Voters in Tennessee House of Representatives District 86 Tuesday overwhelmingly chose a new generation of leadership over a veteran politician.
Environmental activist Justin Pearson trounced nine opponents, including lawyer and former Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton, garnering 52.3 percent of the votes cast in a special election primary to replace the late Barbara Cooper.
Cooper, who died in October, held the seat for 26 years. Despite her death, she was re-elected posthumously in the Nov. 8 general election.
Bolton, who served on the County Commission for 24 years, finished a distant second with 289 (12.2 percent) votes.
The district stretches along the west side of Memphis and Shelby County from northwest Shelby County to the state line.
At Pearson’s election headquarters, the watch party began long before a winner was declared.
Supporters convened at Campbell’s Business Center with an air of expectancy.
“I am grateful for the trust District 86 residents have placed in me to serve our community as state representative in the Tennessee House,” Pearson said in a statement released later.
“I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors and the great Representative Barbara Cooper, who served … with integrity and strength for 24 years. I hope to continue her legacy of servant leadership…”
Cooper, 93, was first elected to the state House in 1996.
“We were confident of victory,” said Daphne Thomas, communications director for the campaign. “This was not just another political campaign. Justin Pearson’s run for District 86 was a movement. There was always a sense of mission, an air of destiny in our work.”
Pearson came to prominence when he led the fight to kill the construction of the Byhalia Pipeline through the 38109 community. Other social justice initiatives have also endeared him to environmentalists and advocates of racial justice.
“We’re fighting and pushing for justice,” Pearson said in an interview with The New Tri-State Defender outside Riverside Missionary Baptist Church on Third Street in Southwest Memphis, where he campaigned in the waning days of early voting.
“There’s only one candidate who has been prioritizing justice, focused on justice, advocating for justice alongside Barbara Cooper, and that’s got to be me.”
What Pearson and supporters referred to as a “movement,” involves “ushering in the next generation of leadership with the guidance and wisdom of our elders to help us in this fight for justice,” he said.
“The status quo has not served the Black community. It has not served the Memphis and Shelby County community, and the status quo has not worked. We can’t have people going to Nashville for it to be their retirement job. We need people going to Nashville to work for us.”
Pearson talked of ways for a Democrat to be effective in Tennessee’s Republican super-majority legislature.
“There are opportunities, I think, for solidarity to be created when we’re seeing legislation that is harmful across all 95 counties and harmful to us in particular,” he said.
“But the other work of the state representative is beyond what’s happening in Nashville. It’s to serve as a voice and a conduit … in connecting people’s voices in your community to people in power and departments and different administrations at the state level.
“That’s the work that representative Barbara Cooper did so well that I hope to continue ….”
Thomas said Pearson won over voters with hard work.
“He knocked on doors. Justin was on the phone. He talked to people, so many people. Tonight, Justin came knowing he had done everything. He was spent. He had left it all out on the field. Victory was just the icing on the cake.”
Johnnie Mosley, senior advisor to Pearson, said, “Justin was completely exhausted but happy. He powered through the night, though, taking photos with supporters, talking with all the people who wanted to shake his hand, or give him a hug. He will never forget this night.”
There was no Republican primary candidate for the seat in the August primary elections, and no GOP candidate in the Nov. 8 general election.
Because of that, Pearson is the de facto winner of the seat. Despite that, Election Commission Chairman Mark Luttrell said state law requires a special election for the seat, which will be March 14.
To get Pearson on the job sooner, County Commission Chairman Mickell Lowery said the commission plans to appoint Pearson to the seat before the election.
(This story includes a report by TSD Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Karanja A. Ajanaku)