Franklin High School (Photo: Williamson County Schools)
Recently, a recording of a Williamson County School Board meeting went viral after anti-mask parents mobbed physicians after the meeting, screaming at the doctors and threatening them.
National news outlets, including CNN, The Washington Post, the New York Times and Esquire, covered the disgraceful incident and many locals shared their feelings of distress on social media. “Old Franklin” — the folks who, like me, grew up here and come from families who settled the county — expressed the shock of realizing how much your hometown has changed.
Residents newer to the area, the ones who moved here for jobs and Williamson’s good schools, were surprised that an area with such affluent, smart people could produce such behavior. Who, they asked, could have seen this coming?
Many of us, actually.
When I was a kid, Franklin was a little country town, where livestock auctions were held at a barn on the site of today’s city hall. Politically, the county was about 50% Democratic and 50% Republican. The Republicans lived in the newer, fancier town of Brentwood and old Franklin and country folks largely voted for Democrats.
That began to change about 30 years ago, around the same time now-U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn was running the Williamson County Republican Party. That was also about the time state Republicans began to set their sights on getting out of the minority they’d been in since just after Reconstruction.
The South has always been conservative, even when the “Solid South” voted for Democrats, and had been moving into the Republican camp since Richard Nixon popularized the “Southern Strategy,” a play to pick up Southern white voters by appealing to racism — initially just racism, but later, more issues.
By the time Barack Obama took office, Williamson County had become ground zero for the Tea Party movement. Franklin lawyer Judson Phillips launched Tea Party Nation with a February 2009 rally. By 2010, Tea Party Nation was ranked by the Washington Post as one of the five most influential organizations in the Tea Party movement.
The Southern Poverty Law Center named Tea Party Nation a hate group — the only Tea Party group to achieve that dubious title — for its anti-immigration and particularly anti-Muslin, pro-white, and anti-LGBTQ stances.
Several of Williamson County’s elected officials embraced the Tea Party movement. In 2010, state Sen. Jack Johnson appeared on “Tea Party HD” during his second campaign, saying “our nation is under assault from the federal government.” Johnson said in the video people are fleeing California “in droves” to come to Tennessee because of our state’s lack of taxes and lack of regulation.
Johnson wasn’t the only local representative to do so, though. Rep. Glen Casada, who went on to become Speaker of the House for a few months in 2019, did an interview with “Tea Party HD” at the same time Johnson did, and when Casada first ran for Speaker in 2010, the Tea Party supported him and threatened retribution if he lost.
From those origins, it was only a small step for Johnson to sponsor a 2011 bill to repeal the rights of teachers to participate in collective bargaining.
It was another small step from early Tea Party antics to a 2014 Williamson County School Board race fraught with accusations by right wing candidates that teachers were trying, through a geography and history class, to convert suburban kids into Muslim radicals.
Johnson’s 2011 bill took another step with Gov. Bill Lee’s 2019 bid to create a school voucher program, stripping funds from public schools and letting parents use public money for private schools, a bill that was later declared unconstitutional.
And here we are in 2021, in which everything that’s old is new again: a group called “Moms For Liberty” protesting that a state-approved curriculum is really an attempt to force Critical Race Theory — an academic concept Johnson recently admitted he’d never heard of until six months ago — down elementary school children’s throats.
A look at the “Moms for Liberty” Facebook page shows administrators taking ownership for turning “thousands” of people interested in “parental rights” out to the Aug. 10 school board meeting that made national news and featured one woman echoing Johnson’s 2010 words by saying she is a “refugee from California.”
From Muslim fear to Critical Race Theory to anti-mask protests in a pandemic: The recent outcry is just the latest iteration of an ugly strain of the Tennessee Republican Party in Williamson County, and sadly, our elected officials are one of the common denominators.
But as the right wing continues to push further right, there are signs it may become too extreme even for Williamson County’s representatives. Johnson recently held his annual “Barbecue and Boots Bash,” and judging from the comments posted on his event page, he’s losing popularity on the right: Commenters called him “establishment” and criticized him for pushing the COVID-19 vaccine, pointing out he’s taking campaign contributions from Pfizer.
Johnson is trying to hang on to his right-wing base by criticizing masks and manufacturing outrage over non-existent critical race theory in schools. And given the trajectory of politics in Williamson County, I don’t even blame him, for as an old saying goes, whoever rides the tiger is afraid to dismount.
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