seat. Democrat Gabby Salinas and Republican John Gillespie are currently locked in a dead heat, and with less than a month to go, it’s looking like a coin flip.
“Any time you have a long-time incumbent step down, those open seats are the most likely to flip” said Scott Golden, Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. “It’s just gonna be a great race.”
But the 97th district is vulnerable for more reasons than just a retiring incumbent. Shelby County Republican Party Chairman Chris Tutor has an influx of new residents and a uniquely popular Democratic candidate to thank for his party’s current predicament.
“You have different voters living in that district now as compared to 10 years ago, and many of these voters tend to vote more Democratic,” said Tutor. “I also think Gabby Salinas is just a competitive candidate.”
Competitive might be an understatement. Not only did she lose by fewer than two points in her 2018 District 31 state Senate race against incumbent Brian Kelsey, but Salinas wins by a landslide in the category of ‘life story.’ There might not be a more moving biography in all of Tennessee politics today.
But let’s begin with Gillespie. Gillespie grew up in Bartlett, a historically affluent and Republican leaning city in the top left corner of the 97th district. He attended Christian Brothers High School, and upon graduating from High Point University in North Carolina, returned home and kicked off his career as a financial service representative at First Tennessee.
He now works as a grant coordinator at Trezevant Episcopal Home — a retirement home–and has networked Republican political circles over the years in preparation for just this moment. His involvement is paying off. He was endorsed by Coley in February, much to the surprise of his primary opponent, whom he easily defeated.
Salinas, on the other hand, was born in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and at the age of seven was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a form of life threatening bone cancer. The treatment was more than her family could afford, but she and her father had traveled to New York to receive the diagnosis, and as luck would have it, a reporter with New York Daily news picked up the story. “No Funds and Girl, 7, Could Die,” read the front page headline.
That’s when Marlo Thomas, daughter of Danny Thomas, actor, singer and the founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, reached out to the family and agreed to cover all medical expenses for Salinas’s care at St. Jude’s in Memphis. And so the entire Salinas family packed up and moved. About a year later when Salinas was 8, she and her family drove to New York for some well-earned time away from the hospital, and on their return, were involved in a car wreck. Her father and sister were killed, and her mother, pregnant with her fourth child, was paralyzed from the waist down.
Salinas has been tested more than most. She grew up in the hospital and a single-parent home. Bruised by trauma, she fought through two bouts with cancer and hundreds of hours of painful treatments and physical therapy.
Yet throughout her journey she has been embraced by the community she calls home and she has dedicated herself to returning the favor. Since 2010 she has worked at Saint Jude’s, conducting research in the Department of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics to help save young lives around the world. She now hopes to fight for her fellow Memphians in the state Legislature.
“I am running to take care of the community that took care of me,” she says.
One would be hard pressed to find two more different biographies on a Tennessee ballot. And in some ways that is reflective of the swiftly changing demographics in the 97th and the Memphis suburbs more broadly.
Bartlett represents the wealthier, more reliably Republican portion of the district. But areas to its south, such as portions of East Memphis and the northern tip of Cordova, trend blue and have begun seeping into the 97th. It is notable that the 96th district, which accounts for the majority of Cordova and borders the southern edge of the 97th, has been represented by Democrat Dwayne Thompson since 2016.
“Bartlett has been a Republican stronghold in Shelby County for the longest time,” notes Allan Creasy, who ran against Coley as the Democratic nominee in 2018 and lost to Salinas in this year’s primary. “Now you see folks who tend to be younger, tend to be more moderate, more open-minded politically, moving in. The suburbs are trending, if not blue, definitely more purple.”
The two candidates cannot help but draw attention for their differences, but both are committed to issues-driven campaigns designed to inspire unity among an increasingly diverse voter base.
“I’m an issue-driven person,” says Salinas, “and if you look at my life and you see everything that I have been through from fighting cancer, to coming from a single-parent household and having a mom in a wheelchair, we can all agree that’s very hard to overcome. But to be honest, some of the hardest fights I’ve ever had to fight have been against policies.”
Salinas calls herself a unifier, and believes residents are more aligned around issues than many would lead them to believe.
Gillespie: Competition—between health care providers, between drug manufacturers, and between insurance companies—is good. Competition encourages innovation and it brings down cost. In the legislature, I will be guided by these core beliefs as I vote on health care laws. (votejohngillespie.com)
Salinas: Tennessee is losing out on $1.4 billion a year of federal funding by not expanding Medicaid. I have been advocating in favor of Medicaid expansion since day one. There is a direct correlation between not passing Medicaid expansion and rural hospital closures. Our state has the highest number of hospital closures in the country. This is a result of not expanding Medicaid. (voteforgabby.com)
“Jim Coley and I agree on almost everything when it comes to public education. When it comes to Medicaid expansion, I support (former) Governor (Bill) Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan. When we dive deep into the issues, we agree more than we disagree.”
A similar message for unity is echoed by the Republican camp. Gillespie didn’t respond to requests for comment but Tutor spoke passionately about his and Gillespie’s shared vision for their party.
“We want that vision of a safe, prosperous community to be available to every single person in Shelby County. We want it to transcend economic background, neighborhood, race, ethnicity,” he said. “We want it to be for everybody. So we are actively working to make sure that our party, the people that we run for office, the makeup of our county executive committee, that it’s reflective and representative of our community so that we can better love our neighbor.”
With the exception of an attack from Gillespie regarding Salinas’ endorsement by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the tone of this race is civil as it nears its end.
The ways in which one might characterize this contest are bountiful: a siren for change vs. the status quo, for instance, or as the progressive insurgent vs. the incumbent’s successor. But ultimately this race will likely be decided by a slim margin and recent demographic change in this particular area of the Memphis suburbs.