In Tennessee, Socialists Are “On the Cusp of Something Incredibly Big”

Three socialists ran in this month’s Tennessee primaries. With endorsements from the Memphis chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, all three of them won.

Marquita Bradshaw won the Democratic Senate primary in Tennessee on August 6, 2020.

When socialists win primaries in Brooklyn, the rest of the country often rolls its eyes and asks, reasonably, “But can they win in red states?” Earlier this month, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) activists in Memphis, Tennessee, showed that they could when all three candidates endorsed by Memphis-Midsouth DSA won their primaries. Says chapter co-chair Michaelantonio Jones, “We’re on the cusp of something incredibly big.”

DSA member and cancer researcher Gabby Salinas won her primary for the Tennessee State House of representatives. Born in Bolivia, she will be the first immigrant ever to represent her district (97). In District 90 — also for the Tennessee House — progressive public education defender Torrey Harris won his primary and will face an incumbent, John DeBerry, a fan of vouchers and other school privatization schemes, who was recently removed from the Democratic ballot because he votes so often with Republicans.

More ambitiously, the chapter has also taken on a Senate race. In the contest to succeed Lamar Alexander, who is retiring, environmental justice activist Marquita Bradshaw’s primary opponents outspent her $250 to $1. Bradshaw won anyway. Her statewide election in November creates an opportunity for DSA to “build power” statewide, whether she wins or not, says Jones.

If she wins, the race will show that socialists can help beat Republicans in a high-stakes contest of national importance. Bradshaw, who grew up in South Memphis, is the first black woman to ever win a major party’s nomination for Senate in Tennessee.

It’s a long shot for sure: Tennessee has not had a Democratic senator in thirty years. But Jones sees a lot of potential support for Bradshaw — and for DSA’s message — even outside of Memphis. In rural Tennessee, people live so far away from a functioning hospital that in the case of, for example, a heart attack, they need “helicopter insurance.” Of course, many rural Tennesseans can’t afford helicopter insurance.

Ever since Reagan dismantled the passenger rail, these communities have been isolated, with no high-speed rail and terrible roads, “places where people are angry that they’ve been forgotten,” Jones says. Bradshaw’s strong social-democratic message — Medicare for All, fully funded public education, the Green New Deal — could resonate. Her opponent, Bill Hagerty, is a Trump crony who considers Sharia law a serious threat to our national security. He’s also an acolyte of the fossil fuel industry who has said he is running to “support the president and stand up against this radical movement for socialism.”

In the last election cycle, Jones says, his chapter had endorsed six candidates and was spread too thin. This time, Memphis DSA didn’t make that mistake: they endorsed late in the cycle, as they were busy with protests, but then only backed three candidates and worked hard on those campaigns.

In June, along with the Poor People’s Campaign and other groups, the DSA chapter had been occupying the plaza in front of Memphis’s city hall for over two weeks, demanding that the city defund and reform the police, and instead fund the city’s public schools, transit, libraries, and housing. The occupation allowed DSA to build relationships with other groups across the city, whose population is 60 percent black, and “gave us a lot of legitimacy,” Jones said, which then helped them in the primaries. When members got arrested, they raised $10,000, and are now able to use that bail fund to help other activists.

In a DSA chapter that attracts many transplants, the leadership of Jones, age thirty, a black man from Memphis, has also helped the group organize this Southern city. Along with DSA’s involvement in the recent protests, the group’s primary victories, says Jones, “show that we’re not a social club for bearded white guys,” he laughs. “We’re serious about DSA as an institution, and we’re going to continue to build power.”