Former state Rep. John DeBerry Jr., who said he was defeated in the Dist. 90 race because he was forced to run as an independent in this year’s election, has accepted an appointment as senior advisor to Gov. Bill Lee.
In a telephone interview with The New Tri-State Defender, DeBerry said he doesn’t understand why the Democratic Executive Committee banned him from running as a Democrat because his views have not changed in the 26 years he served Dist. 90.
The socially conservative legislator and clergyman has sided with the Republicans on several hot-button issues over his career. His stances resulted in the Democratic Party removing him from the primary ballot in April.
DeBerry then ran as an independent, losing overwhelmingly to Democrat Torrey Harris.
DeBerry accepted his appointment to the $165,000 job and said he is looking forward to working with everyone in the General Assembly on some of the governor’s initiatives.
He said he wants to solve whatever conflicts his former fellow legislators have with him and to work together on the best solutions for the state of Tennessee.
TSD: Congratulations on your new position Mr. DeBerry. Can you tell me about what you will be doing as a senior advisor to the governor?
DeBerry: “My appointed position is senior advisor and cabinet member for Gov. Bill Lee and I am a member of his cabinet. Basically, from my talks with the governor and with other members of the cabinet, I will be doing almost exactly what my position says.
“Because of my experience in the legislature, dealing with my colleagues on both sides of the isle, in writing and passing major legislation over the last 26 years, the governor considers that valuable in his cabinet to help him with his legislative agenda and to help him deal with other legislators and other departments when it comes to legislative issues…this is what I bring to the table for him.”
TSD: You served the voters in Dist. 90 for 26 years, right?
DeBerry: “Yes, I was elected 13 times as a Democrat and was in very good standing with the people in Dist. 90 and, most probably, would have won another term had I been on the ballot in August of 2020.”
TSD: Let’s talk about the situation that led to you being banned from running as a Democrat this last time.
DeBerry: “I was removed from the ballot by the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party. If you went to my door on the fifth floor of the legislative building, you would have seen Minority Leader Pro Tem on the door.
“That’s a position I was elected to twice, in 2018 and in 2020, by my Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives. I was elected as a Democrat in a Democratic district and to the leadership delegation by my Democratic colleagues, and served as a Democrat.
“The Executive Committee of the Democratic Party decided that because of my background, and in my background I have always been against the process of abortion, I have always stood for school choice, we integrated the schools in the 1960s.
“My parents, my mother especially, was very vocal against abortion in the late 1960s. She died in 1970 and she did not get a chance to see abortion legalized by the Supreme Court and so I’ve always known the history of abortion … “So, they decided that because I voted for the Heartbeat Bill and had the audacity to say that if it has a heartbeat it’s alive, and I voted for school choice, so that parents, many of whom are suffering now with their children falling further and further behind, could use a little of their tax payer money to put their children in better schools, they decided I wasn’t a Democrat.
“What they also say is I have voted with Republicans 90 percent of the time. Well, the fact of the matter is there are 25 Democrats out of in the House of Representatives, a very super minority. So, to say I vote 90 percent of the time with the Republicans is a misnomer because every Democrat votes 90 percent of the time with the Republicans because they are the ones who are bringing the bills and passing the bills…
“You can’t pass a bill unless you have worked with the Republicans. So, to say we are never supposed to deal with the Republicans, that’s just ridiculous. It’s standard procedure…”
TSD: When we spoke before the election you said there is a fair amount of bitterness among your colleagues about the positions you have supported. Can you talk about that?
DeBerry: Well, the fact of the matter is I do not understand why there is so much division. We don’t have the numbers to fight among ourselves.
“Plus, we claim to be the party of inclusion. If we’re the party of inclusion there should be room for one Democrat who doesn’t believe in abortion. There ought to be room for one Democrat to vote yes on vouchers, on educational scholarships and parental choice.
“The Democratic Executive Committee, many of whom have never set foot in Dist. 90, made the choice as to who was going to be the Democratic nominee to represent Dist. 90. To deny the people of that district the right to decide, to me, was a disgrace.”
TSD: What about now. Are you still a Democrat?
DeBerry: “I have never changed any affiliation. I have never made an announcement that I was a Republican. Gov. Lee chose me on skill, aptitude and fitness.
“He looked at my record, my record of working both sides of the isle, working with Democrats and Republicans, black folks and white folks, rural and urban, and decided that I was the type of individual who would fit well within his cabinet to help him with his agenda and all of the wonderful things he wants to do for the people of the state of Tennessee…The governor didn’t ask me about my party affiliation.
“The only people who have made any reference whatsoever to my party affiliation are the folks whose party I’ve been in since 1968. I consider myself a Democrat, but here’s thing. “How can I consider myself a Democrat if I’m told that what I stand for is no longer part of the Democratic platform? If I’m told that my faith, that my beliefs are not welcome in the Democratic party, that makes it extremely difficult if one is trying to judge that type of affiliation.
“I’ve gotten calls and letters from all over the country from people who are saying, ‘I didn’t change, the party changed’…
“It’s bigger than the Democratic or the Republican parties. I am going to do everything I can for the will and the good of the people and that’s to work with everybody.”
TSD: So, what is that going to look like in your mind’s eye?
DeBerry: “Well, the governor has given me a broad range of responsibility. He’s given me a wide range of autonomy and creativity. He is the type of man who wants to do some good while he is in office.
“He realizes that God has blessed him to be in that position and he wants someone in my position who may be able to see some of the things he can’t see.
“From my perspective as a black man and from my perspective growing up in Memphis, he wants me to be frank and open about the things that I see and the things that I know and the things that I perceive, (things) maybe he doesn’t see it the same way… I’m going to do everything I can to see to it that what helps the people of Memphis is before him, what works for African Americans all over the state of Tennessee…”