‘You just have to speak up’: Gloria Johnson aims to be Tennessee’s first Democratic Senator in 28 years

Gun Rights
A middle-aged woman with long, flowing blond hair and a long, bright blue linen dress, wearing sunglasses and holding some papers in her left hand, strides toward the camera, smiling. She is on a sidewalk with no one around her, with green lawns to her left and right and the corner of a building with ornate buildings just up the hill.

‘You just have to speak up’: Gloria Johnson aims to be Tennessee’s first Democratic senator in 28 years

Mary Yang

Johnson speaks with the Guardian one week after launching campaign, which is focused on abortion rights and gun reform

Gloria Johnson, who narrowly avoided expulsion after protesting guns on the state house floor, is running to be Tennessee’s first Democratic US senator in three decades.

Johnson spoke with the Guardian in an interview one week after officially launching her campaign, which is focused on abortion rights and gun reform.

Tennessee voters have almost exclusively elected Republicans for national office over the last two decades. But in March, a shooting at a Christian school in Nashville that left three children and three adults dead galvanized voters on both sides of the aisle to demand stricter gun laws in their state, where they are among the weakest in the nation.

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At the time, Johnson, alongside Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, both Democratic state representatives, took to the house floor, linking arms and leading chants for gun safety, famously earning the nickname the “Tennessee three”. Pearson and Jones, who are Black, were expelled by the Republican-dominated legislature for their protest while Johnson, who is white, kept her seat by a single vote.

Johnson said that her survival in the statehouse “absolutely” had something to do with the color of her skin: “My two young colleagues, Representative Pearson and Representative Jones, get the worst part of it. And to the tune of – they have been called worthless, and things like that, by their colleagues.”

She said the moment, however, also served as a crucial window for voters into the divisiveness that in recent years has plagued the Tennessee house of representatives, which currently seats 75 Republicans and 24 Democrats.

“I feel like the big windows around the capitol burst open and sunlight poured in, and all of Tennessee got to get a really close look at what was happening in their legislature,” said Johnson, referring to the expulsion votes. “People saw that they were silencing voices and they were killing legislation just because it came from someone across the aisle, not because it was bad legislation.”

At 6ft 3in (1.91 meters), Johnson has a voice that is naturally booming. She’s “big into music” and said she would have loved to meet the late country musician Roger Miller, whom she praised for his songwriting and sense of humor. She speaks with a southern drawl, and chats candidly about getting teased as a kid for her height.

From left, a young Black man with long black hair pulled back and wearing a white suit, a middle-aged white woman with blond hair wearing a peach outfit, and a young Black man in glasses wearing a dark suit, raise their linked hands. They are in a large, white marble room surrounded by state troopers and people holding video cameras.

“All through school, and even some adults did it,” said Johnson. “But I was pretty tough and let it, you know, just roll off my shoulder.”

Her stature is even woven into her campaign slogan, “Standing Tall for Tennessee”, which she says is her attitude heading into the election. “You just have to stand up and speak up. And if we don’t do that, nothing’s going to change.”

In her video announcing her campaign, Johnson targets Marsha Blackburn, the incumbent Republican, who was elected to the Senate in 2018 and is up for re-election in 2024. Blackburn ranks 12th among lawmakers who’ve received campaign contributions by the National Rifle Association (NRA), according to the non-profit OpenSecrets, and supports a federal abortion ban, which Johnson strongly opposes.

For the lawmaker, reproductive rights are deeply personal. Johnson, 61, has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue and is associated with a high rate of complications during pregnancy. At 21, she had an abortion after suffering an aortic aneurysm while pregnant, following a doctor’s recommendation, she said.

That might not have been possible under current state laws, Johnson said. Tennessee has one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation, with extremely few exceptions. In April, Bill Lee, the Republican governor, signed into law an amendment allowing doctors to perform an abortion to save the life of the patient – but abortion remains banned in cases of rape or incest.

“I wouldn’t have survived for very long on my own, and carrying a pregnancy would have been even worse. There was no way I was going to survive that aneurysm while carrying a pregnancy,” said Johnson. “To think that women today wouldn’t have that option, or a doctor would be afraid to make the choice he knew he needed to make because of a felony that allowed 15 years in prison, this is outrageous.”

Johnson was first elected to the Tennessee house of representatives in 2012 after spending 27 years as a special education teacher, when she mostly worked with teenagers dealing with behavioral and emotional issues, she said. She narrowly lost re-election bids to Republican challenger Eddie Smith in 2014 and 2016 before defeating him in 2018 by more than 10 percentage points. She won again in 2020, and in a new district in 2022.

“There’s such a huge difference between the first time I went in, in 2013, to now,” said Johnson, referring to rising polarization in the Republican-led state legislature. “We could get along, and even if we disagreed – which we did on some things vehemently – we could joke around and have conversation, but that’s just really gone for the most part now.”

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Before Johnson has a chance to face Blackburn in the general election, she’ll face Marquita Bradshaw, a Democratic challenger who in 2020 was the only Black woman to win the party nomination for US Senate but lost to Republican Bill Hagerty.

When asked what makes her best poised for the party nomination, Johnson said she feels she is well known statewide after entering politics a decade ago.

Standing in front of a nearly two-story-high gold sculpture of letters that spell ‘I Am a Man’ are a young Black man with glasses and a dark suit on the left, and a middle-aged  white woman with long blond hair and a long blue linen shift dress.

“I just think I’m gonna be able to bring more people out to vote, and to rally people in all of these other counties where we have the ability to flip seats this time,” she said.

Charlane Oliver, a state senator who is co-chairing Johnson’s US Senate campaign alongside Justin Pearson, agreed.

“I am not interested in making this campaign about a Black woman against a white woman,” said Oliver. “This is about who is the best candidate to beat Marsha Blackburn. And I personally am interested in winning.”

Johnson is well-acquainted with Republican antics. Cameron Sexton, the Tennessee house speaker, re-assigned her to a closet-sized office for a year, which she guessed was retaliation for refusing to vote for him, the only member to oppose his re-election.

“That’s not even 6ft for me to social distance. If someone comes in to visit me in my office, there’s not 6ft,” said Johnson at the time. “I’m also six three with a 38-inch inseam, so come on.”

Johnson is also familiar with Republican-led redistricting, which compelled her to run in a new district in 2022. Voting rights groups are suing over the state’s redrawn congressional maps, which created an additional Republican-leaning district while taking one from Democrats, saying they dilute the voting power of Black Tennesseans.

But if there’s anything Johnson’s record has proven so far, her allies say, it’s that she runs into these systemic challenges headfirst.

“She made the sacrifice to move to another district, and she won – again. Who else has said they’ve done that?” Oliver said. “She will actually fight for the people and is not concerned about how this benefits her personally.”

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