As one year passes and another begins, the staff of the Tennessee Lookout brings your attention to a handful of Tennesseans on whom to keep your attention on in the coming year. Politicians, activists and healthcare professionals will stay in the spotlight as we enter our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and an election year that features new, post-2020 census districts.
And we’ve also provided a follow up on how some of our predictions for 2021 fared.
Justin J. Pearson, Memphis
The city of Memphis has seen some drama this year, from Sen. Katrina Robinson’s trial on federal felony charges to the crack in the Hernando de Soto Bridge that closed traffic on I-40 for months, but equally important was the national spotlight shown on the city’s Black communities as the face of environmental racism.
When residents of Boxtown, a historic Black neighborhood, learned that developers planned to build a pipeline through their community, they organized opposition with the help of local community leaders. Among them, Justin J. Pearson became one of the most prominent voices of the movement.
One of the founders of Memphis Against the Pipeline, Pearson helped spur protests against Byhalia Pipeline developers, gaining national attention and support from prominent political figures.
Eventually the fight to empower Black neighborhoods against environmental pollution led to both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission passing ordinances to protect residents and their natural source of drinking water, the Memphis Sand Aquifer.
But as one fight neared completion, another began, when city officials and environmental activists learned that TVA planned to relocate approximately 2.7 million cubic yards of coal ash in Southeast Memphis.
For years, TVA and city officials knew that coal ash from the now-closed Allen Fossil Plant risked leaking into the aquifer that lay underneath. While city council members and activists were in agreement on the urgency of the matter, they were still shocked to learn that TVA had chosen to move coal ash near a predominantly low-income Black neighborhood of about 72,000 residents.
Pearson and other community leaders are still seeking to influence this decision and asked TVA officials to conduct an environmental impact study. — Dulce Torres Guzman
Councilman JB Smiley, Memphis, candidate for governor
Memphis City Councilmember JB Smiley wasn’t the first Democrat to announce a campaign for governor in 2022 — that was Middle Tennessee physician Jason Martin — and he’s not likely to be the most well-funded bidding to take on Gov. Bill Lee.
But Smiley is the candidate many state Democrats are buzzing about. His kick-off video addressed several issues concerning Tennesseans, including gun violence, accessible health care and the connection of education to workforce development, accompanied by a gospel soundtrack. In October, his speech at the Tennessee Democratic Party’s annual Three Star Dinner generated social media generated social media talk and text messages: “Smiley knows how to tell a story,” they said.
A Memphis native, winning his home city could give him the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Smiley is young and his political resume is still thin, but with no Democrat a threat to beat Lee, he has the opportunity to build statewide name recognition, sharpen his campaign skills and gain a seat as a leader on the Democrats’ bench of rising stars from Memphis. — Holly McCall
Tennessee’s health care professionals
Tennessee’s doctors and nurses have at times felt under siege as they treated rising numbers of seriously ill COVID-19 patients — and watched many of them die.
Outside of health care settings, medical professionals have increasingly taken a far more public-facing role: speaking at school board meetings, press conferences, legislative committee hearings and, in many cases, turning to social media to urge masking, vaccines and to combat a rising tide of COVID misinformation.
During the first year of the pandemic, doctors and nurses were often hailed as heroes. By the second, doctors and nurses increasingly found themselves the objects of scorn and conspiracy theories, drawing anger from patients in denial of their COVID diagnosis and at times vilified or ignored for conveying the evolving science and best practices to combat this virulent disease.
Doctors and nurses in Williamson County were booed, heckled and followed by anti-maskers as they left a school board meeting. In December, two Tennessee physicians were shut down as they tried to testify before a legislative committee about efforts to limit the power of the Board of Medical Examiners to discipline doctors who traffic in COVID misinformation.
Burnout has prompted some nurses and doctors to quit entirely.
As politics and science seemingly careen to a head in our state — just as we face another omicron-driven surge — look for the emerging voices among the states’s ER and ICU doctors, respiratory therapists, nurses and the host of medical personnel who have worked to keep us healthy during the deadliest pandemic in our lifetime. — Anita Wadhwani
Gov. Bill Lee
Lee saw his approval rating drop 10 percentage points in recent polling. He continues to hold a 55% approval rating, but according to the Vanderbilt Poll, the governor lost popularity among Democrats and independents, in part for his role in legislation opposed by the business community during an October special session that was supposed to focus on COVID-19. Critics of the governor, who is up for re-election in 2022, say he is lining up a run for the presidency.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton forced the COVID-19 special session, in spite of early opposition from the governor and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. During a press conference at the State Capitol, Sexton took the microphone from Gov. Lee, sparred with a TV reporter and said if school districts didn’t end mask mandates he would seek a special session and potentially withhold education funding by allowing students to use vouchers to attend private schools. Sexton is believed to be planning a run for governor at some point.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is pushing for change to the state’s contract rules amid questions about several deals the state made during the pandemic breakout in 2020. Under the governor’s executive order, state agencies signed tens of millions in contracts without going through the normal approval process. The governor’s Unified-Command Group inked $740 million worth of sole-source contracts, and the Department of Education signed $1 billion in sole-source contracts. –– Sam Stockard
Councilmember Sandra Sepulveda, Nashville
Sandra Sepuvelda, a Metro Nashville council member representing District 30, continues to be a key political figure in Nashville — and one of the few Latinos to hold local office.
