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Meet the three Tennessee Democrats who want to take on incumbent Gov. Bill Lee

The three Tennessee Democrats who want to take on incumbent Gov. Bill Lee in this year's gubernatorial race — (from left) Carnita Atwater, Dr. Jason Martin, JB Smiley Jr.
Rachel Iacovone
The three Tennessee Democrats who want to take on incumbent Gov. Bill Lee in this year's gubernatorial race — (from left) Carnita Atwater, Dr. Jason Martin, JB Smiley Jr.

Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since Phil Bredesen in 2006. But, this year, there are three Democrats hoping to change that. If they win the primary election on Thursday, they’ll go on to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Lee this fall.

Dr. Jason Martin

Over the weekend, Dr. Jason Martin, a Democratic candidate for governor, campaigned in Morristown in East Tennessee.

“Really nice to be with everybody. Hope you all are having a good day. This is a beautiful park,” Martin tells the crowd.

He works in critical care medicine in Nashville and spends most of his time in the ICU. He says seeing patients during the pandemic really drove him to enter the race.

“Seeing such staggering losses, seeing people suffer so much and knowing in my heart that we could’ve done better for folks,” Martin said.

Being a medical doctor, health care is at the top of his agenda.

“Our message of access to health care, access to great education, jobs, environmental stewardship,” Martin said. “People care about those issues.”

Martin, who’s taking his first stab at being an elected official, is the top fundraiser so far with $640,000.

“The fact that we have been able to raise hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars from thousands of small-dollar donors across the state represents a broad level of support for our message,” Martin said.

Martin is the lone candidate from Middle Tennessee and top fundraiser. The other two Democrats, JB Smiley Jr. and Carnita Atwater, hail from West Tennessee.

JB Smiley Jr.

Smiley’s campaigning on a traditional Democratic platform.

“I think one of the first things we have to do is we have to establish a living wage. We have to do what we can to build relationships so we can expand Medicaid,” Smiley said. “Also, we think about this, as I’ve been traveling across the state, I hit so many potholes because we need infrastructure improvement.”

Smiley is right behind Martin on the fundraising totem pole with a little more than$200,000 raised. He says, while he doesn’t have the largest financial backing, he isn’t worried. 

“When I ran for city council, we were outraised three to one, four to one, and came Election Day, the race wasn’t close,” Smiley said. “I want to tell you, this time, iswe can be outraised again. But, it’s about understanding how to run a race, how to organize a community and whether or not your message resonates with people.”

But, to have a shot at winning, he believes he needs younger Democrats to turn out.

“The nonvoting base … they’re millennials, which is my generation. They’re generation Z, the younger generation,” he explained. “They’re also part of marginalized communities, which make up of urban centers and rural Tennessee. And, our candidacy has been able to get them motivated about this particular election.”

During the last gubernatorial race, close to half of eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot.

Carnita Atwater

After those two is Memphis resident Carnita Atwater.

“I have served in the capacity of dean of medical studies, academic dean, dean of students, adjunct professor, teacher, nurse and a community advocate,” Atwater said.

Her political platform is anti-corruption.

“I am running on against political and judicial corruption,” she said.

Atwater says she also wants to repeal recent Tennessee laws targeting homeless people, abortion providers and the LGBTQ community.

While all three candidates have their eyes set on the governor’s mansion, it won’t be easy. Successful campaigning requires a strong ad game, and to do that, you need money. Gov. Lee has raised nearly $4.5 million for his re-election bid, five times as much as the three Democrats combined.

Atwater, who’s raised the lowest of all candidates with under $4,000, says it’s the policies that should matter.

“People vote by your political platform,” Atwater said. “So, a dollar cannot vote, but a person can.”

Blaise Gainey is a Multimedia Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.
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