NASHVILLE – The 113th Tennessee General Assembly was gaveled into session on Tuesday as members of the House and Senate were sworn in with family and supporters on hand and advocates of various causes making their presence known.
Republican Cameron Sexton, who represents District 25, which includes Cumberland and Van Buren counties and Monterey in Putnam County, was re-elected House Speaker by the Republican super-majority.
“I know that we will fuss and fight and bicker and argue at times,” Sexton said after taking the speaker’s oath. “There is nothing wrong with good, robust debate. We all have differences because we are all unique individuals with different backgrounds. …”
Sexton called for working together for the betterment of Tennessee during the toughest challenges.
“We will only be limited by what we are unwilling to do,” he said.
With Tuesday set aside for the basics of getting the session underway, lawmakers old, young, new and seasoned greeted each other cordially, fielding questions from reporters before and afterwards about their focus over the next several months.
Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis, District 87), the House Minority Leader, said her legislative efforts would include items associated with the Ford BlueOval City project in West Tennessee and ensuring access to opportunities.
“We got to think about transportation … how do we move people from Memphis … contracting, having access to small businesses….”
Camper expressed concern about streamlining and improving processes that affect people at the community level.
“How do we get more help for DCS (Department of Children Services). We have these careers for people that are so vital to our community, but you don’t pay them enough so they get overwhelmed, overburdened and then they leave, so we can’t keep good people.”
Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis, District 98) said he was excited about building upon natural hair laws he championed and got passed in 2013 and 2015 and continuing a push “to give people an opportunity to get small businesses open and create more professionals.”
In addition, Parkinson said he was working hard in the areas of “family law, paternity, and making sure that both parents get an opportunity to be in their children’s lives. Making sure that those fathers that have been pushed out of the process are in the process and are in their children’s lives.”
His interests also include ensuring that healthcare workers are safe and enhancing penalties for gun crimes in and around hospitals.
Rep. Jesse Chism (D-Memphis, District 85) said his legislative focus this year is going to be more criminal justice reform.
“Specifically, trying to keep our young men and women out of prison for small amounts of marijuana,” he said.
“We have so many states that already have passed these kind of measures, and it frees up the law enforcement. It frees up taxpayer dollars, and we want to make sure that we’re being smart on crime instead of railroading our people into prison for crimes that are legal in other states.”
Asked about the prospect of getting enough support for such legislation, Chism said, “I’ve been running similar legislation for the last four years. So, I’ve seen the appetite grow over the last couple of years.”
On the Senate side, Sen. London Lamar (D-Memphis, District 33), is set on championing “kitchen table issues that really hit the homes of Tennessee families and bring relief. And when I think about relief, I’m thinking about economic justice, but also we need to do something around criminal justice reform.”
The new session brings an opportunity to “continue working on maternal health issues to ensure that women in the state, especially in the wake of this new abortion law, have safe and healthy pregnancies,” she said.
To be effective on those fronts will necessarily involve holding fellow legislators accountable to the oath of office all take regarding serving the basic needs of Tennessee families, she said.
“Everything else is extra. But what I want to tell everyone in the state is that we have gotten so partisan that people are voting not on issues that they actually care about but what political parties are and making sure they can defend what communities the most.
“And so that’s both a Democrat and Republican problem. We need to come back to the center. We need to have more meaningful conversations, and we need to again make sure that everybody has strong schools, healthy families, and safe communities.”
Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis, District 29) said in seeking to be effective in the Republican-dominated legislature, “I try and look for things that we can agree on, right? … Like we all want good schools. We all wanna have a good job. We wanna be in a safe community. Sometimes we disagree about how to get there.
“So I try and find those little narrow lanes, where we can plan agreement and move forward from there. … It is difficult. We are in a super minority. … Also, I attack problems, not people. Sometimes tempers flare up here, but if you focus on the issues and not on insulting people, I think you can build relationships that really are meaningful and important when you’re trying to pass legislation.”
For Akbari, this session, “It’s gonna be criminal justice reform, looking at getting increased funding to DCS and the Tennessee Bureau investigation for their employees who are grossly underpaid. I know infrastructure’s gonna be a big deal, looking at our highways and bridges. But really just trying to see what we can do for Memphis to improve public safety, to continue to monitor, increase education dollars and of course to continue to recruit businesses that are going to pay a living wage to our community.”
Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis, District 92) said he comes into the session again knowing that “my constituents need … a lot of everything. So, I don’t concentrate on any one thing. … I’m concerned about everything. …
“It’s critical that we take comprehensive approaches to crime, to unemployment, to education, to healthcare, to housing. … And until we stop this pigeonhole to where one issue is addressed at a time, (we will) never solve anything because they all intersect at some point.”
He carried with him a stack of legislation, including one setting up a witness protection program, another involving title fraud, still another addressing blended sentencing that takes into account scientific research on brain development and one focused on affecting the driving privileges of those convicted in drive-by shooting cases.
As the legislators worked through the order of the first day, constituents from different parts of the state with varied (some shared) interests, made their presence felt, some carrying signs.
Karen Spencer McGee, a Black Lives Matter Memphis activist, also known as “Mama Peaches,” was among the Memphis activists.
“Every time the changing of a guard happens, we need to know who is representing us,” she said, noting concern about “really racist … gun laws and things. I come up here so I can agitate, educate, and organize …
“This is the year that we’re supposed to hold the government accountable and let the spirit of the elders lead.”
(Karanja A. Ajanaku is associate publisher/executive editor of The New Tri-State Defender.)