Black Caucus lawmakers talk reading, justice and marijuana at Chattanooga town hall

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Rep. Sam McKenzie, second from right, of Knoxville, chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, responds to a question from Chattanooga NACCP President the Rev. Ann Jones Pierre. Also attending the town hall, from left, are Sen. Ramesh Akbari, Rep. Joe Towns Jr., Rep. Antonio Parkinson, Rep. Jesse Chism and Rep. Yusuf Hakeem. The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators held a town hall with Hakeem and other caucus members at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Thursday.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Rep. Sam McKenzie, second from right, of Knoxville, chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, responds to a question from Chattanooga NACCP President the Rev. Ann Jones Pierre. Also attending the town hall, from left, are Sen. Ramesh Akbari, Rep. Joe Towns Jr., Rep. Antonio Parkinson, Rep. Jesse Chism and Rep. Yusuf Hakeem. The Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators held a town hall with Hakeem and other caucus members at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Thursday.


Black Tennessee lawmakers fielded questions about third grade retention, juvenile justice and marijuana from Hamilton County residents at a town hall meeting Thursday.

It was the first of four town halls the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators plans to hold across the state this summer. Next, caucus members will travel to Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, was joined Thursday by caucus members and Memphis Democrats Sen. Raumesh Akbari, Rep. Joe Towns, Rep. Antonio Parkinson and Rep. Jesse Chism, as well as caucus Chair Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville.

The Black Caucus is a nonpartisan group, though there have been no Republican members yet, Akbari said Thursday.

James Moreland, attending the town hall, said he thinks partisanship stops state lawmakers from getting things done.

"I think the solution to that is, we've got to get smart enough to elect people who have compassion, whether they're Democrat or Republican," Moreland said ahead of the meeting.

The Tennessee House makes it hard for people to testify about bills during the session, which keeps residents' voices out of the discussion, Eric Atkins, with the Unity Group of Chattanooga, said.

Caucus members presented a check Thursday for $250,000 from this year's budget to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, where the town hall was held, to be used for educational and historical programming. Lawmakers also presented a $7.9 million check for Booker T. Washington State Park, meant to fund long-needed upgrades and maintenance, Hakeem said.

 

The park was the first segregated state park in Tennessee, built to be used by Black residents, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said at the town hall.

Lawmakers shared highlights from the legislative session, including laws passed requiring mental health support for children convicted of crimes, lifting the statute of limitations to press charges for rape, creating investment and loan programs for small businesses and allowing sentencing enhancements for police officers who assault or kill civilians.

A law also passed, sponsored by Akbari, making Juneteenth a state holiday. That allows state employees to have a paid day off June 19, which was already designated a federal holiday. The state holiday will be observed for the first time in 2024, Akbari said, since the law doesn't go into effect until July.

(READ MORE: Juneteenth celebrations fill weekend in Chattanooga area)

Half a million dollars were sent to fund youth sports programs in Tennessee, requiring they also provide mentorship and soft skills training to children, Parkinson said.

Marie Mott, a Chattanooga activist, asked caucus members if they would also consider going after funding to expand the resources found on the downtown Chattanooga library's fourth floor to local community centers. The floor offers tools, sewing equipment, screenprinting and computers with graphic design, audio and video editing software, but those who don't live downtown have trouble getting there, Mott said.

"Being able to see Black people in different spaces, children being able to do things they love and have more than just sports — no shade, but I'm just saying, I'm a nerd," Mott told lawmakers.

Kelvin Scott asked caucus members how lawmakers could reduce class sizes in public schools, as state testing this year found low levels of literacy among Tennessee third graders.

McKenzie said he believes there hasn't been enough money given to public schools, while Towns said the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program standardized test should not have been used as a measure for students moving on this year because it doesn't account for the two years of in-person schooling lost during the pandemic.

"I do agree we have to improve our third graders' reading, because you do learn to read up to the third grade, and then you read to learn," McKenzie said.

The Rev. Ann Jones Pierre, chair of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP, told lawmakers she'd like to see the state study how children's relationships with their parents relates to them getting in criminal trouble. Sending parents to jail for failing to pay child support, Pierre said, also doesn't help the issue.

Akbari agreed and said she co-sponsored a law that passed this session that allows judges to set up payment plans or pause child support payments for those in need.

In response to a submitted question about marijuana legalization, Chism said he and other lawmakers plan to emphasize the money that can be made from medical or recreational legalization in upcoming legislative sessions.

"I had people who voted against it. They caught me in the hallway and said, 'Hey, you know what? I actually agree with you,'" Chism said. "'I'm just too scared to do it right now.'"

Hakeem said he was happy to see a bill slightly loosening the state's near-total abortion ban, similar to one he proposed, pass after being tweaked by a Republican sponsor — a process Parkinson jokingly called "bill-jacking."

(READ MORE: Tennessee bill to create narrow exceptions to state's near-total abortion ban clears committee)

A Vanderbilt poll in December found that 75% of Tennesseans want the ban to include exemptions for rape and incest. In November, a Chattanooga Times Free Press poll of early voters in Hamilton County found most believe abortion should not be restricted by the government.

"The state is losing an opportunity to demonstrate that it's listening to its citizens and that it has the citizens' best interest at heart on that issue," Hakeem said Wednesday.

After the town halls are done, Hakeem said the caucus plans to send out a survey to hear from voters who couldn't attend.

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.


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