Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, caused a political uproar with her retirement announcement last week. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Thursday afternoon, the news broke that Sen. Brenda Gilmore will not be running for reelection.
To say the news “broke” might be too strong; rather, the news seeped out in an uneven fashion.
First, Keeda Haynes, a 2020 Democratic candidate for Congress in the 5th District, tweeted at 4:36 p.m. Thursday that she’d be going live on Facebook at 4:45 p.m. with big news. That’s not a lot of lead time, but a few reporters managed to get on Facebook and wait. Haynes announced at 6 p.m that she’s running for Senate District 19, Gilmore’s seat.
The scrambling for answers began: Was Haynes taking on Gilmore? Was Gilmore stepping down? Senate staffers were caught flat-footed, as Gilmore hadn’t told them of her decision. Gilmore’s colleagues in the Senate and House Democratic caucuses were stunned and irritated.
Politicos began to talk of “skulduggery,” in reference to a heretofore little known state law called the “Anti Skullduggery Act,” which prevents incumbents from withdrawing too late to give anyone but hand-chosen successors time to make the ballot. Gilmore’s late withdrawal qualifies as skullduggery and the filing deadline for candidates has been extended to May 7.
By Friday morning, names of potential candidates to join Haynes in the race were swirling. And late in the day, Rosetta Miller Perry, the formidable publisher on the Tennessee Tribune, one of Nashville’s publications for the Black community, sent a savage open letter to members of Nashville’s media community, criticizing Gilmore’s actions and writing that a “stink” would hang “in perpetuity” over the Gilmore/Haynes switch.
I can’t express how pleasantly normal this felt to me.
Hear me out: There is an ethical question here, but it’s a straightforward political question. Is it kosher to set up a protégée to succeed you without opposition? This is the kind of cutthroat, old-school Tennessee Democratic political antic that used to be bread and butter for the state’s political writers.
But now, we write about other issues. Midnight anti-abortion votes, censorship and persecution of librarians and teachers, legislation to skirt federal same sex marriage laws that leaves a loophole for kids to get married, bills to outlaw camping or even sleeping on public property, intrusive laws to regulate how LGBTQ Tennesseans lead their lives—these topics are all in regular rotation.
And let’s not forget how Gov. Bill Lee decided to give up federal unemployment funds to Tennessee workers prematurely during the pandemic, or how state officials appear to have set up and fired a leading physician working to get Tennesseans vaccinated against COVID. Since 2012, reporters have been covering the legislature’s refusal to take federal funds to expand Medicaid, leaving about 300,000 Tennesseans without insurance and $1.4 billion annually on the table.
Life was less anxiety-producing when my stories were limited to the granularity of winning a county-wide city council or opinion columns about the timing of elections.
There was a time not so long ago—2009, to be exact—when Tennessee politics meant the epically crafty scheme by the epically crafty Democratic former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh. Naifeh, knowing he was about to be displaced as speaker since the Republicans had won the majority in the 2008 elections, engineered the election of a disaffected Republican named Kent Williams and thwarted the plans of then-Rep. Jason Mumpower to become speaker.
The Naifeh-Williams-Mumpower incident was fodder for tongues to flap for weeks but pales in comparison to stories from the last few years. When we write about Jason Mumpower now, it’s in the context of his role as Tennessee comptroller and a financial takeover of Mason, Tenn., a predominantly Black town in another not-so-shining moment for Tennessee in national media.
Life has been heavier for all of us the last two years. We’ve lived through a once-a-century pandemic, an election marked by the ugliest politics most of us have ever known and continued partisan divisiveness. As reporters, we’ve covered legislation that rarely includes levity or positive action and we spend our time researching and explaining how Tennessee’s leading lawmakers are causing harm.
So Thursday, for a brief shining moment, we focused on straight up political wheeling and dealing. No FBI investigations. No misuse of funds for hungry kids. Just straight up politics like we used to.
Here’s to simpler times.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.