Expected U.S. Senate candidate Gloria Johnson holding ‘announcement tour’ Tuesday and other Tennessee political news

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, speaks on the House floor during a special session of the state legislature on public safety Aug. 28 in Nashville. Johnson is expected to run for U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, speaks on the House floor during a special session of the state legislature on public safety Aug. 28 in Nashville. Johnson is expected to run for U.S. Senate. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat and retired public school teacher, embarks Tuesday on what she calls an "announcement" tour.

Johnson, 61, recently created an exploratory committee to mount a 2024 challenge to U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

"Tennessee has a Senator that stands with bullies, I have a reputation for standing up to bullies," Johnson said in a statement. "I'm taking a serious look at this race and having great conversations with folks who are hungry for better leadership in Washington."

While stopping short of saying a campaign is a certainty, political insiders' money is on Johnson — one of the "Tennessee Three" — running. She narrowly survived a House Republican expulsion effort targeting her and fellow Democratic Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis following a protest over state gun laws. The protest came following the deadly mass shooting at a conservative Christian elementary school in Nashville in March.

The exploratory committee has enabled Johnson to raise political cash for a federal race. Jones and Pearson, who are Black, were both expelled over the protest, which enabled them to raise money before they were reappointed to their seats by their respective county governing boards.

They later won re-election to their seats. But during the time they were not in the House and subject to the in-session fundraising ban, both lawmakers reported raising about $1 million each.

Blackburn, 71, a former congresswoman, is a political firebrand and former state senator who frequently weighs in on social issues. She is completing her first Senate term and at last count had $5.46 million in cash on hand.

On Sunday, Blackburn posted social media, in advance of Labor Day: "Don't forget that if the Left had their way, they'd take away your grill."

Johnson, also a firebrand, responded with her own social media missive on Labor Day: "If Corrupt Marsha Blackburn and her billionaire backers got their way, we'd all be working today. She doesn't care if your family can afford the grill — or even the food to put on on it. But keep grilling up those lies... I'll tell the truth!"

The representative said in May she was weighing a U.S. Senate bid.

If Johnson does get in, she'll need to get by Memphis environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw who has already formally announced she is running in the 2024 Senate Democratic primary. In 2020, Bradshaw unexpectedly won the Democratic primary, spending less than $10,000. She said she relied instead on her environmental and labor organizing skills as well as social media and a heart-driven message on issues ranging from the environment to racial justice.

Bradshaw beat the presumed favorite, James Mackler, a Nashville attorney and decorated Iraq war veteran who spent some $1.5 million, only to come in at No. 3.

In memorium: Don Sundquist

Former Tennessee Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, who died Aug. 27 at age 87, will lie in state Tuesday at the state Capitol.

The former congressman served two terms as governor from 1995 to 2003. Early on as governor, Sundquist made headlines by refusing to sign legislative bills authorizing local government tax increases as previous governors had done. But Sundquist argued he was "irrelevant to the process" because they would take effect without his signature. While technically accurate, it infuriated Democrats who controlled both chambers of the General Assembly.

Which of course became a line of jokes and attacks.

But Sundquist may be best known for his dropping his opposition to a state income tax and and fiercely advocating for it, a move that split Republicans and made him a pariah among many members of his own party although memories softened in later decades.

Earlier in his tenure, Sundquist fared better with initiatives including his 1996 "Families First" welfare reform, which aimed at cutting costs while improving care for low-income children.

The then-governor was known for a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve, despite repercussions or public sentiment. One of the most famous examples involved his adoption of what he had been told was a stray dog, Bailey. The "lovable mutt," as Bailey was later dubbed, had for some time been hanging around the dumpster of one of Sundquist's favorite Nashville restaurants.

After seeing television news accounts of the governor's new pooch, a 10-year-old boy and his family came forward saying Bailey was their's. Sundquist initially balked, then sent a state trooper to the family's house to sort out the facts. Four days later, Bailey departed the governor's residence.

Bailey was later killed after being struck by a car.

In his first bid for governor in 1994, Sundquist faced Democrat Phil Bredesen, the then-mayor of Nashville. There was little love lost between Sundquist and Bredesen.

Following a Nashville debate, Sundquist's campaign charged Bredesen pushed Sunquist's deputy, Peaches Simpkins, as campaign officials on both sides where trying to spin reporters over who won the debate.

A then-Chattanooga Times reporter was standing between Bredesen and Simpkins at the time and observed no pushing incident. Bredesen did angrily wag a finger at Simpkins but didn't push. Nor did he "thump," as Sundquist later asserted.

Nonetheless, "Phil pushed Peaches" became a rallying cry.

"A real man doesn't do that," Sundquist, whose campaign soon began handing out T-shirts and stickers saying, "Phil Pushed Peaches."

But Sundquist also had no great love for Blackburn who during his subsequent second-term income tax wars publicly opposed Sundquist and helped rally anti-income tax protesters who swept into the Capitol.

Sundquist eventually endorsed Blackburn in her successful 2018 U.S. Senate race with Bredesen.

In a 2020 phone interview on President Donald Trump, Sundquist took delight in there having been questions at the time as to whether he might endorse Bredesen over Blackburn.

"Did you expect that?" Sundquist said before erupting in laughter.

Tennessee Supreme Court transitions

The investiture ceremony for new Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Dwight Tarwater is scheduled for Tuesday in Knoxville at the Tennessee Theatre.

The governor appointed Tarwater to the state's highest court in February to succeed Justice Sharon Lee, the last remaining Democrat on the five-judge panel who announced earlier this year she would step down Aug. 31.

The governor will administer the oath of office to Tarwater, a Knoxville attorney who once served as legal counsel to then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican.

In another Tennessee Supreme Court development, justices last week elected Holly Kirby as the next chief justice.

Lee had announced in 2022 she would step down Aug. 31. As the last Democrat on the Tennessee's highest court, she wrote a a number of dissents in rulings. So many that the Knoxville Bar Association had an article on her titled: "Justice Sharon Lee and the Power of Dissenting Opinions."

Lee served as a justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court from 2008 to 2023. She was appointed to the court by Bredesen. Lee was elected by state-wide votes in retention elections in 2010, 2014 and 2022.

Elizabeth Usman, an associate professor of law at Belmont University in Nashville, praised Justice Lee for her service in a social media post.

"The Tennessee courts and Tennessee law are better for the years of exemplary service from @JusticeLeeTN — she is not only an excellent jurist but also a tremendous ambassador for the judiciary — the people of Tennessee have been well served by her presence on the bench."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.

  photo  FILE - Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., speaks during a Senate Finance committee hearing March 16 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Tennessee Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson has launched an exploratory committee as she considers running for the seat held by Blackburn in 2024. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)