The Tennessee Gubernatorial Forum on Education took place at Belmont University’s Curb Event Centre in Nashville on January 23. Julie Chase was present on behalf of O&AN at the Rutherford County Democratic Party headquarters where a collection of media organizations gathered to view a live feed from the forum. What follows is Julie's personal take on the evening, in the moment, as perhaps the only LGBT media representative present.
Beyond that, Julie collected a few reactions from around the room at the watch party in Rutherford County. They are in the photograph above and in the video below.
Up front: We are grateful to these organizations for the information and support. In no way do we wish to copy their efforts. Please feel free to access the full debate coverage and analysis at The Tennessean and NewsChannel5 if that is your cup of tea.
Our job tonight is to cover this puppy from the perspective of the LGBTQ+ community, and perhaps have a little fun in doing so.
So... it’s a forum on education. That may not immediately appear relevant to a mostly child-free LGBT community. That was my first thought, but let's think for a minute. Where is the choke-point for most social and cultural issues in America today? Schools.
It has always been this way. Some of the first real public schools were set up in Tennessee by the occupying Federal forces in the Civil War as a way of teaching about the Federal Government. We are more familiar with the use of public schools and public education to help desegregate American society, and embrace the original Civil Rights acts concerning African-Americans and other affected groups.
What is potentially at stake in this gubernatorial race is how these candidates, and the groups supporting each of them, will deal with the recent social advances for LGBTQ+ community in Tennessee schools. Will they fight our progress or embrace the changes? Stay in public schools...or flee like many did before during desegregation?
The public talk is about transgender students and bathrooms. The behind closed doors talk is about stalling for time to create new private and publicly-funded charter schools for the kids of those who oppose us.
The education topic is important even if you are child-free. Inquiring minds on all sides want to know where the major candidates stand on this particular issue.
(The live debate feed appears, all the candidates were at their podiums)
There are four major candidates at the Curb Event Centre tonight.
Yeah, there are more people running and on stage...but save an absolute catastrophe, one of these folks will be soon occupying the house next to the Nashville home of the late great Minnie Pearl.
Now remember...this post-cast is aimed at Tennessee’s LGBTQ+ community. We tend to follow specific political issues and usually have better things to do with our time such as scanning the latest Grindr results...so let’s just hit the highlights. The links offered will take you to the individual candidate websites if you want to explore in depth.
Democrats first (since they are being nice to us tonight...Alphabetical by last names):
Karl Dean is a former mayor of Nashville, public defender and Director of Law under Mayor Bill Purcell back in the 1990’s. (He's also been known as "Mayor Boring” thanks to a long-retired Tennessean editor, for bringing to the office zero controversy and an eight-year long "nap" at 1100 Broadway. I was there.)
Quick take: Your typical pro-business, tough on crime Democrat who managed to keep the city from sinking into the Cumberland River during the Great Recession of 2008 and Flood of 2010, kept the Predators from leaving, started the Greenway walking trail projects and gave a favourable opinion for a proposed 2003 law banning job discrimination in Nashville on the basis of sexual orientation as Director of Law...with some controversy about the stand years later courtesy of the Nashville Scene. Decent mayor, nice person.
The flip side: Dean tends to be very pro-business oriented (some don’t like that) and invited charter school groups to Nashville in a bid to improve educational standards (teachers, established private schools and Williamson County realtors really didn’t like that)
Craig Fitzhugh is the Minority Leader of the Tennessee House of Representatives since 2011. Hailing from West Tennessee and representing the 82nd Tennessee House district (it’s a little north of Memphis), Fitzhugh served as a Municipal Court judge and as an Air Force officer in both the active service and the reserve before coming to the State House in 1995.
Quick take: Coming from West Tennessee, absolutely no one east of Jackson has probably ever heard of him and that’s a shame. On record for supporting the LGBTQ+ community on numerous occasions, sponsored a law barring convicted rapists from suing their victims for custody of children, backs the removal of a Confederate memorial at the State Capitol, not in favor of charter schools, favors consensus and a bit of compromise with like-minded Republicans and just might become a Phil Bredesen clone if elected governor.
The flip side: CEO of a West Tennessee bank, former Chairman of the Tennessee Bankers Association...while on record supporting the LGBTQ+ community is also an ordained deacon in a Southern Baptist church (not necessarily a bad thing folks…) but not publicly on record about his feelings over legal abortion outside of special circumstances.
Republicans next...let’s keep this short and sweet; we’re not exactly a Republican-friendly group at the moment:
(Update: Ms. Beavers did not appear at the Forum citing a recent death in the family. We will keep the following bio since she plans to continue her run for Governor. Our sincere condolences offered for her and her family’s loss)
Mae Beavers was a State Senator for the 17th District (Wilson County area) until she stepped down for her run for Governor. She has been in the Tennessee legislature since 1995.
Quick take: Ummmm...let’s be kind here. She’s not friendly to the LGBTQ+ community or women’s rights and tends to be a Pro-Trump cheerleader for all things really super-conservative. Her campaign manifesto linked above pretty much says it all even in its watered down form for public eyes. Perhaps a little to the left of Attila the Hun, but not by much.
The flip side: She’s not personally friendly to people like us per numerous sources, but last I checked she never did crimes or time in prison...and probably likes puppies. Willing to bet she would call around to find out who was missing a wallet with ten grand inside. She's that type too...
