Remembering Thelma Harper

Sen. Thelma Harper, in one of her trademark hats, poses for a selfie with then-Gov. Bill Haslam and fellow lawmakers before the State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 (Photo credit: State of Tennessee)

Former state Sen. Thelma Harper, who died Thursday at age 80, was the first African-American woman to serve in the state Senate. The outspoken Nashville Democrat delivered some memorable lines over her time in politics. Here are some of Harper’s memorable quotes, culled from the archives of The Tennessee Journal:

  • “All my stuff is original.” — Harper after a flustered Sen. Raymond Finney (R-Maryville) twice addressed her as “sir” during a committee hearing in 2005.
  • “If someone wants to tell me something, let him stand up and tell me so I can punch his lights out.” — Harper, then a Nashville Metro Council member, to the Nashville Banner in 1989 about a letter she received in support of keeping a landfill in her district open.
  • “If Senator Fowler could be impregnated, he wouldn’t be trying to take these rights away.” Harper arguing against a 2004 anti-abortion resolution by Sen. David Fowler (R-Signal Mountain).
  • “I offered to sew up his pants for him. Shows you what I know. ” — Harper after she joined country singer Marty Stuart — whose trademark is jeans with tattered knees — to present a bluegrass music award at a Nashville awards show in 1995. Harper admitted she had no idea who Stuart was before the show.
  • “Sometimes men dress up to look like women. My question is, are you going to raise up and see?” — Harper speaking on 1996 bill by Sen. Jim Holcomb (R-Bluff City) that would require Tennessee not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
  • “It’s not our fault that Shelby County has so many people that don’t know how to behave.”Harper responding to a comment by Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) during a meeting of the Select Oversight Committee on Correction in 1993. Committee members were discussing empty jail cells in Davidson County.
  • “What you’re telling them is they’ve got to have a spittoon…. They shouldn’t be spitting out. I just think it’s not fair.” Harper to Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), on his 2015 bill to let college students under the drinking age but at least 18 taste beer in college brewing classes provided they don’t swallow it.
  • “I was eating before I got here — that’s obvious — and I’ll be eating after I leave.” — Harper responding to comments by Sen. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) criticizing a bill that placed weak restrictions on lobbyists’ wining and dining of legislators.
  • “Senate Bill 3929 comes from the governor, and it does nothing to help anybody.” Harper, the sponsor of the bill, asking Senate Commerce to take the measure off notice in 2006. The legislation pertained to blasting, a topic on which she’d butted heads with Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.
  • “Now I don’t know if the sponsor realizes that slavery is dead…. We have worked as diligently as we can as a committee … but we’re not going to be whipped with straps and made to do anything.”Harper addressing the Senate in 2003 on complaints by Sen. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) complaints that her committee has held up a lottery implementation bill.
  • “Your church people have been calling me all week. These people said they would never have voted for you.” Harper to Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) in 2006 after saying she had been “disrespected” because Jack Daniel’s had chosen Tracy, whose district included its distillery, to sponsor a bill to place a $10 million museum and store in downtown Nashville, which was in her district. The bill failed on a 4-4 committee vote, with Harper voting against.
  • “There are some men on this commission – some real Tarzans.” Harper speaking in 1995 of the predominantly female Women’s Suffrage Commission.
  • “At some point, our children are just going to realize we’re winers. We’re drunks, even at the grocery store.” Harper on a 2016 bill to allow grocery stores to allow on-premise wine consumption.
  • “What we’ve done here tonight is not going to help our students because we have decided that everybody … has to have a brain like legislators.” — Harper complaining to the Senate in 2003 that lottery scholarship standards were too high.
  • “I think what you just heard is that any kook who can get their name on the ballot and run for judge and get a majority vote — they will be deciding the issues of life.” — Harper on 2009 legislation to reestablish contested elections for the Supreme Court.
  • “Every once in a while we ought to give him what he wants. He doesn’t ask for a lot.” Harper in proposing an amendment in 2014 to give Gov. Bill Haslam more appointments to the Tennessee Textbook Commission than the three provided in a bill by Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville). The Government Operations Committee rejected her amendment.
  • “Feeding me doesn’t influence me. I was fat when I came, and if I’m still healthy I’ll be fat when I leave.”Harper on legislation dealing with lobbyist spending in 2005.
  • “I hope you have a woman on it because when I was coming up, women couldn’t talk about whiskey.” — Harper to Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) after the Senate State and Local Government Committee decided to form a study committee for a liquor bill in 2014.
  • “Hell, we didn’t have choice, not at all, and we shouldn’t have choice now. We should take care of our students in public schools.” Harper on a 2015 school voucher bill by Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga).
  • “He championed and understood that we could be fiscally responsible and still care about the welfare of others.” Harper on the death of Sen. Douglas Henry (D-Nashville) in 2017.

3 Responses to Remembering Thelma Harper

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    Beatrice Shaw says:

    RIP Thank you for everything

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    Kendra Tilley says:

    I am very sorry to hear the news of Sen. Harper’s death. While I was not part of the Democrat party I supported her in her many efforts to fight for education. She was 1 of only 3 Senators to vote against Race To The Top in TN. She clearly stated that Race To The Top would be the destruction of public education and she was correct. She also worked to expose the destructive Achievement School District which was not created to turn around failing schools but to turn what they called failing schools into Charters. RIP Ms. Harper.

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    Cannoneer2 says:

    Rest in peace, Senator.

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