Impatient Clemmons Anxious for Minority Voice to be Heard
The Nashville Ledger by Sam Stockard - Democratic state Rep. John Ray Clemmons is only halfway through his first two-year term representing District 55 in Nashville. But he’s not willing to wait years to speak out or push for change.
Being in the minority doesn’t stop him, either.
“I am an outspoken freshmen. I’ve been told it’s a bad thing,” the 38-year-old father of three tells a group of Democrats at a recent Murfreesboro gathering.
“I’ve had several members come up to me, from both parties quite honestly, and pull me aside and say, ‘Boy don’t you know you’re supposed to keep your mouth shut because you’re just a freshman? Worse yet, you’re one of only 26 Democrats, keep your mouth shut.’”
Clemmons, a graduate of Columbia University in New York City and University of Memphis Law School, says he just looks at them and goes back to his roots. Now attending Second Presbyterian and a member of Congregation Micah – his wife is Jewish – the Lebanon area native tells people he grew up in the Church of Christ and still depends on its fundamentals.
“I was raised to believe I’m not guaranteed a tomorrow. I’m blessed with a tomorrow. I’m not guaranteed another election,” he explains.
“So I’d better speak up now with the opportunity God has given me and the voters of Nashville have given me to stand up for what’s right for women and Democrats across the state of Tennessee.”
An attorney by trade, Clemmons is willing to go in hot pursuit of critical issues. Though he’s not granted another term, he doesn’t think he’ll always be a freshman legislator or one of 26 House Democrats.
As the Legislature gavels open the 2016 session, Clemmons has substantial work to do, especially with Republicans holding supermajorities in the House and Senate.
He traveled Tennessee this summer with state Sen. Lee Harris, another legislative freshman, gathering input from Tennessee employees about the potential outsourcing of state departments after Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration began studying privatization of numerous areas, from parks to prisons to universities.
“The governor is willing to sell the state of Tennessee to the lowest bidder,” he adds. “Privatization does nothing but eliminate accountability and quality of services and spend taxpayers’ dollars to increase profits for private companies.”
Clemmons also stood recently with the Legislature’s Black Caucus in calling for a moratorium on the number of schools in the state’s Achievement School District, a department set up to reform schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent for performance, either by running them itself or turning them over to charter operators. Twenty-seven of 29 ASD schools are located in Memphis and two are in Nashville.
“Promises were made, and promises have not been kept. There were promises that ASD schools would perform at certain rates within five years, and that has simply not been the case,” Clemmons explains.
A Vanderbilt study shows Innovation Zone schools, those poorly-performing schools allowed to operate under local school systems, are doing better than ASD schools after four years, though it points out it is still too early to determine whether ASD is a failure. Clemmons believes improper funding is the root of the problem.
In addition, he says passing Insure Tennessee, the governor’s market-based health-care plan for 280,000 people in a coverage gap, should be the Legislature’s No. 1 priority to take advantage of Affordable Care Act tax revenue in the offing.
And, he favors a regional transportation plan to help people make their way in and around Nashville, primarily through some form of mass transit starting with the I-24 corridor to Murfreesboro.
But Clemmons says he’s most proud of his stance in 2015 against legislation he believes attacks women’s reproductive rights, including privacy and health care.
During a House Health subcommittee meeting last year, he challenged Republican Rep. Matthew Hill on his bill requiring a 48-hour waiting period, asking if he intended to put a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus” and make the procedure more expensive.
Though Hill contended he was only trying to pass state law to reflect abortion regulations in effect in 1978, Clemmons called his legislation “misdirected” because it consistently uses the term “unborn child” rather than “non-viable fetus.”
In his address to Rutherford Democrats, Clemmons warns women they are “under attack.”
“Don’t be fooled. There is not a single woman that will be spared. They’re coming after you. They’ve been coming after you for a long time,” he says.
How he started
Clemmons grew up working on his grandfather’s farm in the Shop Springs community between Lebanon and Watertown in Wilson County, one of those places that’s more a state of mind than a location.
After graduating from Lebanon High School, rather than attend UT-Knoxville as his brother and sister did, he opted to challenge himself by going somewhere the “complete opposite” of where he grew up – Columbia University in New York City – a place where he would know hardly anyone and make his own way.
Clemmons graduated from there in 1999, then came home and took care of his grandfather, John Wilson Clemmons, his life’s greatest influence, a man who had his leg amputated and needed help late in life.
He and his wife, Tamara, then moved to Washington, D.C., where he got a taste of politics working for U.S. Rep. Bob Clement.
Beginning to develop a stronger interest in politics, he became political director for the Tennessee Democratic Party, then earned his law degree at the University of Memphis. After passing the bar, he moved to D.C., but only for a short time before Clement asked him to come back to Nashville and work on his mayoral campaign.
