April 21, 2023 10:00am

Extreme Times, These

Shootings, protests, expulsions and more

By Bruce Dobie and Roger Shirley

The mass shooting at Covenant School last month shook the foundations of our city and state and beyond, unifying us momentarily in grief and mourning over the senseless murders.

In quick order it also gave rise, for many, to anger over current gun laws and, for others, to support for alternative approaches to addressing this national epidemic. And then came the legislative expulsions of two young, progressive Black men and the oh-so-close booting of a retired, white schoolteacher for bringing the loud protests into the House chambers, leading to another round of questions about the propriety of it all.

We put the main question to Power Poll members, who had somewhat mixed, centrist reactions to the whole Tennessee Three saga.

Asked whether the expulsion of two, Black, Democratic legislators was the correct response, a solid majority believes that while punishment was warranted, expelling them was too harsh. Just over one-third believes there should have been no punishment at all, while a relatively small percentage feel it was the right decision.

As to how much the actions of the so-called Tennessee Three helped advance the cause of gun law reform, just over half believe it did. Most of those, however, feel it only “somewhat” moved the needle while a smaller percentage said it “significantly” did so. On the other end of the spectrum just under half believes the needle moved “very little” or “not at all.”

Finally, a word about the Nashville mayor’s race. Matt Wiltshire remains the Power Poll pick to place first in the Aug. 8 election. State Sen. Jeff Yarbro was next on the list followed by new-to-the field Heidi Campbell, who unsuccessfully ran against Republican Andy Ogles for the 5th District congressional seat last year.

Here are the specific questions and answers in this most recent Power Poll:


As we all know, a tidal wave of controversies swamped the city after the shooting deaths at the Covenant School, leading to a semi-breakdown in the political order of things. We had gun control protests and in-your-face arguments. We experienced bruising conflict between city and state, Republicans and Democrats. We witnessed wild eruptions on the floor of the state House.

And all of it has been live, and in color, on the family TV.

That the chaos was broadcast far and wide sent shivers up and down the spine of our city. We gazed in wonder. Was this us? Aren't we the friendly city? Aren't we the happy, well-meaning, highly functional, make-it-happen pro-business city that accomodates all newcomers with a slightly lefty set of social values?

Maybe we aren’t that. Maybe we’ve reached a new level of political and social behavior ruled more by anger and extremist ideology. Maybe we’ve handed the discussion off to the 10% who occupy the far reaches of the left and right.

One wonders how we got here. One wonders about the vast gulf between the largely rural Republican lawmakers in the state House and this increasingly liberal-leaning city of ours in which all of us live. One reads about extremism on the national level; here we are in our own little test tube living out the extreme paradigm here as well.

One explanation for this low spot where we find ourselves is abject failure of communication that has been building for years. Hint to our mayor and the House speaker: How about you guys get together for a regularly scheduled breakfast every month? I remember the days when Lamar Alexander was governor, and he and the Democratic heads of the Senate and House would gather weekly to hash out the nitty-gritty of governance. They found a way. Cameron Sexton—who until a few weeks ago was the most powerful man in the state—needs to find a way with our city leaders, as our city leaders need to do with him. It starts with talk.

But one must acknowledge it’s dicey. The current Tennessee Republican Party has no need to accommodate Democrats. When you have a supermajority in the Legislature, and you dominate everything statewide, you can do what you want. You do not have to work and play well with others. One-party rule has its costs—not only to the party on the other side of the aisle, but to the party in charge. People with excessive power start doing boldly stupid things as they test their outer limits. Sure enough, House Republicans got bold when they suggested expulsion. Probably stupid, also.

When most Power Poll members saw the 20-something lawmakers named Justin and Justin running around the floor of the Legislature and shouting in a bullhorn and bringing proceedings to a halt, they felt those actions deserved penalty. Fine and good. The Justins probably half-expected they would have their hands slapped to some degree. But expulsion? That fed into the narrative that they were being expelled because they were Black, especially since the other expulsion target, who escaped the boot by a single vote, is white.

And that deserves exploration. Because as you look at this sequence of events, it begins as a gun control argument then morphs into an argument about race and social justice and democracy, which nobody might have seen coming. The protests at the state Capitol this week led by the famed North Carolina minister William Barber underscore how the gun control debate has shifted into something resembling the desegregation of downtown Nashville lunch counters in the 1960s by students from Fisk and TSU. For many people, this is not just a struggle about sensible gun laws. This is about American democracy hitting a hard reset button.

Certainly, some are marching for better gun laws, and they appear to have made headway considering Gov. Bill Lee’s recently proposed red flag laws (though he doesn’t use the term). On the other hand, others are marching for something more aspirational that includes a broad agenda of greater access to healthcare, voting rights reform, criminal justice reform, and more.

Who knows where this is going, right?

FOOTNOTE: We asked our Power Poll members in Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville the same questions we asked in Nashville, which provided some interesting insight into how Tennessee’s other major cities view the recent social and political unrest at the state Capitol.

All four cities were aligned on the question of whether the vote to expel two of the three legislators was appropriate. Most Power Poll members in all four cities agreed that expulsion was too serious a penalty but that some form of punishment was warranted. Members in Knoxville were least likely to feel that no penalty was needed at 29%, compared to 39% in Memphis, 38% in Chattanooga, and 36% in Nashville.

As to the other question—that is, how far the Tennessee Three had moved the needle on gun control—the Nashville Power Poll members believed more strongly than those in other cities that some progress had been made: 53% of believe it moved “significantly” or “somewhat,” compared to 41% each in Memphis and Knoxville, and 37% in Chattanooga.


Since last month’s Power Poll, two more candidates got in the mayor’s race bringing the total to nine, each of whom are credible. It has only made things more unsettled. A large number of the candidates have paths to victory.

However, among all the candidates, it is fair to say that the undisputed chief money-raiser, endorsement-grabber, and all-around Energizer Bunny is Matt Wiltshire. Once again, Power Poll members strongly feel as if Wiltshire will place first in the Aug. 8 election.

This is not to say Power Poll members feel he will be our next mayor. Most Power Poll members will probably tell you that he will likely end up in a runoff with one of the other candidates, and at that point, it becomes a whole new ballgame. But for the time being, he is having his day in the sunshine.

This month's sponsored poll question is brought to you by Randy Rayburn of Midtown Café. Thank you for your participation.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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