Commentary: How Gloria Johnson’s Hallway Desk Came to Be

February 1, 2021 3:59 am
The Cordell Hull Legislative Building. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Cordell Hull Legislative Building. (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Rep. Gloria Johnson’s desk last week was in a hallway in the Cordell Hull legislative building in Nashville.  It was there because Johnson was given an awful office assignment by Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville —allegedly revenge for Johnson being the sole vote against him for speaker.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The former small-group conference room is tiny and down-the-hallway space for the assistant is a cramped closet.  Johnson wrote last Thursday, “Today I asked the office moving folks at the legislature to move my stuff into the closet and my assistant’s stuff into the conference room . . . My assistant is 65 years old. She was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer in November. She had her first surgery just before Thanksgiving, they had to remove her eye, to get to her tumor. Then they did a second surgery to put basically a radiation patch on the remaining part of the tumor. She is doing pretty well, is eager to come back, is getting tests to see if the cancer has moved to her lungs or liver tomorrow. I am not going to put her in an unvented closet that is about 4 1/2 feet wide. Not going to do it. We will see if they switch the spaces as I requested, in the meantime, I have my desk in the hall and will work from there.”

Constituents from the 13th district, and elsewhere, have been complaining to Sexton, but his response has been, “Rep. Johnson shared office space within the House research division for the last two years of the 111th General Assembly. She expressed her displeasure about her office assignment being within research. To alleviate her concerns, Rep. Johnson now has her own office located outside of the research division for the 112th General Assembly. Speaker Sexton is responsible for setting policies and procedures for operation within his chamber including staff and office assignments.”  If that reply sounds disingenuous and smarmy, that’s only because it is; and Johnson adds it’s totally false, too.

This clash, however, is more than a petty squabble as characterized in several news reports.  Instead, it is a case study in GOP machinations and malevolence dating back many years.

Johnson was also removed from the House Education Committee, a misstep given the career educator has brought non-partisan points about education to the table.

Tennessee’s 13th House District includes the Democratic-leaning near-north suburbs of Knoxville.  It then arcs west into the lean-Republican enclave of Sequoyah Hills just west of the University of Tennessee.  Thanks to the last redistricting the district then crosses the Tennessee River and includes a large chunk of Republican stronghold South Knoxville.

That most recent redistricting was designed to pick up a seat for Republicans; the GOP hadn’t accounted for Gloria Johnson.  She’s a career-long teacher who got the political bug during the first Obama campaign.  She quickly mastered the strategies of the craft, and served an effective stint as Knox County Democratic Party Chair.

When it came time to test that new gerrymandered district, Gloria upset the Republican plans by winning it.  Frustrated Republicans then dumped a large load of pro-voucher dark money to get Eddie Smith to squeak by for a couple terms, but then Johnson rebounded strongly — taking it again in the last two cycles.

Johnson not only is a savvy campaigner, she’s also a good public servant.  She has a strong record of constituent service, and a knack for advocacy on the issues she cares about, especially strong public education and affordable health care.  Sometimes Johnson reaches out to Republican colleagues to get things done.  Education bills she’s passed, such as the Community Schools Act, had broad support across the aisle.

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

That is the great tragedy of Sexton’s petty revenge of putting Johnson in a laughably bad non-office.  He’s losing a chance to learn from someone who can bring important (and often non-partisan) points to the conversation.  Sexton also took her off the Education Committee where this former teacher served in the last session.

It says something about the current state of extremism in the Republican Party that in Nashville Gloria Johnson is not welcome on the Education Committee, but in Washington freshman Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (known for haranguing a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor, and even agreeing with conspiracy loons that the Parkland and Sandy Hook massacres were staged and grieving parents were crisis actors) was given a plum Education and Labor Committee assignment from her GOP colleagues.

Meanwhile, Johnson has been told by Connie Ridley, Director of the Office of Legislative Administration, that the desk in the hall is a fire hazard.  If our Republican supermajority in Nashville really wants to support teachers, they can start by insisting to their House leader that the “location in limbo” teacher in the hallway be given a decent office.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.