A year like 2020, replete with drama in politics, health care, education and civil rights, gives public leaders the chance to shine or flop. With the year near to passing in our collective rear view mirrors, the staff of the Tennessee Lookout brings your attention to a handful of Tennesseans in politics, education, health care and media to watch in the coming year.
Christiane Buggs, Metro Nashville School Board Chair
President-elect Joe Biden has made clear that he believes public schools should be open as soon as possible. Biden intends to nominate Miguel Cardona as secretary of education, according to reports, and Cardona has been a champion of opening schools during the pandemic.
In Nashville, political opposition to school closures has been increasing, putting pressure on the school board and Director Adrienne Battle. The problem for Nashville is the community spread of the virus put pressure on the district for staffing, even as about half the families chose remote learning over the in-school option offered in the fall. So how will the Nashville school board thread the needle between mounting political pressure to open and a public health challenge that made that option nearly impossible?
At the helm of the school board is second term progressive Christiane Buggs, who was unopposed in her reelection bid in August. Rumored to be politically ambitious and a possible candidate for higher office, there will be focus on how Buggs leads not just on the issue of an eventual return to school, but also making up for learning loss suffered by students during the pandemic and improving academic results for Metro Nashville Public Schools’ most vulnerable children. From hiring Battle to backing the return to virtual learning, the school board, normally a political battle ground, has been fairly unified in the last year. It will be Buggs’ job to lead during a make-or-break year for public education in Nashville. – Nate Rau
Sen. Heidi Campbell
In the leadup to the November election, former Sen. Steve Dickerson argued that one reason voters should re-elect him is his ability to block the conservative legislature from passing bills that Nashvillians don’t want. For instance, Dickerson prevented GOP lawmakers from completely abolishing the voter-approved Community Oversight Board.
Sen. Heidi Campbell became the first Democrat to unseat a Republican incumbent senator since 2006, so there will be intense interest in how she navigates her first year in office. Campbell ran as an unabashed progressive, but can she be more than a protest No vote against Republican initiatives in the Senate, where the GOP has a super-majority? Republicans may return to the idea of abolishing the COB. They may strip mayors’ ability to sign executive orders related to the pandemic. Democrats will be relying on Campbell to block the very conservative initiatives they oppose, and to collaborate with Republicans to pass laws that Dickerson was known to champion. – Nate Rau
Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville
Rep. John Ray Clemmons is currently serving a fourth term representing West Nashville’s District 55 and has been a regular figure in state news for being outspoken about critical issues affecting citizens. He attends events as diverse as the unveiling of a historical marker for William Edmondson, Black Lives Matter demonstrations and campaign events for Democratic candidates across the state, including Memphis candidate Gabby Salinas and Brandon Thomas in Murfreesboro.
He’s been very outspoken in his criticism of Gov. Bill Lee, and it’s only logical that his name is one frequently floated as a potential Democratic candidate to challenge Lee in the 2022 elections. Before then, Clemmons will more than likely continue to be a regular figure both on Capitol Hill and across the state, protesting against the inequities of Tennessee’s unemployment insurance system and advocating for stronger public education. – Dulce Torres Guzman
Dr. James Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical College
Dr. James Hildreth has long served as a leading international AIDS/HIV researcher. Since the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis in the spring, he has also emerged as a calm and credible voice, grounded in scientific expertise, who has consistently advocated for communities at greatest risk for poor outcomes from the virus — Black and Brown people, poor people and people living in rural communities.
Dr. Hildreth continues to serve on Nashville’s coronavirus task force, helping guide the city’s response to the pandemic. Under his leadership, Meharry responded quickly to the need for testing and has managed Nashville’ three major public COVID-19 testing sites since the Spring. He played a key role in ensuring Meharry participated in early vaccine trials. In October, Dr. Hildreth, an infectious disease expert, was appointed to a Food and Drug Administration committee that has evaluated the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccine candidates. And in December, Dr. Hildreth called out state officials for overlooking Meharry medical staff in their first vaccine distribution, forcing state officials to act.
Before the pandemic, Dr. Hildreth worked to increase the profile, funding and footprint of the historically Black Meharry Medical College. In 2021, look for Dr. Hildreth to continue this work as he also serves as the gentle and grounded voice in the city and nation’s response to COVID-19. – Anita Wadhwani
Wade Hinton, Chattanooga mayoral candidate
Term limited Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke is on his way out and the field to replace him is the veritable cast of thousands: 16 candidates have qualified for the March 2 elections. And the field includes several current elected officials, including Councilmembers Erskine Oglesby and Russell Gilbert and former NAACP President Dr. Eleanora Woods.
