Voting Democrat in Tennessee? Here are your choices for governor

'Policing For Profit' Reform Headed To Governor's Desk
Posted at 3:44 PM, Jul 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-10 22:36:16-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Democrats have three choices on the ballot to pick from to face Gov. Bill Lee in the November general.

Lee doesn't face an opponent in the primary.

NewsChannel 5 asked each candidate the same questions about their campaigns and platforms.

Here's what each had to say. These answers haven't been edited in any way.


What made you want to jump into the governor's race? 

As a physician with experience in public health working at Nashville General Hospital, one of our great safety net hospitals in Middle Tennessee, I saw how a lack of access to adequate healthcare was detrimental to people's lives — and how in some cases, it cost people their lives.  I know we can do better to take care of one another than our current governor.

And during the COVID pandemic, while we were able to help so many people survive, our team lost over 400 patients in Sumner County -- and I know we could have done better for many of those patients if Governor Lee had clearly spoken the truth and been a leader. 

I know that the lack of leadership is not just related to COVID — it's prevalent across the enterprise in state government, and it's the reason we underfund our schools, lock people up for small cannabis offenses, neglected economic growth in rural Tennessee, and not expanded Medicaid.

What makes you qualified to take on this position?

First and foremost, I have a heart for service.  I've been a public servant in Tennessee for 20 years in the healthcare profession, and I want to take my role as a healer, as a consensus builder to state Government.  In the course of my job in the ICU, I deal with high-stakes problems with literal life and death consequences every day -- I want to bring the same steady, calm, collaborative approach that I use in the hospital to state government, where we need strong, consistent, principled leadership.  

Don't be fooled — some people will tell you that you have to be a lawyer, or a career politician, before stepping into the governor's office.  Gov. Lee was a failure, not because he wasn't a career politician, but because he is more interested in chasing national political ambitions and towing the party line than he is taking care of the hard-working people of Tennessee.

You have three elements you could change about Tennessee. What would they be?

  • I think the team sport mentality to politics is bad for Tennessee and bad for our country.  We need to turn down the volume, focus on what we have in common, and work together to succeed.  
  • We must expand Medicaid.  Medicaid expansion not only is the right thing to do to take care of our brothers and sisters here in Tennessee, it's the right thing to do economically.  Not expanding Medicaid has contributed to being #1 in the nation in hospital closures per capita and number on in the nation in medical bankruptcies per capita — we are breaking our families with medical debt.  With Medicaid expansion, we could decrease the uninsured in Tennessee by 50%, which would support greater access to healthcare, particularly in rural Tennessee.  Better access to healthcare would support economic growth.  
  • We need to legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use.  We could use the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue from this regulated market to support causes like education, healthcare, and infrastructure.  We should stop locking up primarily Black and Brown Tennesseans for small cannabis drug offenses and use those law enforcement resources more appropriately.  We should give our farmers a new crop to save the family farm.  We should have access to cannabis for medical purposes -- for cancer patients, and chronic pain patients.  States with legalized cannabis have fewer opioid deaths, too.

What is the biggest challenge you think Tennesseans face and how would you change it?

The biggest challenge we all face is finding a way to come together for a common purpose.  I believe, after visiting every corner of the state, that we have so much more that unites us than that which divides us.  We need to focus on these issues -- like education, healthcare access, broadband infrastructure — and thrive together.  Some politicians see political points in dividing us up into regions (West, Middle, or East), races, or political affiliations.  We need to reject the politics of division and work together for a stronger Tennessee.

This state is primarily entrenched in Republican politics. How do you think you could sway voters to consider you for the position of governor while running against an incumbent? 

Governor Lee's fend for yourself approach has been a failure.  He's abandoned teachers, healthcare workers, women, workers — his lack of leadership has hurt so many.  People are hungry for a leader who is focused on their needs rather than personal political ambitions or Washington, D.C. talking points.  

J.B. Smiley Jr.

What made you want to jump into the governor's race?

Tennessee is going in the wrong direction in almost every major statistical category. Tennessee has the highest bankruptcy rate in the country, 3rd highest violent crime rate, and the 4th lowest median income. But it does not have to be that way. I am running for governor because I understand the issues Tennesseans face firsthand as I currently live in close proximity with them. In addition to understanding the plight of working families, I have experience in government and a legal background which sets me apart. But it is my passion to put people in a better position that has served as the driving force for seeking office. I believe that when we rally around common beliefs, we can build a Tennessee to be proud of, together.

What makes you qualified to take on this position?