Beth Harwell is the current speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Been there since 1989, speaker since 2011. Speaker Harwell is the pro-business, pro-charter school, seemingly fiscally prudent candidate…’the private sector always does things best’ type who always makes my recovering-Establishment Republican heart go pitter-pat. A mid-level career focused boss you probably would not want...the HR advocate you would want in your corner when in a jam. Not my first choice for governor, but would trust her with the nuclear football. You would be hiring a local Carly Fiorina type. We could do worse…
Really quick take: on record for opposing LGBTQ+ related issues on numerous occasions
The flip side: NOT Mae Beavers….
And the questions begin. Okay...there were five candidates present and I had resolved to follow the four listed above. State Senator Beavers was absent, leaving three. Two problems: the questions were often times aimed at a specific two or three candidates at a time...by a lottery, I guess...so I sometimes have only one response to the questions listed below.
The other problem was that WOW! THEY DO TELEVISED FORUMS QUICK these days. The following is paraphrasing...not word for word. Buyer beware…
“We have made huge progress in education. What will each of you do to keep this up?”
Karl Dean: Need to take care of our teachers. Teachers are the most important part of the education issue. It is critical that we pay them competitive salaries. Rural towns are losing good teachers due to pay discrepancies with bigger cities
Craig Fitzhugh: Teachers are very important and deserve better pay and respect. I feel that another important way to continue the progress is to make sure all children learn to read by the third grade. Reading skills are that important
Beth Harwell: I have led major education reforms while in the State House and have a proven track record on this issue. We cannot let up on making progress. Need workplace apprenticeships for high school students.
“Are we investing enough in education?”
Fitzhugh: No. We need more resources there. Need more well spent money on education, especially in rural areas.
“Did you send your kids to public schools?”
Dean: My kids went to private schools, but I am fully committed to public schools
Fitzhugh: My kids went to public schools. I feel these schools are the best place for kids to learn about the real world around them
Harwell: Public schools are great, but I sent my kids to private schools
“Is the Tennessee Ready testing programme a good or bad idea?”
Fitzhugh: it’s a decent idea, but not working well
Dean: We need a testing system that works better
“Would you support expansion of charter schools?”
Harwell: Yes. I sponsored the original bill. They work well. It’s the best for at-risk kids especially
“How can we retain teachers?”
Fitzhugh: We need to give teachers better preparation, better training and more money. We need to give them much more respect too. They are important. We need to lift them up at every opportunity
Dean: We need to be innovative. I helped recruit teachers in Nashville. It can be done
“How you feel about annual teacher evaluations?”
Dean: Teachers want accountability and their opinions heard. Good idea. Everyone does that today. It helps people move forward in their careers
Harwell: Good idea. Works for my kids, worked for me. We are asking taxpayers to pay for all this...there should be testing. Useful testing that helps everyone
“How would feel about potential access to local colleges for DACA dreamers?”
Dean: Good idea. Dreamers were brought here by family. They are part of our community I would sign bill
(Update: Major applause line at forum and the moderator had to ask the audience to stop)
Fitzhugh: I voted to do that before and would vote to do so again
Harwell: This is an illegal programme. No. Taxpayer money should be spent on legal citizens
(Update: And the Democrats around me go bananas. Became hard to hear the forum for the next few minutes…)
“Teacher salaries?” (Hard to hear…)
Dean: Will work hard to raise. Did that in Nashville as mayor
Harwell: Have given pay increases already, I support more increases, but need to be financially responsible about it
“Pre-k expansion throughout Tennessee?”
Fitzhugh: Yes. It works. No question that pre-k schooled kids do better. Gov. Haslam did a great job on this
Harwell: Parents are the most important teachers. Mixed results on pre-k per data. If have them, need to be high quality programmes that get results
Dean: I support pre-k. Should be across the state. Pre-k works best when you have quality schools to go with it
“How to close achievement gaps?”
Harwell: Some gaps have been eliminated. Good progress, but need to do more especially with at-risk kids. Charter schools work best in her opinion
(Update: Then we lost the internet feed to the forum until next question…)
“How to deal with students living in poverty?”
Dean: Public defender experience coloured my opinion. Most of my clients were High School dropouts. Kids who are at-risk need more attention. Nashville targets programmes for this demographic. We should do this across the state. After school programs work well too
(Update: Getting louder in here….sound turned down for election announcements)
“Vocational education opportunities?”
Harwell: We need to increase numbers going into these types of programs. Will help the workforce
“How to raise college grad rates?”
Dean: Better K-12 experiences help. Need to get K-12 schools where they need to be
Fitzhugh: Agree. But need more college options that are cheaper. That and more rural locations will prevent dropouts due to financial difficulties
Harwell: Laws tying aid to college graduation rates pushed colleges to find ways to graduate more. Dual enrollment options a good path. Options where high school kids can take technical courses in local colleges at the same time graduates more kids too
Harwell: I always stayed on the education committee in the House. Was that important. Higher graduation rates mean lower crime rates, and a better skilled workforce
Fitzhugh: Education is the most important thing our state does, need to move faster on improving education throughout the state
Dean: Quality education means the economy grows. Good schools will help kids more with positive public safety and health impacts. Will make Tennessee a better place to work and live