NASHVILLE, TN– Democrat Mike Stewart has been District 52’s representative in the Tennessee General Assembly since 2008 and hopes voters will keep him there when they cast their ballots this election cycle.
He’s also been elected as Democratic Caucus Chair three times unanimously.
Stewart is perhaps most known for bringing assault rifles he purchased in a parking lot without a background check or identification to the capitol building in Nashville in an effort to bring attention to the ease with which guns can be obtained. It may have been a drastic action to take to make a point, but as a veteran, Stewart knows all too well the danger of high-powered arms. He referenced the Antioch Waffle House shooting in April 2018 that left four dead and two wounded when Travis Reinking opened fire with an AR-15 style rifle. Reinking reportedly had a history of violent behavior and he got the gun from a family member after the family was told by police that Reinking had been barred from possessing firearms.
Republicans haven’t adopted the proposals, he said, but he believes Tennessee is “right around the corner” from sensible gun control legislation.
But there’s a lot more to Rep. Stewart than that viral story. He doesn’t tend to speak much about himself, being apt to ask as many questions as he receives in an interview, his demeanor calm and intrigued.
His father, John G. Stewart, served as a legislative director and aide to then-Senator and eventual vice president Hubert Humphrey during his work on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it’s a legacy that has helped inform his politics and shape his ideals. The elder Stewart wrote of the experience:
“This challenging legislative agenda, moreover, was addressed against the backdrop of growing racial unrest on the one hand, and a growing outcry for congressional action from a coalition of religious, labor, community, and political groups on the other …
“It is no exaggeration to suggest that American democracy was facing its sternest challenge since the slow, agonizing slide toward the civil conflict that took place in the 1840s and ’50s— culminating in the Civil War of the 1860s.”
Today, after decades of protest and deaths of unarmed African Americans by police officers, that momentous change has come in the name of reforming the policing system with some organizations and policymakers calling for defunding police altogether. The calls have strengthened due not necessarily to an increase in police brutality itself but of the emergence of smartphones that allow citizens to record and instantly share these acts.
Stewart’s responding with the George Floyd Act, which includes measures for police reforms, body cameras, and new laws to address racial profiling “while supporting young protesters speaking for society,” he said. Stewart considers himself a “strong voice against Trump and police violence in the streets” and said that when the killings of two young local Black men, Daniel Hambrick and Jocques Clemmons, by Metro police occurred the department hadn’t responded “swiftly and effectively,” saying the community needs a “partner in the police force.”
He also agreed with former Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson’s resignation, stating he believed Anderson made the best decision in stepping down.
“I don’t come to these issues just today,” he said, referencing his public outcries for an investigation when five Black children were arrested in Murfreesboro at Hobgood Elementary School and when he personally attended the counter-protest when white supremacists came to Shelbyville for the Unite the Right 2.0 rally.
Meanwhile, “Slate of Hate” bills such as anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation and fetal heartbeat legislation are being proposed nationwide, including Tennessee. Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, when asked directly about the possibility of such legislation passing at a Tennessee Press Association conference last winter, did not say if he would support it but expressed concerns of protecting religious liberty. “The good news is these bills usually fail,” Stewart said, adding that Slate of Hate bills are used to appeal to the hard-right Republican base and stall progressive legislation.
Like his father and Humphrey on civil rights before him, he’s run into a legislative blockade by his fellows on the other side of the aisle. But this time, the congressional processes that are meant to create consensus and compromise don’t offer much in the way of results—polarization since the election of the nation’s first African American president and the rise of the Tea Party faction have embraced the idea that compromise is equal to loss in the halls of Congress.
He’s been out front pushing back against that agenda, calling it the worst kind of legislation. Like Trump, he said, the Slate of Hate is there to divide the American public. But he warned that though they’re unlikely to pass, the bills are still a threat.
Among all this, there’s also the continuing threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Stewart’s district is home to a diverse constituency that includes minority and immigrant essential workers and has been one of the hardest-hit communities in the state.
The handling of the COVID-19 outbreak was done under bad leadership, remarked Stewart. America is currently one of the hardest-hit developed countries, and the state—much like the rest of the nation– is in a crisis. He said that though Gov. Bill Lee has done some good things during his tenure he’s done “a very poor job” responding to the state’s outbreak that has claimed the lives of over 1,000 Tennesseans and left millions relying on unemployment. “The increase in cases shows we have to do more,” he said, adding the state should use federal funds to combat the virus more effectively.
Gov. Lee recently declared the state of emergency to continue through Aug. 29.
For his part, Stewart has been trying to make headway in increasing contact tracing efforts. The state needs 2,000 contact tracers but only has 750, he said, and medical professionals that have been furloughed could help close the gap. His office has sent three requests for an increase in tracing but has yet to receive a response from the state’s Department of Health. However, contact tracing may become irrelevant if community spread of the infection continues to expand.
Relatedly, Stewart also stated that the GOP was “engaging in dishonest behavior” regarding Medicaid expansion in the state, saying it was too costly—even though the federal government, not the state, would be responsible for the funds.
For more information on Rep. Stewart and his campaign, visit mikestewartfortn.com. Voting for the general election will be held Thurs., Aug. 6. For information on voting locations, requirements, updates and more visit sos.tn.gov.