Raumesh Akbari

Dems call for transparency, community input for redistricting process

Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) attends a floor session to adjust the course of the legislative session in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

With raw census data scheduled to be released on Thursday, Tennessee Democrats are calling for transparency in the once-per-decade redistricting process.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE — Tennessee communities should have a voice in mapping the state’s political future for the next decade, lawmakers said Tuesday in a letter to legislative leaders, and citizens should not have to wait until 2022 to see new proposed district lines.

The process of drawing new electoral boundaries for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislative districts only happens once every 10 years after the U.S. Census releases local data.

While many states have laws that require political boundaries to be drawn with community input, Tennessee’s process is controlled entirely by the majority party in the legislature.

In a letter dated Aug. 10, Democratic leaders in the Tennessee General Assembly urged the Republican speakers of both chambers to commit to an open and transparent process that provides citizens with opportunities to offer feedback on proposed maps.

“Perhaps more than any other single decision, the drawing of district boundaries will shape the policies adopted by the state over the next decade,” the lawmakers wrote. “We believe Tennesseans understand their communities and deserve a voice in how their communities will be represented.”

The letter was signed by ​​Democratic leaders Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) and Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis) as well as both caucus chairs, Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) and Rep. Vincent Dixie (D-Nashville).

In the letter, lawmakers called on the speakers to follow three community-driven principles for drawing Tennessee’s new legislative districts:

1. Maintain an open and transparent process. “Citizens deserve a districting process they can understand and trust, as well as information about how they will be able to engage with key decisionmakers. In many states, this process includes a special committee that travels the state hosting public meetings, as well as a website that provides the public with the same updated information available to the legislative decisionmakers.”

2. Offer public and community engagement opportunities. “Citizens deserve opportunities, prior to our regular legislative session, to engage on this issue. We would request that a series of public hearings be held across the state, and that these hearings also be broadcast online, and that the General Assembly employ digital tools to permit the public to offer input and even submit district map proposals.”

3. Seek public input on the first drafts of maps this fall. “Throughout the nation, it’s become common for citizens and communities to review proposed maps well in advance of final adoption. We would propose making first drafts available to the public this fall in an easily usable format, with updates released prior to any formal consideration. Community leaders and members of the public need time to review maps, offer input, and even suggest or request changes prior to any community districting legislation being voted upon.”

“The community districting process should be among the most public endeavors that our state government undertakes. The General Assembly has access to the technology to make this process transparent and even interactive,” the Democratic leaders wrote. “Far from slowing down the legislative work of drawing new district lines, we believe such efforts would not only build trust but also lead to a stronger final product.”

On Aug. 12, the ​​Census Bureau<https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/news-conference-2020-census-redistricting-data.html> will publish the first local level results from the 2020 Census, including data on race, ethnicity and the voting-age population.

Changes in population and demographics that have taken place over a decade will be used to draw new federal and state district maps — roughly equal in population.

Earlier this year, the nonpartisan group Think Tennessee<https://www.thinktennessee.org/research/elections-civic-life/> wrote about the benefits of a more public and transparent community districting process.

“Opening a window into Tennessee’s redistricting process to allow citizens to meaningfully participate would enhance their trust in the system,” Think wrote. “In a state that consistently ranks near the bottom of the country on voter registration and turnout, redistricting is a key opportunity to deepen civic engagement.”

Think also says Tennesseans historically have had fewer opportunities for public participation, and less access to draft district maps, than people in most other states.

“While most states proactively seek public input in the redistricting process, Tennesseans’ opportunities for engagement previously have been limited to submitting draft maps and sharing their opinions with their legislators,” the nonprofit wrote.

Dems call for prompt removal of Forrest bust from state Capitol

Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) presides over the chamber on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Senate Democrats are calling for the immediate removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust from the state Capitol after a 120-day waiting period expired on a Tennessee Historical Commission vote to send it to the State Museum.

Here’s the full release:

NASHVILLE — Exactly one year after a state commission that oversees the Tennessee Capitol voted to remove the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the building’s second floor, Democrats in the Senate are urging state officials to finish the job.

“Our state Capitol should be a place that celebrates the values and causes that unite us as Tennesseans,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis). “It was never a place for Nathan Bedford Forrest and now the day has come for us to finally remove his bust from these hallowed halls — and it should be done without delay.”

The Capitol Commission approved a petition to remove the Forrest bust on July 9, 2020, but a state law, passed by Republicans several years ago to protect Confederate memorials, requires the state Historical Commission to also sign off on any moving any war memorials.

The Historical Commission approved the petition in March clearing the way for the Forrest bust to be taken to the state museum after a 120-day waiting period also required by state law.

The waiting period ended today.

Although the yearlong process to remove the Forrest memorial concluded today, calls to relocate the bronze bust of the enslaver and early KKK leader began to sound the day the piece was installed in the late 1970s.

Sen. Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville), who has been a leading voice for removing the bust over her decades of service in the legislature, says state law has been followed and it’s time for the bust to go.

“I have dedicated years of my life to racial justice and one fact I have learned time and time again: To overcome inequality, we must confront our history,” Sen. Gilmore said. “No figure in the modern history of Tennessee better encapsulates this lesson than the bust of KKK grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“If we cannot remove a memorial to an enslaver from our state Capitol, how can we begin to make progress on equitable school funding, fair policing and adequate healthcare for all people?” she said. “Removing this bust today does not usher in racial equality, but it shows progress can be made. And the work of justice will continue.”

Gov. Lee announces withdrawal from feds’ pandemic unemployment programs

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters outside the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday that Tennessee will withdraw from the federal government’s enhanced unemployment benefit program during the pandemic, citing the more than 250,000 unfilled positions in the state.

Democrats are panning the decision as unfair to people who have lost their jobs.

