Redefining What It Means to Be a Southern Democrat
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s laying out a road map for minority rule.
By Nick Fouriezos
The Tennessee state capitol, with its hilltop watchtower looming over Nashville and the Andrew Jackson statue, can inspire awe and trepidation. It did for state Rep. Raumesh Akbari on the day she stepped into its halls — accompanied by a horde of family members and a Memphis television crew — to be inaugurated.
On that January morning in 2014, with her hand on her grandmother’s King James Bible, she was dazzled. She’d just won her first race, a special election called when longtime lawmaker Rep. Lois DeBerry passed away. On her first day she shuttled between meetings: a state employee association lobbyist, a sex-education advocate, the Democratic caucus and, finally, the annual reception at the AT&T building, which locals nicknamed the Batman building for its pointed tips.
Three years later, the 32-year-old Democrat is perfectly at home. On the legislative session’s first day this January, she could be found live-streaming the capitol to her 1,800 Facebook followers, showing them the typically unseen tedium of lawmaking. It’s a synecdoche of what her best admirers praise her for: transparency and communication. Tami Sawyer, a Memphis activist, sees Akbari as a “focal point: a center [progressives] can start to rally around.” In 2016, she was named her region’s legislator of the year, treasurer for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and Woman of the Year by the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women. That all culminated in a speech at last summer’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, a four-minute spot on the final night, hours before Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination. “Come on, y’all,” she told the crowd. “She’s a bad sista!”
Of course, Akbari’s team didn’t win in November. But Democrats in a newly red Washington seeking tips on navigating unfriendly waters might look at Akbari’s Tennessee legacy. (Donald Trump won over 60 percent of Tennessee voters.) Despite being one of 26 Dems in the 99-person Republican-controlled lower chamber, she has shepherded through some solidly progressive legislation, including a bill that helped ex-offenders get occupational licenses for jobs, from bartending to hairdressing.
This year she will sponsor 15 bills, mostly in education, criminal justice and the school-to-prison pipeline. Akbari has worked well across the aisle: “I can’t sing her praises enough — she seems willing to consider opinions and is not so dogmatic,” says Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, who handpicked Akbari to sit on a politically treacherous panel investigating a fellow representative for sexual-harassment allegations. “She was very professional, and we needed her legal mind,” Harwell says. Adds Democrat Lee Harris, the state Senate minority leader: “She’s obviously a next-generation leader.”
That mind-set partly stems from Akbari’s training at Washington University in St. Louis law school, where she learned that state legislatures often steam forward without focusing on the crucial particulars: “That’s what zeroed in on me: the importance of the interpretation of the law, and why laws need to be clear,” she says, and laughs at how a combination of The Cosby Show and People’s Court led her to the profession. But Akbari is not a theoretical legal mind; she practiced as legal counsel for her Iranian father and African-American mother’s hair business. Her familiarity with small business, an arena Republicans often accuse Democrats of giving the short shrift, has given her a nuanced perspective on issues like wage reform — she believes the raise to a $15 minimum wage is positive, but should be scaled according to local needs.
Of course, being a minority party in a state legislature is never easy — not even in Akbari’s Shelby County, a rare liberal hot spot in Tennessee. There, the local chapter of the Democratic Party crumbled last year amid embezzlement scandals and infighting. Some constituents criticize Akbari for failing to protect gains by local progressives; Akbari likely won’t have the sway to stop a Republican-backed bill being considered to nullify Memphis marijuana decriminalization efforts passed last year (Sawyer, the local activist, is sympathetic: “Memphis might as well be in Mississippi — that’s how the general assembly looks at us.”) The danger for liberals like Sawyer, who hope Akbari will change their state, is that the representative could focus excessively on national work, choosing ambition over local constituents. “Others have tried to make that national jump and left Memphis behind,” Sawyer says.
But even as a child, she and her sister, two of four Black girls in honors classes, got used to being “minorities in a majority,” as she puts it. Memphis, though, is Akbari’s birthplace, and she continues to work at her parents’ shop. Her family delightedly helped her transition into public office; her mother ran her first campaign and her sister stuffed envelopes. Today, the minority is creeping into the majority: The Black caucus now makes up most of Tennessee’s House Democrats, giving them a crucial voice when the state’s Republican governor is forced to reach across the aisle. “I would prefer honey over vinegar,” Akbari says. Her future — including potential national ambitions — remain a ways away. “But I know whatever we do, I want to help turn this state back blue,” she adds.
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