We have already seen what it is like when someone with no government experience tells us they are going to fix our government. It was a disaster with Former President Trump. It is a disaster with Gov. Bill Lee. I have government experience both as a current member of the Memphis City Council and as a former policy advisor in the Shelby County Government. Additionally, I have a legal background which is extremely useful when you are advocating for laws and pushing back against harmful and unconstitutional ones.

Equally important to the fact that I am the only candidate with relevant work experience, my lived experience sets me apart as well. Tennesseans deserve a governor just like them. I come from a working-class family and I am currently a part of the working class. Tennesseans deserve a governor that is in close proximity to the problems that working-class people face, not someone who has to pick up a book or hire someone and ask them what they believe to be the problem.

You have three elements you could change about Tennessee. What would they be?

If you visit our website,, you will see several issues. It is hard to narrow it down to just three when most of the issues we face in Tennessee are urgent and pressing. Be that as it may, I would say the top three priorities that come to mind are education, healthcare and women's rights.

  • Education — Children who learn more, earn more as adults. As Tennessee’s next governor, we will work to strengthen and fully fund our public education system. This includes investing in pre-k expansion, vocational training, wraparound services to help parents, and working to eliminate barriers to accessing quality childcare, and education across the state. We will focus on the whole child–physical, mental, and emotional well-being. As part of my plan, we will fight to increase teacher pay and per pupil funding so educators and school districts can focus on delivering high-quality instruction, instead of making ends meet.
  • Healthcare — Tennessee deserves a governor who is about us. As governor, I will advocate for affordable and accessible health care while also addressing disparities which will lead to better health outcomes for everyone who calls Tennessee home. At the core of my healthcare plan is my belief in a holistic approach to addressing healthcare. The major elements are Medicaid Expansion, improving access to care, addressing dietary needs, and expanding mental health resources.
  • Women's rights — As governor, I will fight to protect a woman’s right to choose and laws that establish bodily autonomy; and work to eliminate pay inequality in Tennessee. The Smiley administration will stand against any law or policy that serves as an attack on women. We can drastically improve the quality of life for every woman in Tennessee by respecting a woman’s right to choose, decreasing maternal mortality rate, and eliminating the wage gap disparity.

What is the biggest challenge you think Tennesseans face and how would you change it?

Tennessee currently has the fourth lowest median income in the country. Approximately one million people in our state live in food deserts. We have the number one bankruptcy rate in the country. In light of these staggering statistics, it is abundantly clear that the number one challenge Tennesseans face is the lack of resources and/or poverty. The simplest way to address this problem is by establishing a living wage, promote economic opportunities, and invest in workforce development.

Carnita Atwater

What made you want to jump into the governor’s race?

First and foremost, I was motivated to enter into this gubernatorial race for various reasons, (1) To place Tennesseans back into politics, (2) to bring back transparency and instill hope of our democracy in our beloved citizens again, (3) To address the political and judicial corruption that have caused genocide on our people, thus having the opportunity to perform a forensic investigation all financial dealing upon my successful election (4) To circumvent abusive tax incentives going to large corporations while every citizens are struggling to make ends meet (5) To make sure all citizens have an opportunity to have a seat at the table of prosperity regardless of race, creed, nationality, religion, gender identity, disability, social status or zip code, (6) To assure that all citizens receive the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I am the “People’s Governor.”

What makes you qualified to take on this position?

First, my extensive record speaks for itself. I am the only gubernatorial candidate that received the Prestigious Award from Governor Bill Lee for being the Outstanding Leader for all citizens in the State of Tennessee on June 30, 2020, during a pandemic. I qualify for this position because I have the “Will of the People” in the center of my gubernatorial aspiration.

I am the epitome of what is needed to be the voice of the people and bring true democracy back to our governmental process. I am qualified because I am a life-long servant leader of the people with the right temperament, life experience and credentials to move the State of Tennessee to a more inclusive and diverse state for a healthy and thriving environment for all Tennesseans and not just the rich. I have extensive working knowledge of governmental procedures, a vast history of working with governmental agencies and I have been responsible for overseeing copious billion-dollar budgets and personnel. My innovative holistic approach to this political position would transcend all barriers that our beloved citizens may be experiencing to achieve greatness in our Volunteer State. Every citizen will be at the table of opportunity in my administration.

I would be a governor who view our economic, social inequities and racial disparities with a new humanistic lens of equity and fairness for all. I would indeed, be the boots-on-the-ground governor with an in sensitivity to the needs of the people by listening to their concerns and being accessible as their “People’s Governor.”

You have three elements you could change about Tennessee. What would they be?