Those not invested in Chattanooga might not recognize Wade Hinton’s name, but surely will soon. Hinton has an solid resume for political office — native son of the city, raised by a single mother — as well as impressive professional credentials. Currently Vice President of diversity and inclusion at Unum, a top provider of disability insurance among other products, Hinton’s past includes a tenure as the first Black city attorney for Chattanooga. He also founded Board Connector, an organization that trains and places minority members of the community on non-profit boards that need to represent the city’s diversity.
Hinton has put together a campaign team of professionals, including Manager Nick Paul, who worked on the presidential campaign of Amy Klobuchar. That type of organization and broad-based background is crucial to winning a campaign that ends in just over two months. -Holly McCall
Glenn Jacobs, Knox County Mayor
Before he formally ran for politics, Glenn Jacobs became something of a star among online libertarian fanboys. The WWE legend railed against government overreach and made appearances at anti-government Tea Party protests in Nashville. There’s a purity to his political views that appeals Tennesseans who think the government response to the pandemic has come at the expense of their constitutionally protected liberty. Whether feuding with Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, or publicly criticizing Gov. Bill Lee, Jacobs, for better or worse, Jacobs has stayed true to his world view.
There’s been open speculation that Lee’s response to the strategy has been driven in part out of fear of a primary challenge from the right. For instance, Lee didn’t block local mayors from instituting mask mandates like other conservative governors have done. The governor’s executive orders early in the pandemic forced some small business owners to close down. Who better than Jacobs to package those kinds of arguments together and challenge Lee in a gubernatorial primary? – Nate Rau
Gov. Bill Lee
Gov. Bill Lee won the 2018 Republican primary by running a quiet, clean race as an outsider in a field of heavy-hitting politicians (former U.S. Rep. Diane Black, anyone?) with deep pockets (U.T. President Randy Boyd, anyone?) and then coasted to a 20% victory over Democrat Karl Dean in Nov. 2018.
That was the last time a win came easily to Lee. His major legislative victories, including a plan for Educational Savings Accounts or, as they are more commonly known, school vouchers, and a midnight vote in 2019 to ban abortions after six weeks, have run aground in court. The school voucher plan was ruled unconstitutional and several abortion laws are mired in litigation. Add to that the number of commissioners and staff who have left his administration in under two years, some, like former Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Courtney Rogers, leaving in scandal.
And those troubles don’t take COVID-19 into account. Lee has been unwilling to mandate masks statewide, making the state one of 12 lacking a state mandate while being a U.S. leader in COVID-19 cases. Too liberal for the right and too conservative for any Democrat, he’s almost certain to have to beat back a 2022 primary challenge: rumored candidates are Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. None of that bodes well for any future, higher ambitions the photogenic family man may have. – Holly McCall
Sergio Martinez Beltran
As one of the few Hispanic journalists in Tennessee, Beltran has certainly cemented his reputation as a true professional covering the most important topics of the day at WPLN, Nashville’s National Public Radio affiliate. Martinez-Beltrán has already overcome obstacles as a journalist of color, such as being discriminated against while attempting to cover the State Legislature in early 2020. He tweeted about the incident and the Nashville Scene covered the story about how he had been twice denied entry into the state legislature despite having press credentials.
Until this year, Martinez-Beltrán had been the only person of color covering the state legislature, and his story caught a lot of attention. Before working as a journalist in Tennessee, Martinez-Beltrán covered crime in San Antonio. While covering gang-related activity for the San Antonio Express-News and trying to interview witnesses, he was chased by an angry mob. For journalists, incidents like these only cement your reputation as a professional, and Martinez-Beltrán hasn’t slowed down one bit. – Dulce Torres Guzman
Margaret Renkl, writer
Author and New York Times contributing opinion writer Margaret Renkl has served as that rare voice in national media, a native of the South whose musings about Nashville, Southern politics, culture and environment is grounded in lived experience rather than outsider analysis. Renkl is the author of the book, “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” Her regular columns in the Times have chronicled quintessentially Nashville events and collectively lived experiences in recent years – the chopping of the downtown cherry trees to make way for the NFL Draft, Taylor Swift’s newfound politicization during the presidential election, the clemency of convicted murderer Cyntoia Brown, the purple martins that swarmed the Nashville Symphony Center.
Renkl’s writing has also veered into more intimate territory in columns relishing the comforts of cornbread, her son’s pared down pandemic wedding, the empty seats at her Thanksgiving table this year. Renkl’s writing brings a more nuanced picture of the South to a national audience, to be sure, but she also brings a novelist’s sensibility to her writing for local readers, reminding us in the midsts of unending news cycles to admire wildflowers, rattlesnakes and stray cats, and to pause to take stock of the humanity around us. – Anita Wadhwani