Moderate and ultra-conservative face off in 59th District House race

By: - September 26, 2022 6:02 am
Photo of campaign buttons saying Vote 2022. (Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

The race to fill the new 59th District House seat in southern Davidson County pits self-styled moderate Democrat Caleb Hemmer against ultra-conservative Republican Michelle Foreman.

If Foreman were to win the Nov. 8 election, she would be the only Republican House member in the Davidson County delegation.

Hemmer, who works in corporate development for American Health Partners and served in Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration, says he wants to avoid controversy and bring his old boss’s philosophy back to state government.

In contrast, Foreman, a former psychiatric nurse and member of the Republican Party State Executive Committee, led efforts to repeal a 39% property tax increase and remove Mayor John Cooper and Metro Council members from office. Recently, the group she helped form, No Tax 4 Nash, agreed to pay a $1 million settlement in a class action lawsuit alleging she and others used illegal robocalls to contact Davidson County voters. 

Hemmer says that’s not his style.

Opposite of the Republican supermajority, which is raising a ruckus over emotional topics such as transgender medical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Hemmer says he wants to focus on “kitchen table” issues, including education, health care, infrastructure and public safety. A two-time cancer survivor, he backs the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

“It seems like it’s politics, it’s games, it’s the silly stuff. I think there’s a large disconnect from what their time and energy’s focused on versus what people care about,” Hemmer said in an interview at his Forest Hills home.

State House 59 Democratic candidate Caleb Hemmer (Photo: John Partipilo)
State House 59 Democratic candidate Caleb Hemmer (Photo: John Partipilo)

The brother-in-law of fiery Democratic state Rep. Bo Mitchell of the Bellevue area, Hemmer contends he wants to be a moderator in state government, reaching across the aisle to work on common-sense solutions.

In knocking doors across the new 59th, which was created early this year through the Republican-controlled redistricting process, Hemmer says he hasn’t had one person bring up the need to pass transgender-related legislation.

“I think that’s a good example. It’s extremist, divisive rhetoric and policies versus things people care about. People are very worried about the economy, public safety and education. It’s just lip service,” he says.

Taking in a portion of Bellevue, Brentwood, Belle Meade, Oak Hills, Forest Hills and the Nolensville Pike area, the 59th District is affluent, with 75% of its adults holding college degrees and a large number of children attending private schools. 

Yet Hemmer, a graduate of Hillsboro High and the University of Tennessee, says he supports public education, sending his child to Percy Priest Elementary School not far from his home. In meeting the school’s staff, he says he was “blown away” by their seriousness.

Hemmer opposes the governor’s education savings account program, arguing that it takes vital funding away from public schools. Vouchers, charter schools and the state’s new funding formula are all drains on Metro Nashville schools, he says.

To bolster the local district, Hemmer would like to see a governor’s school or a year-round magnet school.

In the education realm, he also wants to see debate move away from book bans and critical race theory, which is taught in law schools but not in Tennessee public schools.

In contrast, Foreman, who did not respond to phone calls requesting an interview for this article, is a strong advocate for “school choice.”

Michelle Foreman, Republican nominee for Tennessee State House District 59. (Photo:
Michelle Foreman, Republican nominee for Tennessee State House District 59. (Photo: Michelle Foreman for State House 59 Facebook)

“Our children should never be left in failing schools,” Foreman says on her campaign website. 

The education savings account program applies only to Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, in part because those two districts have the largest number of “priority” schools in the state.

Foreman notes she made the decision to homeschool her youngest daughter for two years before sending her to Nashville Christian School and adds, “At no other time in modern history have our children faced more obstacles to learning core subjects like English, literacy and math. Further, we have witnessed the diminished value of Americanism, leadership, and college and/or career readiness.”

Foreman graduated from Brentwood Academy and Lipscomb University and holds a degree from the Nashville School of Law.

Foreman gave her campaign $132,600 in self-endorsed loans but has raised only $33,310 and spent $128,471, with a balance of $37,794 at the end of the last reporting period.

Hemmer has a much bigger campaign finance advantage, lending his campaign only $3,200 while raising $269,968 and spending $50,988. He had a $222,179 balance at the end of the last reporting period and expects to announce another large contribution total soon.

She touts endorsements from Americans for Prosperity Action, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Tennessee Conservative, Tennessee Right to Life and the Tennessee Republican Assembly.

“Michelle Foreman has a history of fighting for lower taxes and tax reform,” AFP Action-TN Senior Advisor Tori Venable said when the group endorsed Foreman. “She supported the Nashville Taxpayer Protection Act, rallied opposition to a 34% property tax increase in the Nashville area, and helped stop a local transit tax increase.”

Foreman also worked to close Republican primaries and stop Democrats from participating in them. She was quoted by the Tennessee Conservative as saying as a member of the Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee she voted to pass a resolution to the General Assembly to close the primaries. But even though it passed overwhelmingly in the committee, it didn’t go far in the Legislature.

Opponents of closed primaries say they would disenfranchise voters who aren’t closely connected with one of the major parties and that they would produce more ideologically extreme nominees.

Based on social media posts, Foreman considers any Republican who supports open primaries to be a RINO, or Republican in Name Only.

She also has espoused opposition to Gov. Bill Lee’s call for the Nathan Bedford Forrest bus to be relocated to the Tennessee State Museum from the State Capitol. Responding to one tweet about the matter, she said on social media, “Final nail in the political coffin, I hope.”

Democratic candidate Caleb Hemmer: "I think there’s a large disconnect from what (lawmakers') time and energy’s focused on versus what people care about." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Democratic candidate Caleb Hemmer: “I think there’s a large disconnect from what (lawmakers’) time and energy’s focused on versus what people care about.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

Hemmer says he wants to avoid that type of politics.

At the same time, he takes up the Democrats’ mantle for Medicaid expansion, potentially using more than $1 billion offered annually by the federal government to cover some 300,000 uninsured Tennesseans. Foreman has retweeted an article about Tennessee’s latest Medicaid waiver, a hybrid block grant that enables the state to use leftover funds to offer more services to TennCare enrollees, a policy most Democrats oppose.

And while Foreman fought to derail the Metro Council’s decisions, Hemmer claims he has experience crafting legislation during his years with the Bredesen Administration, including founding the Memphis Regional Megasite where Ford Motor’s Blue Oval City is being constructed, then serving on the Metro Fair Board to rebuild the Nashville Fairgrounds, which includes construction of the new professional soccer stadium.

Hemmer’s main campaign plank boils down to one question: “Does District 59 want someone who governs in the mold of Phil Bredesen, being pragmatic and getting stuff done and finding solutions for Tennessee, or do they want someone who’s in the mold of (U.S. Rep.) Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is used to causing trouble and not having the background of getting anything done? Quite the opposite.”


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.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.