  • To Place “We the People” back into our governmental process, thus giving all citizens a voice in our democracy. Our Constitution states “We the people, not we the politicians.”
  • Addressing systemic racism head-on to promote a more inclusive and diverse canvas of unity and prosperity. As the next Governor, I would rescind all discriminatory laws as it relates to criminalizing homeless individuals, attacking women’s reproductive health care, Truth in Sentencing, LGBTQ+ inequities and the Right to Work atrocities that keep citizens living in poverty and assure that they will never be part of our great State of prosperity for all. The employment system we have today is a modern-day sharecropper’s system, which penalized the poor and sustain the rich. As the next potential governor, I would employ the bottom-up scale of economic justice because trickling down is not working for the working poor.
  • I would revisit tax incentives to the large corporations because it has not benefited the everyday taxpayers, especially the underserved and marginalized communities across the State of Tennessee. Every large corporation that receives tax incentives, pilot-in-lieu-of-taxes, government bonds or any other economic benefit, should incorporate a Community Benefit Agreement to assure that a fair portion of the jobs are set-aside for the undeserved and marginalized communities. As the next potential incoming Governor, I will be committed to addressing tax incentives for the farmers, small businesses and minority contractors to bring economic balance in our beloved state. I am absolutely against tax incentives which to me is a form of capitalism and backdoor shenanigan to pad rich people's pockets. Until tax incentives are equitable to every taxpayer, they should be discontinued until more accountability and foresight are placed on the community benefits of these incentivized strategies. Study after study shows that tax incentives do not pay off in real economic gains and often fail to produce the jobs that were promised, therefore who does it benefit?. When managed correctly, however, they can build on local strengths. TIF plans and Pilot (Payment in Lieu of Tax) have not served the underserved and marginalized black, brown and poor white communities well. Therefore, taxpayers have not received their account receivables.

What is the biggest challenge you think Tennesseans face and how would you change it?

The biggest challenge Tennesseans face is political and judicial corruption. Until this aspect of Tennessee is addressed we will not be able to address systemic racism, “budget is a moral document,” taxation without representation, poverty, homelessness, economic disparities, health care inequities, school inequalities, attacks on women’s rights, housing disparities, livable wages, inadequate rural economic development, farmers neglect and accessibility to funding, abusive mass incarceration, environmental injustice, and epidemic of out-of-control crime.

As a potential incoming governor, my first priority is to implement a Tennessee Code Orange Accountability Task Force (TCOATF) which would be a third-party operational task force to perform an initial forensic investigation into political and judicial corruption, review term limits and qualified immunity as it relates to police officers, political and judicial actors, investigate abusive tax incentives, rescind discriminatory laws such as HB 1895, SB 2153, HB 0978, HB 2143, HB 2657, SB 2012, and SB 2683, perform an analysis of local, state and federal funds allocation across the 95 counties, violations of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), misappropriation of PPP distributions, COVID distribution funding, abuse of Medicaid expenditures, analysis of federal funding and no-bid contracts, and privatization of prison system. The second priority is implementing Universal Health Care. Third priority is to incorporate a State of Tennessee Livable Wage Plan to entail a $15.00 incremental minimal wage and incorporate a Teacher Loyalty Plan.

The political discourse is unhealthy for democracy and as a whole we need to move pass underline systemic racism and address the root cause head-on. Systemic racism is baked into every facet of our governmental policies, economic development practices, housing disparities, health care disparities, and environmental injustice. This discourse in our beloved country will never change unless antiquated mindsets change and we implement progressive diversified governmental policy changes that are sensitive to every citizen regardless of their race, nationality, zip code, gender identity, economic status or educational level. The pandemic of systemic racism will not change overnight and apparently it would have to be regulated with progressive action to curtail the manifestations of individuals that insist on divisive manipulation to exert their abuse of power on citizens across this county. We can achieve political cohesiveness in Tennessee by being intentional with a new set of cultural lenses. One TENNESSEE!

What is the biggest challenge you think Tennesseans face and how would you change it?

I feel Tennesseans are ready for a change regardless of what your political affiliation may be. We have a duty to the generation to be intentional about bringing our beloved Volunteer state to a healthy and more inclusive footprint of love, respect and tolerance. Therefore, my lifelong community cohesiveness and outreach could be the stepping stone to bringing Tennessee back together. Presently, I have already swayed numerous Republican voters to cross over and vote for me.

I have been instrumental in meeting with Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Independents, Green Party and many others to sit down and listen to their concerns. We are in a state of emergency in the state of Tennessee and our greatest concern should be placing people back into politics. In the State of Tennessee, we must go back and address human rights instead of political rights. Tennesseans should be the center of any political parties and not the politicians or individual pushing their personal political agenda which often cause harm to the citizens. As the next potential Governor, my ultimate goal is making my new administration people-centered, community-driven and assuring that no Tennesseans is left behind in the economic and social equation of justice for all. I am the “People’s Governor.”