Dr. Carnita Atwater

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — Securing the Democratic nomination for governor of Tennessee was a long shot for Dr. Carnita Atwater. But to her surprise, she amassed 56,061 votes in the Aug. 4 gubernatorial primary.

Her vote count was impressive but not enough to overtake Memphis City Councilman J.B. Smiley’s 99,753 votes and Nashville’s Dr. Jason Martin’s 101,221 votes. Martin, the Democratic nominee, will face Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Nov. 8 in the general election.

The loss, however, fueled Atwater’s desire to step back into the political arena. On Aug. 5, a day after the election, Atwater formally announced her intentions via Facebook live to run for president of the United States in 2024.

Declaring herself to be nonpolitical, Atwater said she’ll be ready the next go-round and run a more aggressive campaign for president with signage and boots on the ground. She said she’ll start with the 56,061 votes she netted from the governor’s race.

Her platform for president will likely be the same as her platform for governor. “I ran (for governor) to place people back into politics,” she said, in addition to “standing up against political and judicial corruption.”

“I talked about homelessness, poverty, economic disparities, disinvestment, poor, underserved and marginalized neighborhoods, mass incarcerations, abusive tax incentives to large corporations, and environmental injustice,” she said.

Mounting a national campaign can be a daunting undertaking for lesser-known aspirants – and well-known politicians as well – seeking the highest office in the land. It’s an even longer shot for national office seekers.

Undeterred by such stats, Atwater believes she’s ready for what could be a grueling campaign. In the governor’s race, she took pride in being the first to declare her candidacy and “the first African-American woman” to run. 

“It was a miracle,” said Atwater, considering she ran a grassroots campaign with very little media exposure and no paraphernalia, such as yard signs and mailers. She didn’t fundraise, either.

“I didn’t ask people for money because of the pandemic,” Atwater said. However, she spent a modicum of $4,000 that she’d set aside in her failed bid to best Smiley and Martin for the opportunity to take on Gov. Lee.

Running a grassroots operation – which, of course, was her choice – Atwater campaigned in five of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Nevertheless, she is grateful for the cache of votes that she hauled in. 

“It wasn’t about winning or losing to me. I wanted to shine a light on the issues, and I put that out there,” said Atwater, and pointed out that she also plans to be the first African-American woman from the state of Tennessee to run for president.”

Perhaps she is trying to fulfill a promise that she made to her father long ago. At the age of seven, she recalls, he asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. 

“I told him I wanted to be the president of the United States.” 

Atwater recalls sharing her same lofty goal with one of her grade-school teachers, who was white, and was told, “eyeball-to-eyeball,” that she will never be the president of the United States. 

The teacher said, Atwater continued, “You will never be fitting to be anything but, maybe, a teacher or a nurse.”

Atwater has no regrets running for governor and said she’ll continue to stand up for people – even if she’s fortunate to “break the glass ceiling” in pursuit of the White House.

“If I never win a race, I’m going to fight for the people regardless,” Atwater said. “I believe in ‘we the people,’ not we the politicians.” 

Atwater is a longtime advocate for various causes in Memphis and a philanthropist who has fed and clothed the poor and disadvantaged. 

She is a former schoolteacher as well and owner of the Kukutana African American History and Cultural Museum at 1036 Firestone Ave. in North Memphis.