NASHVILLE — The three Democrats seeking the chance to take on state Sen. Todd Gardenhire in Tennessee's 10th District say the Republican incumbent is flogging the transgender-student school bathroom controversy to distract voters from his own record on health care and in other areas.
Democrats Ty O'Grady, Khristy Wilkinson and Nick Wilkinson are competing for the Democratic nomination in the August primary. The winner will face Gardenhire in the November general election.
O'Grady, a business entrepreneur, charged in a statement that Gardenhire's two votes in 2015 against Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan for low-income Tennessee adults has resulted in "many children losing their parents and loved ones throughout our state."
Calling Gardenhire "Dr. Death," O'Grady said the senator "only cares about kids while they're in the bathroom."
"Gardenhire was unable to stand up for what he knew to be right [on Insure Tennessee] when tougher men and women made him toe the line. Gardenhire's silence was not golden," O'Grady said.
That was a reference to Gardenhire's taunt last week that Democrats' "silence was golden" in terms of not speaking out about the transgender issue.
Nick Wilkinson is Chattanooga's deputy administrator for economic development. He said in a statement that "when Senator Gardenhire could be fighting to ensure 35,000 veterans have access to health care by passing Governor Haslam's Insure Tennessee proposal, working to make neighborhoods safer, or finding ways to ensure all kids in our area have access to a high-quality education, he decides to waste money on a frivolous lawsuit and spends his time on issues counter to the good judgment of east Tennesseans."
Last week, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery joined 10 other states in suing the Obama administration over its recent guidance to the nation's public school districts. Federal officials say schools must allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker facilities based on their gender identity and not biological sex.
Khristy Wilkinson, a community activist and former adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who is not related to Nick Wilkinson, said in an interview, "I fully support Obama's directive and I fully believe that public schools should accommodate transgender students."
"I feel there are many more important issues facing our children than a seemingly unfounded fear that transgender people are just sexual predators waiting in bathrooms to harm our kids," she said. "If this were really a safety issue we would have done something about it a long time ago."
If Gardenhire "is really so concerned about protecting our kids, then he would be working to improve the standard of education they receive" as well as working to eliminate poverty and address the state's health needs, she said. "I think there are more pressing issues facing our kids and families in Tennessee than where to use the bathroom."
Gardenhire said he was surprised the three Democrats "didn't understand the fundamental reasons" for Slatery filing suit against the Obama administration.
The Obama administration says schools that don't comply with its directive risk losing federal funding due to officials' interpretation of civil rights provisions related to sex discrimination.
"And that is any president should not be able to change the words of the law — as in Title VII and Title IX," Gardenhire said. "No. 2, the lack of knowledge. The Obama administration threatened to cut off money to schoolchildren for his social agenda. Those are the fundamental reasons for the lawsuit and it's interesting that they still refuse to address those issues and call Obama's hand on it."
Slatery, an appointed Republican, came under intense pressure from majority GOP lawmakers, including Gardenhire, to sue.
During this year's legislative session, Gardenhire voted for a bill in committee to require students to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their biological sex at birth. Gardenhire, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, voted for the bill, but it did not pass the General Assembly.
Nick Wilkinson's statement said that when it comes to the safety of his two young children, "I'm less concerned with bathrooms and more concerned about finding ways to make our streets safer and reduce violence."
He also said Gardenhire's "most recent action shows just how out of touch he is with the needs and issues facing people every day in this district."
Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini entered the fray over the weekend, charging that "after four years of insulting and ignoring his constituents, Todd Gardenhire has become a desperate politician."
Mancini said in her statement "this race is about Todd Gardenhire denying 300,000 Tennesseans access to affordable health care, it's about Todd Gardenhire calling an Insure Tennessee advocate an 'assh**le,' and it's about Todd Gardenhire's absolute failure to govern effectively."
Responded Gardenhire: "I'm not surprised at the chairman of the Democratic Party, Miss Mancini, but I'm shocked that these three would not even address the instrusion by the federal government in our local issues."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter at AndySher1.