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Election workers count absentee ballots on the floor of the FedExForum early on Election Day, Nov. 3, in Memphis, Tennessee.
Max Gersh/The Commercial Appeal

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Except for ousting one fierce voucher advocate, Tennessee voters stick with their legislature

While nobody expected a sea change in Tennessee’s GOP-dominated legislature, this year’s election mostly disappointed Democrats’ hopes of increasing their influence on big issues like education.

Republicans will comfortably keep control of the House and Senate as lawmakers are expected to revisit teacher pay, literacy, and other education matters that were abruptly paused when the coronavirus pandemic hit this spring. In recent years, Democrats have called for significant funding increases for K-12 education.

Campaign issues that Democrats hoped to capitalize on — like reopening schools safely and a controversial school voucher law that’s been overturned in court — didn’t seem to have much sway with voters consumed with the presidential race.

“I think Trump vs. Biden sucked all of the air out of Election Day,” Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who wasn’t up for reelection, said on Wednesday. “It just overshadowed a lot of the issues that normally would be in play.”

GOP leaders had a different take on why Tennessee voters will return them to the Capitol with supermajority advantages of 72-23 in the House and 27-6 in the Senate.

“They like what the Republican Party has accomplished for our state and they overwhelmingly want to keep going in that direction,” said Rep. Jeremy Faison, chairman of the House Republican caucus.

One bright spot for Democrats was Torrey Harris, a Memphis human resources professional who trounced Rep. John DeBerry, an ardent voucher supporter who has served in the legislature since 1994 and ran this year as an independent.

From left: Democrat Torrey Harris defeated incumbent Rep. John DeBerry for a legislative seat that represents Memphis.
The Commercial Appeal

DeBerry was a Democrat in 2019 when he was the only member of his party who voted for Gov. Bill Lee’s education savings account plan that barely passed out of the House. Soon after, he received a “champion of choice” award from the pro-voucher Tennessee Federation for Children for his support of policies that give taxpayer money to parents wanting to send their children to private schools. But in April, Democrats ousted him from their state party for consistently siding with the GOP on issues like vouchers and abortion.

Harris, who won this year’s Democratic primary, portrayed DeBerry as out of touch with his constituents and pledged to advocate for public education, not privatization of education services. He was aided by a $17,000 donation from the state’s largest teachers organization, the Tennessee Education Association. DeBerry, a minister who said parents need more education choices for their children, got a $10,000 contribution from the Tennessee Federation for Children.

The upended voucher law was a touchy election-year subject and contributed to losses by several East Tennessee lawmakers in their GOP primary races.

But in the general election, except for DeBerry, the issue didn’t derail other high-profile incumbents who helped pass the bill.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who voted for vouchers and presided over debate as chairman of the House Education Committee, defeated Democrat Jerri Green, an attorney and political newcomer who opposed the policy.

Rep. Mark White celebrates his election victory Tuesday with his wife, Kathy.
Courtesy of Rep. Mark White

White said Wednesday the election took on much broader implications, especially as students, families, and teachers deal with the strain of learning and teaching during a public health emergency.

“That’s what’s on the minds of a lot of voters,” said White, who expects to continue chairing his chamber’s education committee. “But I think they also looked at the hard work I’ve done for the past 11 years in the legislature and were willing to hang with me, whether it’s because of education or economic development.”

His challenger, Green, was seeking to become the only mother of school-age children serving in the legislature

“Public education was the thing I heard most about from voters, and I hope Chairman White heard their voices loud and clear,” said the former public defender and mom to three children.

In Middle Tennessee, former House Speaker Glen Casada got more than 60% of the vote against two opponents in Williamson County, even though he strong-armed the voucher bill through the House and later resigned from his leadership post over a scandal involving racist and sexist texts.

In East Tennessee, Knoxville Republican Rep. Jason Zachary, who changed his voucher vote to break a tie and advance the bill out of the House for the first time ever, defeated Democrat Justin Davis.

Also retaining their seats were several freshmen GOP lawmakers who supported the governor’s education savings account plan — Charlie Baum of Murfreesboro, Jerome Moon of Maryville, and Chris Hurt of Halls — in defiance of their local school boards who opposed it.

“These guys really stuck their necks out on that vote, and plenty of people thought there would be ramifications on Election Day. That just didn’t happen,” said Shaka Mitchell, who leads the Tennessee Federation for Children.

His pro-voucher group contributed about $300,000 to legislative candidates across the state.

Among them were Republicans John Gillespie in suburban Shelby County and Eddie Mannis in Knoxville.

Gillespie narrowly defeated Democrat Gabby Salinas for the seat vacated by Rep. Jim Coley, a Bartlett Republican and retired school teacher who opposed vouchers.

Mannis, an unsuccessful candidate for Knoxville mayor last year, defeated Democratic attorney Virginia Couch and will succeed retiring Rep. Martin Daniel, a Republican who chaired the joint Government Operations Committee.

Also of note from Tuesday’s races: Retiring Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham will be succeeded by fellow Republican Page Walley, a psychologist who is former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and also served five terms in the House. Walley will represent eight mostly rural counties in southwest Tennessee.

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