TEP Forum gives local legislators chance to lay out differences between parties

While much attention will be focused on the 2010 gubernatorial race, state democratic officials say that the real action will be in Tennessee’s down-ticket races where, among other things, control of the state House of Representatives will be decided.

“Progressive ideas are under assault in a direct and immediate way,” said Rep. Mike Stewart (D-52) at a legislative forum held by the Tennessee Equality Project on March 28 at East End United Methodist Church. “The 2010 House races will be the most important since 1986, because it is a redistricting year, and if the Republicans have control of both the House and the Senate after that then bills that have been stopped for years will be coming up for votes within weeks.”

Stewart referenced the current pending legislation that would make it illegal for cohabitating couples to adopt a child, as well as upcoming legislation that would redefine the legal status, and adoptability, of fertilized embryos. Those bills, like others that would place caps on lawsuits against nursing homes, as well as new restrictions on abortion, are flying out of Republican-controlled committees where, until last fall’s shift to GOP control of the House, they languished for years.

“As bad as things are now, if the Republicans get more seats they will fully enact their agenda, and they will redistrict to eliminate the rural Democrats,” he said. “In a state where a simple majority has the rule, this would put them in control for decades.”

While TEP does not endorse based on party, bur rather on position, the organization has tended to back Democratic and progressive candidates. In addition to Stewart, those have included state Rep. Sherry Jones (D-59), who also attended the forum and pointed out how the state GOP, since winning a one-seat majority in the house in fall 2008, has advanced multiple bills that she sees as discriminatory.

“When we lost control of the House, we lost control of being able to stop anything,” Jones said, pointing out that most committees and subcommittees are at best equally split between the parties. “We have lost the constitutional officers, and we have a lot of incumbents saying they may not run next year, so we have a lot of work to do. If we don’t keep these seats, and win some next time, the General Assembly could be in Republican control for 10 or 20 years.”

Both Jones and Stewart praised TEP’s get-out-the-vote efforts in the past, and each implored the organization’s members to get involved in races throughout the state, particularly in and around Murfreesboro and Rutherford County, as those seats are seen as most likely to tilt the balance of power.

“We need you to get plugged in, and in a big way,” Stewart said. “If you contact me, I can put you in touch with the people who need your help. The periphery of Nashville, a lot of these suburban areas, is going to be key.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Jenny Ford, TEP’s lobbyist and chair of its political action committee, who pointed out that the organization is doing well in forming allegiances with lawmakers and other allies, but needs to ramp up those efforts considerably.

“We as members of TEP need to engage like-minded individuals and groups,” Ford said. “It doesn’t take much to click through an e-mail to send to other people, and it doesn’t take much to invite people to these forums. All of us need to be in contact with our lawmakers, and the House is the base for doing that.”

The hope going forward is that TEP can build on its growing reputation as an active, successful grassroots organization, and that its endorsement of candidates continues to carry weight, added TEP President Chris Sanders.

“Starting this April, we need to send more e-mails to more people, get more people involved,” Sanders said. “We want to get ‘real’ people involved, and not just the urbanites; we need people in the rural areas. When Jenny tells us something is happening at the Capitol, we have to be ready to go.”
For a list of legislation TEP currently is monitoring, visit http://www.tnep.org/html/LegislativeUpdates/

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