The support for Marquita Bradshaw as she made a historic bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate was self-evident on this building along a stretch of Lamar. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

It’s been almost three decades since Tennessee has elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. Never in history has a Black woman held the coveted seat in Tennessee.

Marquita Bradshaw, South Memphis native and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, is hoping to rewrite history.

With a host of key endorsements, including the presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden – the activist and environmentalist is hoping for victory on Nov. 3.

“Marquita is a proven leader who will fight for the needs of working families – needs she understands because she’s faced the same struggles they have. I am proud to endorse Marquita’s candidacy for U.S. Senate,” Biden said in a news release dated October 26.

Marquita Bradshaw (Courtesy photo)

Bradshaw thinks the VP’s endorsement, coming as early voting is building momentum, is timely. “I am delighted to have the endorsement of Vice President Joe Biden. His support and faith in me to help carry Tennessee is truly humbling,” she said.

Breaking barriers isn’t new to Bradshaw, who in August became the first Black woman in Tennessee to be nominated by a major political party for U.S. Senate.

Bradshaw’s campaign platform, that she refers to as the “people’s platform,” includes Medicare for all; quality public education; community policing and restorative justice.

Perhaps most notable is her activism in regards to environmental justice, a topic that is drawing interest in Black communities across the nation.

Bradshaw was introduced to environmental activism in South Memphis, where she grew up. At the time, the Memphis Defense Depot, a United States supply warehouse, was located nearby. The facility housed pesticides, fuels, solvents, substances related to chemical weapons and other dangerous materials until at least the 1970s. The toxins proved deadly, she said.

“It wasn’t just any landfill,” Bradshaw said at a recent virtual campaign event. “It was a military landfill, full of chemicals made to kill people and plants very effectively.”

Bradshaw’s mother formed the Defense Depot Memphis TN-Concerned Citizens Committee in 1995. The group consisted of more than 2,500 members, including parents, teachers, clergy and small business owners.

Bradshaw has said that more than half of the initial members died due to health complications related to the depot.

She’s been advocating for environmental justice ever since – traveling across the country calling out for remedies to toxins that make water and soil dangerous.

Bill Hagerty (Courtesy photo)

Her platform is a sharp contrast to her opponent, Bill Hagerty, the rural Tennessee businessman who has garnered an endorsement from President Donald Trump. The New Tri-State Defender reached out to Hagerty’s team but had not received a response by press deadline.

Environmental justice isn’t mentioned in Hagerty’s key issues on his campaign website. He does, however, advocate for supporting farmers, cutting taxes, protecting national security, supporting police officers and growing Tennessee’s economy.

Expanding the local economy is something both candidates agree on; but Bradshaw said her focus is the working middle class.

“It takes a working woman, a working man to understand working people’s issues,” she said. “Right now, the U.S. Senate, they represent the ultra-rich. And so, the policies actually are directed for the ultra-rich.”

The progressive candidate also pointed to the federal government’s handling of COVID-19 among the working middle-class.

“They were able to save Wall Street three times in 48 hours, and we’ll never know the price tag. But when it came to working people, you can barely get a stimulus together because they don’t know how people experience the pandemic or working-people issues.”

Bradshaw has been candid about her plight as a working-class single mother. She said a medical issue that resulted in surgery left her, a University of Memphis graduate, with a hefty student loan debt. On top of that, she had to pay for her son’s healthcare.

Then she lost her job as a union organizer at the AFL-CIO; her next job, taking care of a special-needs adult, paid one-third as much – eventually leading Bradshaw to file for chapter 7 bankruptcy.

“Right now, I am currently in bankruptcy – and I’m running for U.S. Senate,” Bradshaw has said, adding that she relates to many working-class families.

In addition to Biden’s recent endorsement, a group of prominent politicians and organizations have also endorsed Bradshaw. Democratic presidential contenders Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and all five Tennessee chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Despite the prominent backings, a recent poll by survey firm Cygnal showed Hagerty leading Bradshaw in the polls by 20 points.

Hagerty has also accumulated more campaign donors. Federal Election Commission data shows the conservative candidate as having three times as much cash on hand as Bradshaw, who has received most of her donations from individuals.

Bradshaw’s team is undaunted, arguing that “people are more important than money.” They are urging Democrats to vote.

“People keep saying Tennessee is a ‘red state,’ but that’s not true. The reality is we’re a low turnout state where the voices of most Tennesseans are not heard at the ballot box, and we’re changing that,” Bradshaw said.

Tennessee has not elected a Democratic senator since Al Gore, who left the Senate in 1993 to become President Bill Clinton’s vice president. However, record-breaking early voting numbers give Bradshaw cause for optimism.

According to the Shelby County Election Commission, the number of early voters this year is the largest recorded in more than 20 years.

“I could not be more ecstatic about our early vote numbers. Our campaign has done exactly what we needed to do in order to reach the turnout numbers we needed to have victory on Election day,” she said.

“Over 1.5 million calls, texts and doors in Shelby County alone have led to record breaking turnout in Shelby County and is what will lead us to Victory on Nov 3.”

Early voting ends on Thursday, October 29.