Tennessee’s Republican movers and shakers probably weren’t expecting pollution to be major issue in this year’s Senate race. Since Al Gore departed his Senate seat in 1993 to become Bill Clinton’s vice president, Tennesseans have elected only Republicans as senators, while the Republican Party has become nearly synonymous with environmental deregulation.
But Marquita Bradshaw’s surprise win of the Democratic primary in August has made environmental justice one of the race’s signature issues.
The question now is whether, after 27 years, Tennesseans will decide to elect another Democrat to replace retiring three-term Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander — this time a Black woman who is emblematic of the party’s new blue wave of progressives.
This story is part of DRILLED Local’s 2020 election coverage.
Bradshaw and Bill Hagerty, her Republican opponent, are running on sharply different ideas about what the government should be concerned with when it comes to the environment.
A single mother and first-time candidate for office, Bradshaw is running on a platform that includes supporting Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Bradshaw has promised to push back against the environmental exploitation of local communities, saying that corporations should be required to develop plans for reducing current pollution, as well as dealing with the impacts of past pollution.
“People understand pollution more than climate change and everyone understands that we have a problem with pollution,” Bradshaw posted to a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session in June. “When we talk about a just transition, we are talking about solutions to pollution.”
Bradshaw began organizing for environmental justice as a youth, after people in her South Memphis neighborhood began to suspect that pollution from a nearby Army depot was the cause of the area’s unusually high rates of illness and death.
Hagerty is a white man from rural Tennessee who left his private equity firm in 2017 to become President Trump’s ambassador to Japan. In July 2019, Trump announced and endorsed his Senate candidacy in a tweet.
Hagerty’s slate of standard conservative campaign promises includes stopping the Green New Deal and fighting what he terms “socialist attempts to ban fracking.”
Hagerty’s platform does not mention addressing pollution, environmental health, or climate change. Instead, he promises to roll back renewable fuel standards, further slash federal environmental regulations, and “eliminate senseless EPA interference.”
Bradshaw’s green positions may be unfamiliar to many voters in Tennessee, where politicians typically talk about the environment in terms of protecting wild areas for hunting, fishing, hiking, and other kinds of outdoor recreation.
Hagerty offers a libertarian version of that tradition, telling the Tennessee Wildlife Federation in a July question-and-answer session that his highest priority for the state’s natural resources is “support for private land management.”
The Hagerty campaign did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Hagerty’s 20-point lead over Bradshaw appears insurmountable, according to an Oct. 21-22 poll by the survey firm Cygnal. But eroding support for Trump (who is polling just 9 points ahead of Democratic candidate Joe Biden, compared to his 24-point lead on Hillary Clinton in 2016) ) could travel down-ticket to the Senate race, and Bradshaw’s team is hoping that another surprise win in November will make Bradshaw the third Black woman ever elected to the Senate.
Campaign manager Ken Taylor says that Bradshaw’s primary victory against James Mackler, the Democratic Party’s preferred and more centrist candidate, was the result of a grassroots campaign that got first-time and sporadic voters to the polls, on a $25,000 budget that was about $2 million short of Mackler’s campaign bankroll.
“A lot of those people are un-pollable,” he says. “That’s how she was able to come in last in all the polls and have a decisive victory.”
While Bradshaw and Gore have passionate advocacy for the environment in common, their otherwise divergent backgrounds demonstrate how environmental politics has changed over the past 30 years.
Gore came to electoral politics as the scion of the Tennessee political elite. His father, Albert Gore Sr., represented Tennessee in Congress from 1939 to 1971, first in the House and then in the Senate. Gore’s childhood was split between spending summers at the family farm near Nashville, and the school year at the Fairfax Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Gore has said that he became concerned about climate change during his undergraduate years at Harvard in the late 1960s. As a member of the Tennessee Congressional delegation from 1977 to 1993 (split evenly between the House and Senate), he spearheaded climate and environmental hearings and legislation. Since losing his 2000 bid for the presidency, Gore has become one of the world’s most prominent climate activists, winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work to stop climate change.
Bradshaw’s path to environmental activism began in South Memphis, a majority-Black neighborhood that is also home to the Memphis Defense Depot. The Army actively warehoused pesticides, fuels, solvents, substances related to chemical weapons, and other dangerous materials at the depot from 1942 through at least the 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency listed the depot as a Superfund site in 1992.
“It wasn’t just any landfill,” Bradshaw told an online audience at a recent virtual campaign event. “It was a military landfill, full of chemicals made to kill people and plants very effectively.”
By the late 1970s, residents of Bradshaw’s neighborhood were getting sick at unusually high rates, including a number of children diagnosed with reproductive cancers. Testing would eventually reveal that the site’s soil and groundwater were contaminated with potentially carcinogenic chemicals trichloroethylene and carbon tetrachloride, among other toxic substances.
In 1995, after two of Bradshaw’s grandparents died of cancer, her parents Doris and Kenneth Bradshaw joined around 500 other community members to form the Defense Depot of Memphis, Tennessee, Concerned Citizens Committee. The group pressured the government to take responsibility for the depot, as well as its toll on local residents.
According to Taylor, half the group’s original members died within a year of its founding, and Bradshaw’s parents have experienced Illnesses they attribute to the toxic pollution at the depot.
After observing their parents’ fight to hold officials accountable, Bradshaw and other young South Memphis residents founded their own group, Youth Terminating Pollution. They learned how to do community organizing, and took up the same battle. YTP’s work eventually led the EPA to improve its regular monitoring and testing of the site.
As an adult, Bradshaw has continued to work on environmental justice and progressive causes, including union organizing, according to her LinkedIn page. Her campaign did not provide additional information.
With the race to replace Alexander attracting national attention, a full spectrum of prominent center-progressive politicians and organizations have endorsed Bradshaw, from Cori Bush, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, to the Sierra Club and all five Tennessee chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America.
In her endorsement, Warren said she was proud to endorse Bradshaw as “a lifelong community organizer and environmental justice advocate who understands the importance of people-powered politics and giving hard working folks a voice in Washington.”
The youth-led Sunrise Movement for climate action has also endorsed Bradshaw, and the group’s several Tennessee chapters have been phone-banking to get out the vote on her behalf. Hale Masaki, a Sunrise campaign organizer leading that effort, says the volunteers are usually able to get voters’ attention by “being very upfront about why Marquita is running and what her platform is about.”
Masaki says that when Sunrise volunteers talk with prospective voters, many agree that the unprecedented wildfires on the West Coast and the severe hurricane season battering the Southeast are evidence that “climate change is affecting us in tangible ways right now.”
Even in deeply Republican Tennessee, he hopes, it won’t take “anything more than that” to send Bradshaw to the Senate in 2021.
10/26/20: This story has been updated.
Grant Currin is a science journalist based in Nashville, Tennessee. He writes about nature, wildlife, and public access to information. @grantcurrin