Key races set to shape Shelby legislative delegation

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 11, 2020 8:07 AM CT | Published: October 11, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Few House races statewide are expected to see turnover in the Nov. 3 election, but Shelby County has a handful of seats that could shift as campaigns heat up in the final three weeks.

With early voting set to start Wednesday, Oct. 14, candidates are gearing up for the stretch run of campaigning in a COVID-19 world.

House District 90

One of the biggest shakeups could come in House District 90, where Democrat Torrey Harris faces veteran state Rep. John DeBerry, who is running as an independent after being stripped of his Democratic bona fides by the state party’s executive committee this year.

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

Harris, who could be one of the first openly LGBT legislators in state history, says he raised more than $33,000 in the latest period and is hoping to bring in $8,000 more to win the election. He had only $2,400 on hand at the end of July after spending $12,240 during the summer reporting period.

A human resources director for Shelby County government, Harris contends he will provide representation the reliably Democratic district has lacked under DeBerry.

<strong>Torrey Harris</strong>

Torrey Harris

“In order for District 90 to win this election cycle and see change they’ve waited 26 years to see, they must go out and vote,” Harris said in a statement. “I’m encouraging them to safely do it in person and early. Today, I am proud to have knocked on thousands of doors, made hundreds of calls and the voters of this district finally have an opportunity to vote for someone who will listen, empower and serve, not just some but all. We are ready.”

Harris, who is backing better support for public education, Medicaid expansion and criminal justice reform, has slammed DeBerry’s support for legislation increasing penalties for protesters, including making illegal camping on restricted state property a felony.

Harris attacks DeBerry for stance in favor of protest bill

DeBerry, who has said rioters made a mockery of peaceful protest, admits this campaign is new territory for him as he runs for the first time as an independent. The Democratic Party Executive Committee ousted him in April for siding with Republicans on key issues such as anti-abortion bills and the governor’s Education Savings Account program, in addition to receiving money from groups that normally support conservatives or Republican candidates.

<strong>John DeBerry</strong>

John DeBerry

“It’s difficult to tell” how the campaign is going, DeBerry said. “I’ve never run without the banner of Democrat, which has been beside my name since 1968.”

In fact, DeBerry received the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity Action, the political wing of the conservative Koch enterprises. In contrast, Harris was endorsed recently by the Equity Alliance, a Black-led advocacy group that put together a controversial voter registration drive in 2018 and challenged the state’s absentee voter law this year.

DeBerry acknowledged he is having to alter his message “just enough for folks to understand” who he is and what he’s doing. He said, though, he has no problem with name recognition or public understanding of his values, noting he ran three “contentious” campaigns in the past six years.

“I’m not some prima donna who wants to give them the privilege to vote for me, but I am a man who has worked for their trust and support over the years,” DeBerry said.

The biggest differences between the two are “experience” and an ability to “build consensus” with majority Republicans, said DeBerry, a minister who has $175,000 in his campaign account. He noted he has received support from constituents upset with the party’s decision to remove his name from the ballot after he qualified.

DeBerry contends he worked across the aisle, treating Republicans with “respect” while serving as a committee chair under former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and continued that effort when Republicans gained control.

“I have the institutional knowledge, the experience, the ability to build consensus, the ability to build compromise, and this is what’s absolutely necessary in this very litigious … time when there’s so much contention,” DeBerry said.

House District 97

With Republican state Rep. Jim Coley stepping away from the statehouse, Democrats see an opening for Gabby Salinas to win the District 97 seat two years after narrowly losing to Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey.

Gillespie, Salinas spar over refugee rights endorsement

The question is whether the Bartlett area district has turned blue enough for her to garner the votes to defeat Republican candidate John Gillespie, who has Coley’s endorsement.

Gillespie, a grant coordinator at Trezevant Episcopal Home, also recently received the endorsement of Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, who called him the “clear choice” for the House seat.

“He has valuable financial experience. As a member of the Republican supermajority, he will be effective in Nashville and, most importantly, John understands the importance of Bartlett City Schools to this community,” McDonald said.

<strong>John Gillespie</strong>

John Gillespie

Gillespie said he’s been making phone calls and “safely” knocking on doors.

“My message is sticking. The political climate in D.C. is really turning a lot of people off, so I do think … if you’re a Republican, you’re going to vote Republican, and if you’re a Democrat, you’re going to vote Democrat, which is unfortunate because I think the issues I’m running on affect everyone,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie is backing universal prekindergarten and increased high school vocational/technical programs, sentencing and prison release reform and economic development. He also wants to maintain the state’s low debt, strong bond rating and record reserve fund, now at $1.2 billion.