After helping Clement reach a runoff vote against Karl Dean in 2007, Clemmons focused on his law practice, then jumped back into politics, defeating longtime state Rep. Gary Odom in the Democratic primary in 2014 to capture a House seat. He was unopposed in the general election.
Clemmons says he was raised by “old Southern Democrats” or “Roosevelt Democrats,” even though his parents never talked about how they voted. He calls people such as former state Sen. Bob Rochelle and former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon his mentors.
And though some consider him a “firebrand liberal,” Clemmons feels he’s “pretty moderate.”
Yet he fits well with District 55, which stretches from 12th Avenue South and Wedgewood Avenue west across West End Avenue up into the older parts of West Nashville and across Brook Hollow Road into Southwest Davidson County.
Nashville real estate investor Bert Mathews is one of Clemmons’ supporters.
“He’s really very smart and thoughtful about the way he approaches issues,” Mathews says, calling him a “progressive voice” for Davidson County in the General Assembly.
Clemmons focused on education and transportation in his campaign and has followed through on those issues in office, both of which are critical for the Nashville area, he points out.
The first-term legislator spoke out on refugee resettlement when the program fell under attack in the wake of the Paris bombing, and he was a vocal opponent of legislation requiring cities to allow guns in parks, Mathews notes.
“He really doesn’t shy away from issues that need to be talked about,” Mathews adds. “He’s able to speak and speaking effectively is a wonderful thing.”
Clemmons consistently finds himself at odds with Republican-backed legislation such as the abortion-related bills passed in 2015. But not many people will criticize him. The Tennessee Republican Party and Beacon Center both declined comment.
Says Republican Caucus Chairman Rep. Glen Casada, “John Ray’s a very smart guy. He’s very articulate, well spoken, and he represents his constituency well.”
Of course, Casada says, he and Clemmons “don’t agree on a thing.”
“I think his policies are way out of sync with mainstream Tennesseans. But he doesn’t represent the state of Tennessee. He represents an urban district that is left of center, and he represents that viewpoint very well,” says Casada, a Franklin Republican.
Red and blue outlook
With Democrats facing major hurdles to pass legislation in the General Assembly, Clemmons says party members may feel as if they’re “on an island, like they’re one of the few in their town.”
Democrats hold only five of 33 Senate seats and 26 of 99 House seats.
But he says the Democratic Party is growing and on the verge of unseating Republicans, many of whom are legislating out of “fear,” afraid they’ll be beaten in primaries if they support measures such as Insure Tennessee.
Clemmons points to traffic on Nashville-area interstates each day as another sign of Republican inaction.
Gov. Haslam toured the state last fall to put out political feelers for reforming fuel taxes to pay for some $6 billion in committed road projects. But most Republicans are saying they won’t vote for a gas tax increase this year.
“You drive anywhere across the state of Tennessee, and you see these wonderful infrastructure projects, most of them were built by Democrats or under Democratic leadership. But Republicans supported them, too,” Clemmons says.
“There was a point in time when we said, ‘This has to be done, let’s put things aside and let’s build this, because Tennessee’s progress is what’s most important, Tennessee’s citizens, that should be priority.’
“But now there’s just fear. They won’t talk to anybody across the aisle. They won’t work with anybody across the aisle. They’re so afraid of their own shadow they won’t pass anything to do what’s necessary to keep from plateauing our progress in the state of Tennessee.”
Clemmons says he has plenty of Republican friends in his neighborhood and in the General Assembly. But he’s been told they’re under strict orders not to be seen talking or fraternizing with him.
Meanwhile, lobbyists – especially those representing business interests – who once wouldn’t consider talking to Democrats are begging them for help, he adds, because they believe Republicans are more concerned about getting re-elected than working in the state’s best interests.
This fear stems from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling, which “opened the floodgates” for out-of-state money to be pumped into campaigns, according to Clemmons.
“It’s probably the No. 1 threat to our republic and our form of democracy today,” he explains.
But on an even more personal level, Clemmons says he’s tired of being told he’s wrong all the time.
And, he says, “I get so sick and tired of everything Republicans do being in the name of God. Everything comes from the Christian right. Well, it’s neither Christian, nor is it right.”
The freshman lawmaker should have plenty of opportunities to make that point in 2016, and don’t expect him to sit quietly.
Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D)
Represents: District 55, located entirely within Metropolitan Nashville & Davidson County. He is a House Member of the 109th General Assembly.
Personal: Rep. Clemmons was raised on a farm between Lebanon and Watertown. He graduated from Lebanon High School. He earned his BA in History from Columbia University in New York and his Juris Doctorate degree from University of Memphis School of Law.