Following the 2010 Census, the Tennessee General Assembly re-drew district lines to make more state House and Senate districts favorable for Republicans. Democrats had done the same thing for the previous 70 years following decennial censuses.
In that redrawing, Senate District 10 went from being slightly more favorable for a Democrat candidate to one slightly more favorable for a Republican candidate. Then-Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, chose not to run for re-election in 2012, then ran for mayor for Chattanooga the following spring, and won.
Longtime Republican activist Todd Gardenhire eked out a win in the 2012 Republican Senate primary over Greg Vital, then had an easier time defeating the Democrat, then-Chattanooga Councilman Andre McGary, in the general election.
Since being sworn in, the first-term senator has been anything but the shy, retiring sort.
"You never have to wonder where I stand," Gardenhire, 68, said. "Am I well-liked? Probably not. Am I respected? I hope so."
He calls himself the state Democrats' No. 1 target but warned that "doesn't mean I'm a novice at the game."
Gardenhire, among other things, offered a bill in 2014 that would allow children born in the United States of illegal immigrants to have in-state tuition at Tennessee colleges. Though controversial, it passed. A separate bill, one that would offer the same in-state tuition to children born in other countries but brought to the U.S. by their illegal immigrant parents, came close but did not pass this year.
The now-retired financial planner, chosen in 2015 to be on a special Insure Tennessee committee by Gov. Bill Haslam, voted not to allow the health care measure to get out of committee. Though we supported the bill in its pilot format, we understand his principled opposition. He said the Haslam administration never had an official exit strategy for the program, and he said hospitals, which said they would pick up the plan's extra cost during the pilot term, never agreed they would continue to foot the bill.
"It was a shell game from the start," Gardenhire said. "Do I want everybody to have health insurance? Sure, I do. But it goes back to bad business decisions."
He also helped keep a "constitutional carry" (wider legality for citizens to carry a handgun) bill in committee.
"I don't subscribe [to bills] just because other states do," Gardenhire said. "The [supporting] Tennessee Firearms Association hates my guts."
During his tenure, he has been a reliable conservative in voting to regulate abortion, restrict the use of traffic cameras, review and replace Common Core education standards, eliminate state longevity pay and allow parents of students with disabilities to withdraw their child from public school and receive public funds to use in educational settings that would better benefit that child.
As evidenced by the various education bills, the lawmaker said education is the state's No. 1 problem he'd like to improve. He said he still wants to fulfill a campaign promise of a technical school, and he is constantly drilling down on education numbers to determine what other measures might be taken that could move student test scores locally.
As to a possible gas tax in the next legislative session, Gardenhire says he'll sign no one's survey pledging this or that. The state, he said, needs funds for road infrastructure improvement and can't always count on budget surpluses. How it's presented by Haslam will tell the tale, he said.
While Gardenhire is running unopposed in the Republican primary, Democrats can choose from among Nick Wilkinson, deputy administrator of Chattanooga's Office of Economic Development and from the establishment Hillary Clinton wing of the party, Khristy Wilkinson, a Highland Park neighborhood activist and former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga adjunct faculty member and from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, and Ty O'Grady, an entrepreneur who describes himself as a "libertarian Democrat."
All three blame Gardenhire for the defeat of Insure Tennessee and want to see it resurrected and passed.
Similarly, all three vow improvement for education in the state if they are elected. O'Grady says Gardenhire has "waged war" on the teachers' union and takes to task the state's contract with Measurement Inc. for testing. Khristy Wilkinson would re-evaluate the state's funding model of public education, supports student-based funding for schools and says the state should invest even more in public schools. Nick Wilkinson supports more workforce education funding, says teachers' salaries are $10,000 below where they should be, and believes members should debate vouchers and charter schools.
Nick Wilkinson believes the state is putting its "economic growth at risk" by trafficking in bills such as a state book (the Bible, which did not become state law when Gov. Haslam's veto was sustained); mandating that people use the bathroom of the sex with which they were born; and defunding for one year the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's Office of Diversity (but moving the funding to minority engineering scholarships).
Khristy Wilkinson would like the legislature to allow cities to mandate affordable housing and a minimum wage, adopt universal pre-kindergarten classes and rethink the criminal justice system.
O'Grady wants to see government assistance for small business start-ups, licensing reform, marijuana legalized and vows to be a more pro-labor representative.
We make no endorsement from among the three candidates opposing Gardenhire in the August primary, though it is evident from campaign contributions that well-heeled local Democrats, several developers and investors are putting their money on Nick Wilkinson.
However, we believe the pragmatic, speak-his-mind state senator deserves another term.