Karl Dean appearing at ACT-ET forum 10/7/18


An alliance of East Tennessee social activists debuts with a candidate forum featuring a roster of Democrats. (Republicans were invited.)

by jesse fox mayshark • october 8, 2018


gubernatorial candidate and former nashville mayor karl dean addresses the audience at a forum sunday sponsored by act-et. (photo by compass)

Taking the stage before a cheering crowd of several hundred people Sunday afternoon inside Cox Auditorium on the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus, former Nashville mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Karl Dean was ready to answer questions.

On the agenda: expanded healthcare, access to home loans, driver's licenses for immigrants.

The organizers of the event, which was billed as “Liberty and Justice for All: A forum for community engagement and action,” chose to keep things simple. Speaking on behalf of the Alliance for Community Transformation East Tennessee Strong & United (ACT-ET), the Rev. Jake Morill of Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church asked just two things: Would Dean, as governor, work for the expansion of Medicaid? And would he support policies to make Tennessee a welcoming place for immigrants?

Dean’s answer to both was a resounding “Yes!”

ACT-ET is a relatively new alliance of religious, labor and immigrants’ rights organizations with a social justice focus. The forum Sunday was its first such event.

Addressing a diverse audience that included dozens of Latino families, Dean went on to talk about fighting off an effort in 2009 to make English the official language of Nashville. (The referendum read, in part, “Official actions which bind or commit the government shall be taken only in the English language, and all official government communications and publications shall be in English.”)

“When people come to the United States and they pick Knoxville, or Nashville, or Memphis to make it their home, that is the highest compliment anybody could ever give us,” Dean said, prompting another round of applause.

Dean was top of the bill for the forum, which included welcoming remarks from Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and appearances by most of the Democratic candidates up for state and federal offices: Renee Hoyos, running in the 2nd Congressional District, and Diane Mitchell, running in the 3rd; state Senate candidate Jamie Ballinger; and state House candidates Gloria Johnson, Kate Trudell, Greg Mackay, Edward Nelson, Coleen Martinez, and Richard Dawson of Oak Ridge. Also in attendance were Knox County school board member Jennifer Owen and City Councilwoman Seema Singh-Perez.

Republican candidates were invited, but none came.

Jenni Keeler, co-chair of ACT-ET, said, “We were sad about that. We did ask Republican candidates to come, and we’d be happy to hear independent candidates. One of the things we do, coming from different faiths, we agree that there are some issues we’re not going to agree on.”

The coalition includes Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church and the Tennessee Valley UUC in Knoxville; St. Mary’s Catholic Church of Oak Ridge; Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Knoxville; FISH Hospitality Pantries; the local chapter of the AFL-CIO; Muslim Community of Knoxville; SEEED, and others.

It may not be a surprise that Republicans would find other things to do on a Sunday afternoon than put themselves in front of that lineup. The default left the Democrats a lot of time on stage in front of a largely supportive crowd, with bilingual translation for the entire event.

All of the candidates were asked variations on the questions presented to Dean, and they competed to express themselves most enthusiastically in both English and Spanish. Edward Nelson, the youthful Democratic contender in the largely rural 19th House District, wore a T-shirt with the face of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and shouted “Si se puede!” (That motto of the United Farmworkers of America, which literally means “Yes, it can be done,” has become kind of an all-purpose progressive rallying cry since Barack Obama deployed it in the colloquial translation “Yes, we can!” in 2008.)

Before the candidates were asked on stage, a succession of speakers presented ACT-ET’s platform. Under the broad umbrella of healthcare, housing and immigration, they highlighted a few specific goals: the expansion of Medicaid, to make treatment more accessible for opioid addicts; equal lending by banks to people seeking to buy a home; and driver’s licenses for immigrants regardless of their documented status.

“What we’re finding is that people in Tennessee really care about justice. So we’re just putting our sweat and labor into getting it going here.” – Jenni Keeler, ACT-ET co-chair

Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist Christa Brelsford talked about losing a leg in the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010. She said it was access to good medical care and pain management that allowed her to recover -- things lacking for many people who end up becoming addicted to painkillers.

Tiara-Lady Wilson talked about the shame of losing her home because of balloon payments she couldn’t afford. Teenager Mely Felipe Jimenez, who came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 2, talked about the fear produced by the act of driving anywhere for people who can’t legally get a driver’s license.

Keeler said ACT-ET grew out of parallel efforts in Oak Ridge and Knoxville by social justice groups using community organizing methods of the Saul Alinsky-inspired Gamaliel Network. She said the goal is to start conversations with candidates and officeholders about their priorities, and work to get them addressed. She noted similar organizations have taken root in Nashville (NOAH), Memphis (MICAH), and Chattanooga (CALEB).

“What we’re finding is that people in Tennessee really care about justice,” she said. “And it’s coming up as, this is what people need to do now. So we’re just putting our sweat and labor into getting it going here.”

Acknowledging that the direct questions asked to the candidates were fairly broad, Keeler said the alliance was more interested in building relationships than castigating.

“We would like to start every one of those relationships out with, how can we be partners?” she said. “We’re not afraid to ask somebody something that may be uncomfortable, but we’re not ready to point a finger at somebody and start blaming or putting them on a spot that they can’t step into.”

Keeler said ACT-ET plans to remain focused and active on its issues after the elections are over.

CORRECTION: One speaker was originally misidentified in this article. She was Tiara-Lady Wilson, not Rachelle Navy. We apologize for the error.