Former Memphis state Rep. John DeBerry, fresh off losing a re-election bid as a first-time independent candidate, says he was planning retirement after 26 years in the Legislature when Gov. Bill Lee tabbed him for a senior cabinet position.

“This is one of the most unexpected things I have had happen to me in my life,” DeBerry said in his first interview after taking the post Dec. 1.

The 13-term House member from District 90 in Memphis will advise the governor on education, criminal justice reform and numerous other issues, according to the Governor’s Office.

DeBerry was the lone Democrat to vote for the governor’s Education Savings Account bill in 2019 before supporting Lee’s anti-abortion bill this year. Yet he balks at the notion he was selected for his votes on those measures, both of which are held up because of legal challenges.

Former Rep. John DeBerry, I-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Former Rep. John DeBerry, I-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Despite facing long re-election odds after being kicked off the Democratic ballot, DeBerry says he never spoke to the governor during the campaign season and had no contact with Lee until about two weeks ago.

“The series of events that led to me even being available had nothing to do with the governor or me, for that matter. You can’t tie Michael Jordan’s shoes together and handcuff him and then brag about winning a layup contest,” DeBerry says.

DeBerry is replacing Brandon Gibson as senior advisor in Lee’s cabinet after she elevated to chief operating officer in April to replace Butch Eley, now the commissioner of Finance & Administration. He will be the first African American to take the senior post.

A 69-year-old minister at Coleman Avenue Church of Christ, DeBerry is quick to point out he started speaking publicly against abortion when he graduated from Freed-Hardeman College in 1970 and worked on voucher and education savings account bills with two previous governors. 

“None of those had anything to do with all of this. I don’t know why in our society today we cannot accept the fact that there are some folks who have principles that can’t be bought and sold. And I don’t have principles that can be bought and sold. Neither does the governor, and I haven’t seen it anywhere in the people that are around him,” DeBerry says.

The former lawmaker will be paid $165,000 annually and hold a State Capitol office, putting him in a higher category than some of the governor’s commissioners and key policy people.

  The series of events that led to me even being available had nothing to do with the governor or me, for that matter. You can't tie Michael Jordan's shoes together and handcuff him and then brag about winning a layup contest.   – John DeBerry

In making the appointment, Gov. Lee called DeBerry a “respected leader and man of faith” who served for decades with “integrity as both a legislator and civil rights champion.” In a press release, Lee noted that DeBerry “fought to protect life, provide better education options for Tennessee students, and to reform our criminal justice system.”

DeBerry’s appointment to the key post comes on the heels of the governor’s move to make former Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville an advisor to Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, who has run afoul of some conservative lawmakers in the last few months for the state’s response to the pandemic. 

Dunn sponsored the Education Savings Account bill in the House, where it passed by one vote after now-former Speaker Glen Casada held the vote open for nearly 45 minutes while he worked the chamber to break a tie. 

DeBerry’s vote on the voucher bill, as well the “heartbeat bill,” which was designed to ban abortions in Tennessee, drew the ire of the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee, which voted to remove him from the ballot in April after he had qualified for the election. 

Legislative Democrats opposed his removal. But it was Republicans in the Legislature who rescued him with a bill enabling him to run as an independent before he was defeated Nov. 3 by Democrat Torrey Harris, who carried more than 70% of the vote.

DeBerry claims he would have won the Democratic primary in August if the party hadn’t kicked him out.

DeBerry’s legislative votes consistently placed him more in line with Republicans than Democrats and he had stopped caucusing with Democrats in recent years. Serving with Lee “is more appropriate for him,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville.

Yet he raised eyebrows by reporting no campaign expenses in the pre-general reporting period, raising suspicion he did little campaigning with a cabinet position in the offing. He calls that pure “conjecture.” 

DeBerry confirmed Friday, though, he will file an amendment to the Oct. 27 report with the Registry of Election Finance. A final report is to be turned in by Dec. 15, and DeBerry said reporting will show he spent more than $90,000 on the race.

Last spring, DeBerry also defended himself against reports he owed back taxes and interest to Shelby County and the city of Memphis for his late father’s former church building, which he owns. At that time, he owed $99,000, and the total is now at $95,400, according to reports.

Turning back speculation

Lee spokesman Gillum Ferguson said Friday anyone who makes the assumption the governor rewarded DeBerry for his votes “should not be taken seriously.”

“To entertain those unserious individuals’ assumption as valid is disappointing,” Ferguson says.

Still, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, contends the DeBerry appointment “continues the governor’s knack for providing a golden parachute for former legislators and using hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money” to do it.

“There’s no question Rep. DeBerry tended to be more in line with the Gov. Lee Administration’s harmful legislative agenda. So it’s probably a more appropriate fit for him,” says Clemmons, a candidate for the House Democratic Caucus chairmanship.

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, another Nashville Democrat seeking the minority party’s caucus chair post, is blunt about the hire. 

State Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, said the hiring of DeBerry and voucher school proponent Bill Dunn gives a "foul smell" to the voucher vote process. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Rep. Bo Mitchell, D-Nashville, said the hiring of DeBerry and voucher school proponent Bill Dunn gives a “foul smell” to the voucher vote process. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“I think it removes all doubt of the political identification of Mr. DeBerry now,” Mitchell says. “I think it’s a bad practice for the governor. I think it truly looks bad, the hiring of Bill Dunn, the hiring of John DeBerry. It gives the foul stench smell of the voucher vote and all of the questions surrounding it, giving it an even worse look.”

Lee previously hired former Reps. Courtney Rogers and Tilman Goins to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Another Democratic Caucus chair candidate, Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville, is a little milder, saying he isn’t surprised with DeBerry’s appointment, “given the way he balanced between Republicans and Democrats.” DeBerry had stopped caucusing with the House Democratic Caucus.

“John DeBerry has been John DeBerry for 26 years. He didn’t just start being John DeBerry this past session. So we know who he was, what he stood for, what his values were,” Dixie says.

Dixie believes DeBerry could provide a better path to the governor’s office for Democrats working on legislation. He also points out DeBerry will add diversity to the Lee administration, which lost its only Black commissioners in Hodgen Mainda, who recently left the Department of Commerce and Insurance amid reports of impropriety, and Danielle Barnes, who resigned her post with the Department of Human Services.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth scoffs at the notion DeBerry is receiving a “golden parachute.”

“I think Rep. DeBerry is deeply respected on both sides of the aisle, both Republicans and Democrats. He obviously was ousted by the Democratic Party in Tennessee, but I think that only shows how ridiculously far left that the Democratic Party Executive Party has gone,” says Lamberth, a Portland Republican.

He contends DeBerry is more “in touch” with Tennesseans, saying Lee’s decision to put him in the senior advisory role is a “great hire.”

Lamberth also defends the hiring of former legislators such as Dunn and DeBerry, calling them “fantastic people,” veteran lawmakers who understand the legislative process and can guide the governor in setting policy.

“It doesn’t really matter necessarily what their background is as legislators. It matters that they’re very good, competent people, Bill Dunn and John DeBerry specifically,” Lamberth says.