Gillespie also said he supports the “philosophy” of the governor’s Education Savings Account program, which was found unconstitutional by the Tennessee Court of Appeals and is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.

<strong>Gabby Salinas</strong>

Gabby Salinas

Salinas, a St. Jude Children’s Hospital scientific researcher, is focused is on making sure community issues are addressed. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she wants to bring her expertise to the Legislature to cope with the disease.

“2021 is going to be a very important legislative year,” especially for dealing with the coronavirus, she said.

Salinas has opposed the governor’s voucher program and even traveled to Nashville to lobby against it. She pointed out Coley was an ally in opposing the program.

She also supports Medicaid expansion, using some $1 billion annually from the federal government to serve hundreds of thousands of uninsured and underinsured Tennesseans. Under former Gov. Bill Haslam, the state was on the brink of obtaining 90% in federal funding for expanding the program for the state’s uninsured and underinsured residents. Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the House and Senate, derailed the plan.

With a background in research and pharmaceutical sciences, Salinas said her background would provide insight for the Legislature in the next session.

“I think he lacks basic understanding of government, where I don’t,” said Salinas, who recently received an endorsement from the Equity Alliance, a statewide advocacy group for voter rights.

Calling himself a “fiscal conservative,” Gillespie, in contrast, accused Salinas of being a big spender. He said he doesn’t know how the state would pay for Medicaid expansion since the federal government would not be providing 100% of the funds.

“The programs we have need to be funded fully. We can’t be reliant on who’s in the White House in four years,” he said.

Salinas had $44,477 in her campaign account July 30 after spending nearly $20,000 during the period. Gillespie had a balance of $29,451 after spending $27,305 in that period.

House District 96

State Rep. Dwayne Thompson caught incumbent Republican state Rep. Steve McManus by surprise when he beat him by 365 votes four years ago to win the District 96 seat.

This fall, Thompson, a Cordova Democrat, is trying to hold off Republican activist Patti Possel, a key figure in Cordova’s fight for de-annexation from Memphis.

Referring to himself as a “moderate,” Thompson said he is concentrating on working with the Shelby County delegation on local projects and with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to improve roads in District 96, as well as to obtain funding for the University of Memphis engineering building.

<strong>Dwayne Thompson</strong>

Dwayne Thompson

“I work with both parties, Republicans and Democrats, and I’m business-friendly, but I’m also worker-friendly. My opponent is basically a pretty far-right Republican,” said Thompson, a retired human resource professional.

He pointed out Possel supports permitless handgun carry and the governor’s voucher program, which would use public funds to send qualifying Shelby County students to private schools, while opposing Medicaid expansion.

Possel, however, contends she is the “moderate” candidate in the campaign, saying Thompson votes against all anti-abortion bills while calling himself “pro-life.”

Owner of a photography business, Possel said she already has a better record than Thompson in the Legislature by pushing for legislation enabling the Cordova area to de-annex from Memphis. One part of Cordova is to be removed from the city at the end of the year.

In addition, she is called the “Trash Lady” because of her efforts to make sure garbage is picked up each week in Cordova by Memphis’ subcontractor.

<strong>Patti Possel</strong>

Patti Possel

“I have not had a government or elected position, but I’m the go-to person in this area if they have a sewer grate that goes missing, if there’s a light pole down and it sits in the street for days on end. If they have a sinkhole … and can’t get anybody out to fix it, and for trash,” Possel said.

Possel, who has a background in education, has no qualms about supporting the ESA program, calling it a “no-brainer” for students whose parents want to remove them from struggling Shelby County schools.

She opposes Medicaid expansion, saying instead she wants to work for increased access to quality healthcare. She backs the governor’s Medicaid block grant proposal.

Thompson had $22,627 in his campaign account after spending $1,429 in the latest reporting period ending July 31. He has nearly $9,000 in self-endorsed loans. Possel had $16,458 on hand after spending $42 at the end of the July reporting period.

House District 83

State Rep. Mark White just received a four-year appointment to a national assessment board from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But he faces a tough fight from East Memphis attorney Jerri Green to retain his state House seat in District 83.

White will serve on the board that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which decides the subjects for student testing and content, sets achievement levels to determine student performance and looks for ways to make the results more useful.

A former teacher, principal and small business owner, White chairs the House Education Committee. A proponent of parental choice, White helped carry the governor’s ESA program in 2019 when it narrowly passed the House after a 45-minute delay as the vote board was held open.

