Incumbent state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, made enemies during his first term in the Tennessee General Assembly — particularly with his vote on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to kill Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee, which would have expanded health care coverage in a version of the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare.
Gardenhire, elected by a 6,000-vote margin in 2012 in a Republican gerrymandered district aimed at diluting urban votes to favor GOP candidates, did exactly what that sort of red-meat partisan shaping demanded: He voted not to allow the Insure Tennessee bill out of committee and obstructed a full Senate floor vote on the measure — a measure which might have passed with a floor vote.
Some political observers compared his action to turning the committee into a death panel for our community's working poor.
Gardenhire's action — especially coupled with his outspoken taunts of ACA supporters — have brought him no primary opposition in this election. But at the same time, it's brought to his door not one, not two but three Democratic challengers: Nick Wilkinson, of Lookout Mountain; Khristy Wilkinson, of Chattanooga, and Ty O'Grady, of Chattanooga.
Make no mistake, Gardenhire is still vulnerable in the very diverse 10th District where the partisan split is 54 percent GOP to 46 percent Democrat.
That's why Gardenhire, 68, played to diverse city voters and the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce types when he sponsored — unsuccessfully — legislation to allow Latino children raised here by non-citizen parents to attention college here at in-state tuition rates. Gardenhire says his close friend and mentor, Democrat Ward Crutchfield, once told him the future of the Republican Party is Latinos.
But if Gardenhire learned at the knee of Boss Crutchfield that the growing number of Latino voters are important to any political party, he also understood that the same stance would curry him votes among the Chattanooga Chamber and Rotary elite — even while the Insure Tennessee ploy helped him court red meat suburban and rural votes.
But the first-time senator's timing wasn't ideal. The Latino student measure failed by one vote most recently, and now it turns out that those most in need of Insure Tennessee coverage are the working poor in the suburban and rural white communities.
So what the 10th District needs, once again, is a Democrat.
10th Senate District: Nick Wilkinson
We believe the most winnable Democratic ballot in November will be one with Nick Wilkinson's name on it.
Nick, 38, is a Chattanooga native who now is deputy administrator of Chattanooga's city department of economic development and a former leader of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise. He has vowed to fight for Insure Tennessee and a state government that will stop putting economic growth at risk with dog-whistle measures like transgender bathroom bills looking for birth certificates, sniper guns for state rifles and spiteful votes to defund college programs.
When we focus on these things instead of teacher pay or vocational training, companies notice, he said. When we defund the Office of Diversity at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, we send a message to the CEOs looking to come here. It puts us at a disadvantage. And when all of the state's chambers of commerce favor Insure Tennessee, but we can't get a common-sense, Republican governor-led bill out of committee, companies notice that and wonder what our priorities are.
"Right now, Nashville is more interested in special interests than the people they represent, and I'm running to make sure we are looking out for East Tennessee families," he said.
Nick's Democratic primary opponents are good people with high energy, high ideals and high hopes.
Ty O'Grady, 32, is an entrepreneur who grew up in Cleveland, has a master's degree in philosophy and describes himself as a libertarian Democrat who views government with suspicion but realizes the free market won't solve everything.
Khristy Wilkinson (no relation to Nick Wilkinson), 36, grew up in Detroit and doesn't understand why Chattanooga and her own neighborhood of Highland Park don't feel as inclusive as that Detroit neighborhood where 17 languages were spoken. She supports universal pre-K, investing in schools, affordable housing and closing Chattanooga's income gap — the seventh largest in the country.
We hope both Khristy and O'Grady will stay in politics, perhaps considering future runs for City Council, County Commission or the Board of Education.