Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire understands why the Grand Old Party hasn't come to his defense over Insure Tennessee.
"It's a choice between criticizing the governor or criticizing me," Gardenhire said Friday. "[Republican leaders] have chosen not to say anything [in my defense] and I haven't asked them to."
Gardenhire is one of seven Republican state senators who voted against Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to extend health coverage to more than 280,000 low-income Tennesseans last month by expanding the state's Medicaid program, called TennCare.
The defeat was a harsh blow to the governor's plan, but did not send Insure Tennessee to its grave. The Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted on Wednesday night to approve a resolution allowing Haslam to proceed with the proposal. The Senate Commerce Committee will vote on the resolution Tuesday, though Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey predicts tough sledding for it there.
Gardenhire is one of several Republicans on the committee who is critical of Insure Tennessee and will be participating in this vote.
He held a news conference Friday in Miller Park downtown, reading a statement and answering media questions. He ignored Insure Tennessee supporters gathered in the park.
The supporters have spent the past month vilifying Gardenhire, staging prayer meetings, mock funerals and marches to pressure him into supporting Insure Tennessee. Some protesters chalked graffiti on the walk of his downtown office.
Gardenhire said he's not moved by the critics and protests, which he calls a political ploy.
"We know from emails that the state Democratic Party chairman and the local party chairman have been encouraging [protesters] to do this," Gardenhire said. "Their activism is political in nature ... and it's not going to sway me."
Terry Stulce, a Chattanooga resident and veteran who ran as a Democrat for the 3rd District seat in Congress in 2006, was among the protesters Friday.
"I was glad [Gardenhire] was here today," Stulce said. "It's the first time he has come out and seen us. I just wish he would have stayed and talked and wouldn't hide."
Stulce said he cannot tell whether Gardenhire is listening, but even if he's turned a deaf ear, the activists will continue advocating for the bill out of moral obligation.
"Health insurance is a human right," Stulce said. "I fought for two years in Vietnam for a country that believes in that right. This is not Gardenhire's America. It's our America."
Contact Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.