He supported 4% teacher pay increases this year but ultimately voted for a revised state budget after Gov. Bill Lee removed the funding for teacher pay raises.

<strong>Mark White</strong>

Mark White

“We did vote to fully fund the BEP funding formula when many states did not because we are fully supportive of our public education system,” White said.

He noted he has always backed pay raises for teachers but was put in a difficult situation this year because of the pandemic and the governor’s decision to remove the pay increases to reduce the budget by some $1 billion.

Green, a former public defender now with the Community Legal Center in Memphis, says she is “gaining a lot of momentum” in the race and believes she’s in a “dead heat” with White.

<strong>Jerri Green</strong>

Jerri Green

“I believe this year we’re going to make some history,” Green said.

If elected, she would take over a reliable Republican seat and says she would be the only mother with school-age children in the Legislature.

With Tennessee in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Green supports requesting federal funding for Medicaid expansion for hundreds of thousands of uninsured and underinsured Tennessee residents. She also backs better funding for K-12 education, even though the Legislature voted to fund BEP.

Shelby County and Metro Nashville school systems are in the midst of a lawsuit with the state for more equitable funding.

Besides being “diametrically opposed” to White on most issues, such as the voucher program and Medicaid expansion, Green points out he is a 10-year incumbent while she has never served in a political seat.

“I want to see common sense and compassion back in our government,” she says.

A mailer sent out for White’s campaign by the Tennessee Republican Party calls him a “champion for education” and checks off that he “fully funded schools,” “raised teacher pay” and “improved school security.”

The mailer fails to note Lee and the Legislature eliminated teacher pay increases when the pandemic struck Tennessee.

Green called the mailer “an outright lie” and “incredibly misleading.”

Responding previously to criticism from Green, White said he has “always supported” teacher pay increases before the funding was removed from this year’s budget. 

White pointed out the mailer refers to five pay raises he supported in previous years, and he said he hopes to find a way to give teachers a bonus and pay raise next year because of their efforts during the pandemic.

The veteran legislator said the biggest difference between him and his opponent is “experience,” something he gained through hours spent meetings over the years dealing with education issues and learning about the education system.

White had $63,657 in his campaign account at the end of July, including $10,000 from the House Republican Caucus for digital advertising. He also received nearly $6,500 from House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s political action committee and $1,000 from former Gov. Bill Haslam.

Green had $49,151 on hand July 31 after spending $2,529 during the reporting period.

House District 95

In a strong Republican district, state Rep. Kevin Vaughan of Collierville is the clear favorite to retain the seat after winning election to fill a vacancy early in the 110th General Assembly.

He faces Dr. Lynette Williams, who acknowledges she is new to the district and still trying to work out residency.

<strong>Kevin Vaughan</strong>

Kevin Vaughan

“I have been fortunate enough to gain the respect of my colleagues during the two terms that I have been in the General Assembly, which in turn, allows me to be more effective in dealing with issues not only in District 95, but all of Shelby County also. Given our Republican supermajority, Shelby County needs effective Republican voices to work with our colleagues from across the rest of the state,” Vaughan, an engineer and developer, said in a statement.

Vaughan received a leadership role during the 111th General Assembly from Sexton within the House Health Committee dealing with legislation on certificates of need for medical facilities.

“Provided that the Speaker continues to have confidence in my ability to lead, I hope to continue to be a respected voice on policy matters,” he said.

A former member of the Collierville Board of Education, Vaughan opposed the governor’s ESA program in 2019 in House Education Committee and House floor votes.

“I also serve as an unabashed supporter of public education and use not just my voice, but also my vote, to protect our school systems,” he said.

<strong>Lynette Williams</strong>

Lynette Williams

Williams, a physician by trade, admits the 95th District is “pretty pro-Trump.” The median income is $126,000 in the southeast Shelby district, making its demographics and politics markedly different from what she’s accustomed to in Memphis, she said.

Williams is interested in improving conditions for working people, raising living wages, expanding Medicaid and bolstering education.

“The things I want to do can benefit anybody in the state. As a legislator, it doesn’t really matter what district you’re from, you still can do things that can help everybody, and there’s a definite need in Memphis for some of the things I’m definitely interested in,” Williams said.

Vaughan had nearly $101,400 in his campaign account after spending $3,873 in late July. He has $3,875 in self-endorsed loans. Williams had $100 in her account in late July and no expenditures.


Torrey Harris John DeBerry Gabby Salinas John Gillespie
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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