By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Following the loss of a powerful voice, Tennessee’s black lawmakers are searching for leadership that will help them be effective despite their small number and a Republican-controlled Legislature.
Rep. Lois DeBerry’s death of pancreatic cancer in July left just 15 black lawmakers — three in the Senate and 12 in the House — out of Tennessee’s 132 legislators. All 15 are Democrats.
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus say those low numbers and the fact that their party isn’t in power make it challenging to effectively represent their districts.
For decades, they had a champion in DeBerry, who was the longest-serving House member at the time of her death, the first female speaker pro tempore in the House and only the second African-American woman to serve in the Legislature.
More than anything, DeBerry was a strong influence in state politics that drew respect from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Republicans often sought her advice on issues, and she was open to working with them to pass legislation she felt would benefit not only her district, but the state as a whole.
Rep. Karen Camper, who called DeBerry a mentor, said it’s unclear who among the black lawmakers will assume such a role.
“Somebody is going to have to clearly have a take charge attitude,” said Camper, D-Memphis. “I don’t know who that is.”
While black lawmakers acknowledge there’s no defined leadership role just yet, they say they’re emulating some of DeBerry’s practices, such as working with Republicans to find commonality on issues and mentoring young people.
Larry Miller, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he plans to ask chairs of the House and Senate panels to attend caucus meetings to find out “what their interests are … and what bills they will be promoting themselves.”
“I think that will be the beginning of building that relationship,” he said.
At least one black lawmaker has frequently worked with Republicans over the years, even before they took control. Rep. John DeBerry, a distant relative of Lois DeBerry, has sometimes been criticized for his alliances, but he said he’s just doing what’s in the best interest of his constituents.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got to serve the people who elected me,” the Memphis Democrat said. “That means that I’ve got to work with the people … who run the state. And if I can’t do that, regardless of how well-intentioned my efforts might be, then I’m ineffective.”
Other black lawmakers are realizing they’ve got to do the same, which is why they’ve found common ground with Republicans on issues that range from workforce development to creating healthier school environments.
Last week, Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris held a special meeting with members of the Shelby County legislative delegation to discuss workforce development in Memphis.
Tate said he approached Norris and other state officials after noticing the lack of qualified workers for some of the companies locating to Memphis.
Norris, a Republican from nearby Collierville, said including people from different political parties and races is beneficial because of the “diversity of thought.”
“It just works better for everybody, because you get more perspective, more meaningful input from a broader group of folks,” said Norris, who is white.
Both Tate and Norris said meeting participants benefited from hearing the diverse views.
“It was beneficial to everybody,” said Tate. “Now we have an assessment. We know what the workforce needs.”
During the most recent legislative session, Rep. Brenda Gilmore said she worked with a Republican lawmaker to pass a resolution that encourages schools in Tennessee to use green cleaning supplies. The Nashville Democrat said she also plans to team up with Republican lawmakers during the next session on more legislation that seeks to create healthier schools.
Besides reaching across the aisle, Gilmore said another practice by DeBerry that she and others have adopted is mentoring young people to become future leaders — possibly lawmakers in the state Legislature.
“I think that she was good about surrounding herself with young people, and teaching them lessons in life,” said Gilmore, who along with some of the other black lawmakers, invites youths to attend legislative sessions. “We’re willing to reach back and bring people along; we’re not just out there for ourselves.”