“More than 200,000 Tennesseans have been laid off since Jan. 1 and the Lee administration just made the irresponsible decision to punish their families in a time of need,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari. “That’s not leadership, it’s legislative violence. This callous decision highlights just how out of touch this administration is with the lives of everyday Tennesseans.”

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the end of all federally funded pandemic unemployment compensation programs in Tennessee, effective July 3.

“We will no longer participate in federal pandemic unemployment programs because Tennesseans have access to more than 250,000 jobs in our state,” said Gov. Lee. “Families, businesses and our economy thrive when we focus on meaningful employment and move on from short-term, federal fixes.”

Gov. Lee’s letter to the U.S. Department of Labor can be viewed here.

Federal pandemic unemployment programs set to end on July 3 include the following:

·         Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), which provides for an additional $300 weekly payment to recipients of unemployment compensation

·         Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which provides benefits for those who would not usually qualify, such as the self-employed, gig workers and part-time workers

·         Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which provides for an extension of benefits once regular benefits have been exhausted

·         Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation (MEUC), which provides an additional $100 benefit to certain people with mixed earnings

Unemployment claimants in Tennessee have been required to complete three weekly job searches in order to remain eligible for benefits since Oct. 4, 2020.

Any weeks filed before July 3 that are eligible under federal program requirements will continue to be processed.

The Tennessee Workforce Development System stands ready to help Tennesseans return to the workforce. Career specialists are available to help job seekers match with new employment opportunities at more than 80 American Job Centers across the state. They can work to identify possible training programs that can help an individual change their career pathway or enter an apprenticeship program so they can earn a competitive wage, while they learn a new trade.

The Tennessee Virtual American Job Center, www.TNVirtualAJC.com, allows Tennesseans to research different programs that can help remove barriers to employment so they can more easily reenter Tennessee’s workforce.

As federal pandemic unemployment compensation ends in Tennessee, the state encourages claimants to search for work at www.Jobs4TN.gov, which currently has over 250,000 active job postings of all skill levels. 

Blackburn to speak at Republican presidential convention

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn is speaking at the Republican presidential convention this week. She is scheduled to appear on Wednesday, the penultimate day of the event to nominate President Donald Trump to a second term.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood) speaks at a Tennessee Titans event in Nashville on Dec. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Blackburn also spoke at the 2016 presidential convention when Trump was first nominated. Here’s an excerpt of her comments that year:

Some of our greatest leaders have been people who have worked in the real world…. Leadership is not about lines on a resume. Gender, race, zip code, pedigree, lineage, hurt feelings are not qualifiers for leadership.

Blackburn isn’t the only Tennessee politician making a repeat appearance at a presidential convention this year. State Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis spoke at the Democratic nomination festivities last week after doing the same in 2016.

Akbari to speak at Democratic presidential convention today

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) takes a selfie with colleagues and Gov. Bill Lee before the start of the State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis is one of 16 speakers deemed rising Democratic stars scheduled to speak at the party’s presidential convention to nominate Joe Biden on Tuesday.

“Amidst all of the chaos and crises our nation is facing, Democrats are focused on finding new and innovative ways to engage more Americans than ever before—because that’s how we’ll mobilize the nation to defeat Donald Trump in November,” Joe Solmonese, CEO of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, said in a release. “The convention keynote has always been the bellwether for the future of our party and our nation, and when Americans tune in next week they’ll find the smart, steady leadership we need to meet this critical moment.” 

Akbari was elected to the Senate in 2018 after previously serving in the state House since 2013. She is the chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, former chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, and national treasurer of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. She also spoke at the 2016 Democratic convention in support of then-nominee Hillary Clinton.

Lee signs proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee sits in a bus at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis after signing a proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee on Dec. 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee traveled to Memphis on Sunday to sign a proclamation declaring Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee. The bill to honor Parks on the anniversary of her 1955 arrest for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., was sponsored by Sen. Raumesh Akbari and Rep. Karen Camper (both D-Memphis).

Lee called Parks “an inspiring human being, who did so much for so many, so [I’m] proud to be working with the legislature today to honor her.”

Lee got into hot water last summer over signing a proclamation honoring slave trader and Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, as required by a state law dating back to 1969. Lee has said he hopes to change that law next legislative session.

Parks is a better example of historical figures the state’s should be honoring with proclamations, Lee told reporters Sunday.

“It’s important that we recognize folks who have made major contributions for civil rights in this country and to change the trajectory for civil rights,” Lee said.

“Whenever we can make proclamations about inspiring individuals who are to be celebrated — and that’s someone who is celebrated by everyone  — that’s the  kind of thing we need to be doing in this state.”

 

Yarbro, Akbari elected to lead Senate Democrats

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), right, and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) attend a hearing on open records exemptions in Nashville on Jan. 30, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A release from the five-member Senate Democratic Caucus:

NASHVILLE – State Sens. Jeff Yarbro and Raumesh Akbari were elected to head the Senate Democratic Caucus in leadership elections Tuesday.

“This caucus will fight for every Tennessean to have a shot, a shot at a good education and a good job, not one where you just make a living, but can build a life,” Sen. Yarbro said.” Our caucus will bring new energy, new ideas, and be united to meet the challenges of the coming session.”

Sen. Yarbro of Nashville will serve as Senate Minority Leader, and Sen. Akbari of Memphis will serve as Democratic Chairman for the caucus.

“Democrats are picking up momentum around the state, and I am honored to serve in this role with such a phenomenal group of Senators,” Sen. Akbari said. “The energy is undeniable, and I know we can kick it up a notch for 2020.”

Both elections were unanimous. In addition, Sen. Brenda Gilmore was elected Democratic Floor Leader; Sen. Sara Kyle was elected Caucus Vice-Chair; and Sen. Katrina Robinson was elected Democratic Whip.