Thursday night’s gubernatorial debate at University of Tennessee at Martin, which saw the attendance of three candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor and four candidates for the Congressional District 8 seat, was rife with a unified passion for change and equal amounts of disagreement on how to achieve such change.
The two debates were the third of their kind in a series of debates presented in partnership with the University of Tennessee System and the USA TODAY Network.
Attending for the Democratic nomination for governor were Dr. Carnita Atwater of Memphis, Dr. Jason Martin of Nashville and Councilman JB Smiley of Memphis.
Topics ranged from the state of education rates within Tennessee, to Blue Oval City Development and gun safety, particularly in the face of recent mass shootings such as the Uvalde, Texas shooting.
Education a central focus
In a question that seemed to resonate heavily with the gathered crowd of college students, candidates were asked about the “crisis” of falling collegiate education rates in the state. Each candidate agreed that a heavier emphasis needs to be placed on trade skills, though their answer for traditional higher education accessibility varied.
Martin, who specifically mentions the burden of student loans on his campaign website, advocated for “financially affordable for options for students.”
“People are often discouraged against higher education because they don’t want to be saddled with student loans,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re running a lean and efficient cost-effective system for students in Tennessee.”
Smiley disagreed that it was a crisis, explaining that the “traditional path” is not right for everyone.
“I think we do ourselves a disservice when we say that every person is going to go to college,” Smiley said. “We need to invest in (trade) programs…. If folks do decide to purse high education, we need to make sure those programs are affordable and attainable.”
Atwater refuted Smiley’s statement of the lack of crisis, and placed heavier emphasis on the involvement of youth in education.
“I think we do have a crisis in higher education,” she said. “I think if higher education went to middle schools and started a program…I think we could recruit people at an early age. I also think universities should have partnerships with trade schools.”
Candidates also expressed strong opposition to Governor Bill Lee’s continued support of the Education Savings Account voucher program, which gives families in Shelby and Davidson County taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools.
“I am 150% for public schools,” Atwater said. “I would not support them. I find it ironic that Gov. Lee would support school vouchers when he did not release $730 million for Tennessee Assistance for Needy Families funding. I think that’s hypocritical.”
Martin stated firmly that the voucher programs were “weapons against public schools,” and that they needed to “be off the books.”
“Lee has waged war against public education his entire term in office,” Martin said. “Whether it’s working to politicize school boards, firing teachers for teaching American history as it happened, or going after librarians and not speaking out against the burning of textbooks, this program is just another weapon he’s using to defund and weaken our public school system and we need to stand up against it.”
“This administration has been hell-bent on destroying funds for public education,” he said. “They’re attempting to make private school with public funding. That’s not how are funds are supposed to be spent.”
Future of development in Blue Oval City
Candidates expressed careful support for the Blue Oval City development, which will see the creation of the highly-anticipated Ford electric vehicle plant in Stanton.
“I’m all for economic development, but not on the backs of the taxpayers,” Atwater said. “I think we need to consider—before any corporation comes to our cities—I think we need to have a community engagement agreement so people will have some type of benefit when they come to their community. I do not believe that we should give tax incentives to large corporations without accountability.”
Martin stated his support for the plan, expressing appreciation for the stipulations of the deal.
“I fully support what’s going on in Blue Oval City and the development in West Tennessee,” he said. “It will be so transformative for the region and I’m really glad that the General Assembly was able to build some claw-backs into the agreement—essentially, if they don’t meet their end of the deal, they don’t get those incentives and the money comes back to the taxpayers of Tennessee.”
Smiley took a different route, stating his support but also his hesitance in the face of the recent legal issues surrounding the town of Mason.
“I think economic development in relation to Blue Oval City is amazing,” he said. “However, I want to acknowledge the fact that there is a city not too far from here that was in the direct path of Blue Oval City called Mason, Tennessee. And for some reason, our state government attempted to take their charter. It wasn’t because they were illegitimately handling their finances—it was because our state wanted to keep their foot on the necks of marginalized communities.
“That type of leadership should not be tolerated. Everyone should be up in arms when our state comes to small communities and (takes control). We’re all for economic development, but we don’t want to overly insensitive larger corporations to come to our town. We want to give equal incentives to our small communities so they can scale up.”
“He’s wrong about guns”: Strong words for state gun safety response
When asked about the recent executive order signed by Gov. Lee to “strengthen accountability and transparency around existing school safety,” candidates decried the lack of reasonable action in light of the recent rise—and long-standing issue—of mass shooting violence.
‘I think for Gov. Lee to not address the gun control of Tennessee is a blatant oversight,” Martin said. “I think we need to make sure that yes—schools have access to School Resource Officers. Yes, we need to examine our entrance points to make sure that is as controlled as it can be, but we also need to talk about the fact Gov. Lee is wrong about guns in Tennessee.”
Martin went on to explain that Lee’s passage of permit-less carry was a “blatant disregard of advice” from state officials and an “oversight.”
“Permit-less carry gave a decades-long practice of having a background check and a basic level of safety training away from having a permit,” he said. “If someone is around you with a concealed weapon, don’t you want to know that they’ve had a background check and a decent level of training?”
Smiley disagreed that the law was “an oversight,” and called it an “intentional omission.”
“(Lee) spent the whole time talking about how he was going to make schools safe, but he did not acknowledge the fact that there are funs out there, there are people out there with ill intent to come in our schools to make them unsafe for a lot of people,” Smiley said, stating his support for the immediate return of background checks and “an outright ban on assault rifles.”
“They have no place in civilized society. They are killing weapons and we need to get rid of them….We have to call it out—we cannot ignore guns.”
Atwater advocated for a “comprehensive crime prevention plan,” to address gun safety.
“I see where the governor is coming from, but I think it’s a little too late,” she said. “We need to stop playing games and get to the meat of the matter.”
Calls to action
Candidates concluded their discussion with closing statements.
Smiley expressed his appreciation for the number of young people in the room.
“I’m so eager, so happy to see all of you here,” he said. “I’m just like you—I saw a need in my community and want to use my skills and everything I have to do something about it…the same passion I put into my current work in Memphis, I will bring forward to the state of Tennessee.”
Martin placed emphasis on the need for the people of Tennessee to come together.
“I’m new to politics….but the biggest lesson I’ve taken away from this process is that there is so much more bringing us together than that which divides us. We all want good healthcare, good schools for our kids, a good job, a chance to have a productive future. That’s what we’re fighting for….no matter who you are, Tennessee should be the land of opportunity for us all.”
Atwater reiterated her “boots on the ground” stance to change in her campaign.
“I want to take my spirit of humanity into the capitol,” she said. “I want to address poverty, economic disparities, healthcare disparities, homelessness—which is very close to my heart—and I want to be a unique governor. I have a proven record of being a servant of the people.”
Early voting begins on July 15th, with the primary election on August 4th.
Voter registration is due by July 5th. Registration can be done online at ovr.govote.tn.gov.
Have a story to tell? Reach Angele Latham by email at [email protected], by phone at 731-343-5212, or follow her on Twitter at @angele_latham.
This article originally appeared on Jackson Sun: Democratic governor candidates debate issues of education, gun safety and Blue Oval City and UT Martin