Gillespie, Salinas spar over refugee rights endorsement

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 18, 2020 9:40 AM CT | Published: September 17, 2020 11:19 AM CT

Democrat Gabby Salinas and Republican John Gillespie are exchanging barbs over an endorsement she received from Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Votes, giving a hint at the bareknuckle fighting likely to take place in the race this fall for an open House seat.

<strong>Gabby Salinas</strong>

Gabby Salinas

Gillespie contends Salinas is flouting the law by getting the backing of an organization that supports illegal immigration, while Salinas says her job as a representative would be to set policy, not enforce laws.

The winner in the Nov. 3 election will replace Republican Rep. Jim Coley of Bartlett, who is stepping away from the Legislature for health reasons. Democrats see the race as a good chance to take over a Republican seat after Salinas made a strong campaign showing in 2018, losing to Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey by less than 2 percentage points.

<strong>John Gillespie</strong>

John Gillespie

The immigrant and refugee coalition’s political arm announced this week it is launching a statewide campaign to mobilize immigrant voters and elect “progressive champions” to the state Legislature, starting by endorsing Salinas for the District 97 House seat representing the Bartlett and Cordova areas and Rep. Gloria Johnson for the House District 13 seat in Knoxville.

In a statement, TIRRC Votes said it plans to endorse more candidates but pointed out “these districts represent unique opportunities to elect pro-immigrant champions to the Legislature.”

Gillespie, Salinas will vie for state House District 97 seat

Salinas came to Memphis from Bolivia as a child when she needed lifesaving cancer treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Now a research scientist, Salinas advocates for Medicaid expansion and health care access, in-state tuition for undocumented youths and more opportunities for immigrant families, according to the organization.

A grant coordinator at Trezevant Episcopal Home, Gillespie defeated Brandon Weise in the Republican primary after receiving Coley’s endorsement.

Gillespie launched the first volley in the campaign after hearing about TIRRC Votes’ endorsement for Salinas.

“I’m not surprised to see my opponent was endorsed by a group that encourages illegal immigration. My opponent wants to pick and choose the laws to enforce,” Gillespie said in a statement. “I believe we are a nation of laws and as such we must enforce all laws, including laws against those who enter this country illegally.”

Gillespie added that illegal immigration is another reason he stands in support of the “brave men and women of law enforcement” and backs “strong” laws against illegal immigration while welcoming those who enter the country legally.

Salinas responded by saying a state representative’s job is to write legislation benefiting communities, not enforcing the law.

“We are a country of immigrants. I became a citizen thanks to help of a Republican legislator, Sen. Fred Thompson, a true statesman,” she said. “I know firsthand the impact legislation has on people. My family has lived it.”

She pointed out TIRRC Votes works on “building common ground” to help the state achieve its “potential” and endorses candidates on both sides of the aisle.

“I look forward to uniting Republicans and Democrats and independents behind common sense solutions like in-state college tuition for our Tennessee high school Dreamers, which has bipartisan support,” she said.

The Legislature has repeatedly failed to pass bills enabling undocumented high school graduates to pay in-state tuition over the past five years.

But undocumented students and Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) recipients, or Dreamers, have gotten support from the courts this year, and 21 states, including Texas and California, already allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.

Gillespie, who netted a $250 donation from Coley, reported $52,316 in his campaign account, including $1,000 from House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison, $500 from Rep. Johnny Garrett, $1,000 from House Majority Leader William Lamberth’s PAC and $1,000 from Friend of Mark Luttrell.

Salinas started the most recent reporting period with $53,665, including $250 from Friend of Karen Camper, House Democratic Caucus leader.

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Gabby Salinas John Gillespie Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition
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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