If Harris defeats DeBerry, he’d be first openly LGBT lawmaker

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 21, 2020 10:17 AM CT | Published: September 20, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Torrey Harris doesn’t make a big deal out of his sexuality, but he could be Tennessee’s first openly LGBT legislator if he defeats veteran Rep. John DeBerry in the race for the House District 90 seat in November.

It could be a reflection of changing political winds, with the 69-year-old DeBerry, a minister and fiery, conservative orator in the House, forced out of the Democratic Party as Harris finds acceptance in the state party as he tries to win the seat in a Democratic stronghold of Shelby County.

DeBerry to run as independent after Legislature opens door

DeBerry is running as an independent after the Legislature passed a bill this summer enabling him to put his name on the ballot.

At age 29, Harris, a Shelby County human resources director, would be the youngest legislator in the state if he wins the Nov. 3 vote. He confirms he also would be the first to hold a seat as an openly LGBT person and was endorsed this week by openly gay former presidential candidate Pete Buttigeig.

“It’s been very much so accepted across my entire district. Of course, it’s not something I lead with, it’s just part of who I am. I don’t walk up to people and say, ‘I’m Black, my name’s Torrey Harris.’ I don’t walk up to them and say, ‘I’m bisexual, I’m Torrey Harris,’ ” he said.

Harris says, instead, people in District 90 in central and western Memphis are more concerned about quality jobs and expanded health care amid the COVID-19 crisis than about who someone loves.

Meanwhile, DeBerry’s credentials are growing more conservative, even though he says he never wanted to be kicked out of the Democratic Party by its executive committee. The party ousted him in April, in part because of key votes in favor of the governor’s voucher program and abortion restrictions.

DeBerry received $8,000 in donations this summer from Republican legislators, and he landed the endorsement this week of Americans for Prosperity Action, the political wing of the conservative Koch network.

“Rep. John DeBerry exemplifies the very best Tennesseans look for in a legislator, someone who is principled and not afraid to put party loyalties aside to do what is right for his constituents,” AFP Action said in the endorsement. “Rep. DeBerry understands he needs to make students the center of our education system, not buildings and bureaucracies. Now more than ever, we are seeing how our education system locks students in a one-size-fits-all setting that doesn’t provide the flexibility to help students and families meet their needs.”

DeBerry’s vote in 2019 helped the voucher bill pass by a 50-48 margin after a 45-minute delay in the House as then-Speaker Glen Casada worked the chamber to break a tie.

He hasn’t started making a big push yet. But with more than $175,000 in his campaign account, DeBerry said he is planning a “vigorous” campaign as an independent this fall.

The 26-year legislator said he will not bring up Harris’ sexuality, noting he has never put out a “negative piece” about his political opponents.

“I work for the people of District 90, the people of the state of Tennessee. I’ve passed major bills on crime, on education, for children’s care,” he said, noting he was chairman of the House Committee on Children and Family for 12 years under former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh.

DeBerry contends the Tennessee Democratic Party “disassociated” with him, not vice versa, mainly because of his votes in favor of the Education Savings Account voucher program and legislation designed to outlaw abortion, a law that has been put on hold in federal court.

In contrast, Harris reported only $2,300 in his campaign account in his latest filing, but said he is back up to $10,500 and plans to raise $95,000 within the next 2 1/2 weeks.

Harris said the campaign contributions to DeBerry from Republican lawmakers “speak to where he’s been the last few years.”

“They’re gonna help him the best they possibly can,” Harris said.

Harris, who lost to DeBerry two years ago, said his strategy hasn’t changed in the last few months.

“Our goal is to have representation for the district, and that representation looks like Democrats because that’s what this district is,” he said.

The Harris campaign is making a push up and down the Democratic ticket, from presidential candidate Joe Biden to Senate candidate Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist from Memphis who shocked the state with her win in the Democratic primary.

In talking to voters, Harris is backing better support for public education, Medicaid expansion and criminal justice reform.

Harris attacks DeBerry for stance in favor of protest bill

He also slammed DeBerry immediately after an August special session when the General Assembly passed a bill designed to punish overzealous protesters, including making illegal camping on restricted state property a felony. That portion of the law is designed to prevent occupations of state property such as a two-month protest in front of the State Capitol.

Harris said “as a Black man,” he is “extremely disappointed” in DeBerry’s vote for the bill. DeBerry often notes that he and his father marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s civil rights movement in Memphis.

“But for him to take the stand on eliminating the voice of Black people, and most of the people doing these protests … on Capitol Hill, most of the people are Black. And for him to sit there and try to remove the voice of a Black person or a protester is beyond me,” Harris said.

DeBerry countered that the legislation, which was signed into law by the governor, “does not silence protest” or violate the First Amendment.

A person would have to be “totally blind and clueless” not to see the impact of riots and violent protests nationwide this year, DeBerry said. The rioting broke out as a result of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

“The majority of times when this happens, just as it was in the ’60s, many times businesses are destroyed or neighborhood businesses. People who have put their life work into businesses and when they’re lost, they don’t have any recourse. They have lost everything,” DeBerry said.

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Torrey Harris John DeBerry Tennessee Democratic Party
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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