Updated: Nov 19, 2021
As a Denver native, my experience with Tennessee politics prior to my summer internship with Volunteer Progressive was limited. I have been interested in national politics for years, and I obsessively tracked the 2020 and 2018 elections. But as a resident of an increasingly blue state, Tennessee politics always seemed like a foregone conclusion. Candidates like senatorial contender Marquita Bradshaw (D) were a fascinating test case, but Bill Hagerty (R)'s victory was, to me, merely another reminder that Tennesseans were stuck with a government that cared more about racial dog whistles than their interests.
As I learn more about Tennessee politics through my internship, I have seen an abundance of evidence to justify that conclusion. Recently, Tennessee made national news for its decision to end all vaccine outreach to juveniles and fire the state’s top immunization official. In Hamilton County, where VPS is located, educational racial segregation is high and Black students are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students, according to ProPublica’s Miseducation database. And Tennessee, which has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the nation, recently had its law requiring that first-time voters vote in person upheld by the 6th Court of Appeals.
But working with VPS has also introduced me to a world of grassroots activists and local politicians who care deeply about their constituents. Despite the state’s decision to end vaccine outreach to minors, Hamilton County will continue to advocate immunizations for children. Nashville will begin developing several community schools for children of color who do not feel their needs are being met in their current educational environment. And Tennessee’s Democratic candidates are mapping out a new path for progressive politics. Notwithstanding Bradshaw’s loss in 2020, her defeat of several far better-funded primary opponents and her success as a candidate despite her full-time job as a caregiver demonstrates the potential of working-class candidates with deep ties to their community. Additionally, Raquetta Dotley, whom VPS worked with on her successful campaign to become City Councilwoman for Chattanooga’s District 7, shows how candidates with backgrounds in community leadership can inspire the people they work with to vote them into positions of power.
In other words, local politics matter. Despite (or because of) GOP dominance, hope and resistance still flourish on the Tennessee left.
Ultimately, my introduction to Tennessee politics was a blessing. Far from furthering my depression regarding America’s political environment, working with VPS has given me a vision for a brighter future. If we, as voters and citizens, can continue to empower grassroots candidates and activists of the kind I have seen here in Tennessee, I have hope that our government might finally achieve its promise of representation for every one of its citizens.