She’s had a daunting task since she first got elected. Although she officially represents District 30, Sepulveda figuratively represents Davidson County’s entire Latino community.
At about 10% of the population, Latinos account for 71,000 in Davidson County. And although Latinos commonly speak Spanish, more indigenous populations speak a variety of native languages, which makes Sepulveda’s task even more difficult.
Still, Sepulveda has been a constant figure in representing Latino interests.
As a member of the American Rescue Plan Committee, she helped ensure that federal pandemic relief made its way into the Latino community, into the hands of needy families.
At age 28, Sepulveda is the youngest member of Metro Council and she’s in her first term in office. She’s already been mentioned as a potential candidate for the state legislature and has the potential for a long political future. — Dulce Torres Guzman
Mayor John Cooper, Nashville
Never mind that just over two years into a four-year term, potential (and formidable) challengers are already surfacing against a guy who won the election with 70% of the vote, although that’s unusual enough: at mid-term, most mayors are considered bulletproof.
We give Mayor John Cooper a big pass on several issues that were unexpected, including a cataclysmic tornado early in his term, a bombing in the middle of downtown Nashville and the pandemic. And he gets a pass, if not applause, for making the difficult move to raise taxes in the city.
But something is amiss, as evidenced by the numbers of staff departures, the constant information leakage from inside his office and a public mutiny of sorts by Economic and Community Development Director Courtney Pogue.
Add to that a growing perception among the city’s chattering class that Cooper has failed to make good on his campaign promises of being a neighborhood mayor and that his priority is the redevelopment of the East Bank, which includes a massive Oracle Corp. development.
Meanwhile, housing costs continue to spiral, the area’s homeless population swells and discontent grows.
Cooper hasn’t indicated whether he plans to run again, and while it’s early, it’s again telling that the question is being asked and not simply assumed that he will. But Cooper is smart and competitive and one thing is for sure: Hortense Cooper, mother of both the mayor and his older brother, Congressman Jim Cooper, didn’t raise guys who like to lose. Stay tuned. ––Holly McCall
Alan Levine, executive chairman, president and CEO Ballad Hospital, Johnson City
Alan Levine presides over a sprawling hospital system that serves patients across a big chunk of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky — an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
With 21 hospitals and about 3,000 employees, the health system is one of Tennessee’s largest employers — and among the top 40 biggest health systems in the nation — giving Levine an influential platform in public policy and politics.
Levine is a lifelong Republican who served as health advisors to both Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and Florida governor Jeb Bush. In Tennessee, Levine has served on Gov. Bill Lee’s Charter School Commission. He has testified before Congress on nursing shortages during the pandemic and advocated against federal vaccine mandates for healthcare workers.
In the largely conservative area Ballad serves, attracting and keeping nurses has been a tough haul, and Levine has been outspoken about the lack of nuanced understanding coming from Washington DC about what works to combat COVID in rural America.
“How is it that you can look at this and not say rural communities are not disproportionately affected? We are,” Levine told the Johnson City Press. “And so making it more difficult to retain people and recruit people, to me doesn’t seem like a logical answer — particularly people who’ve stuck with us for two years and taken care of folks in this region.”
Levine isn’t anti-vaccine. He has consistently pushed a message about the importance of vaccines to both the community and his health care workforce in a region that lags in vaccination rates.
It’s region that was barely recovering from the opioid epidemic before being slammed by COVID-19. It’s also a region with few other alternative hospitals. If you need to be admitted to a hospital in the area, chances are it will be one of Ballad’s. If you want to track the epidemic’s severity in the area, Ballad’s COVID admission numbers are a key metric to monitor. Heading into the holidays, Ballad staff were treating more than 240 inpatients with COVID — 61 of them on ventilators.
Class of 2021
Sen. Heidi Campbell, Nashville: Democrat Campbell, who unseated incumbent Sen. Steve Dickerson, was an outspoken critic of Gov. Bill Lee’s administration in her first year in the General Assembly. Campbell challenged the necessity of a special COVID session, called for an investigation of Lee’s no-bid contracts and questioned why a staff member for State Attorney General Herbert Slatery submitted a proposal for redistricting to the state house of representatives.
Wade Hinton, Chattanooga: Hinton was a candidate for mayor of Chattanooga who placed third among 15 mayoral candidates and subsequently endorsed eventual winner Tim Kelly.
Sergio Martinez Beltran, Nashville: Shortly after the Lookout named Sergio Martinez Beltran, reporter for Nashville’s public radio station WPLN, a person to keep an eye on, he departed Tennessee to work with Bridge Michigan, a nonprofit news outlet that covers public policy.
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