JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Larry Smith knows as well as anyone he has an uphill climb if he’s to become Tennessee’s next First District Congressional representative.
The 55-year-old history professor has studied and taught modern history for years, and like most people, he’s fully aware of the district’s 140-year run of Republican representation.
But Smith, who will face Christopher Rowe in the August primary, said he believes a bold progressive agenda and a grassroots effort to bring disaffected citizens back to the polls (or get them voting for the first time) offers a pathway to competitiveness.
Smith, an Alabama native who’s lived in Greeneville and teaches at Walters State Community College’s Greeneville campus, said “neoliberal” policies ascendant since the late 1970s have made political influence and power the domain of the very wealthy. He said the effects of that include an increasing wealth gap in the country, high rates of medical bankruptcy, and an inability for most working people to get ahead — if even to keep up.
Smith said academicians typically remain non-partisan, but added that the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2015 got him thinking about moving beyond academics.
“The situation as it’s gone in the last couple years, and not just because of Donald Trump but because of a lot of things, I saw the need for people who have a progressive mindset and who understand the issues, it’s time for us to take a stand, regardless of what our jobs are,” Smith said.
“As an American, I just felt it was my duty to use my skill set … to actually try to help working Americans and ordinary people that are still being left behind the system that we have now.”
Medicare for all, taxation shifts part of Smith’s policy platform
Smith said a “neoliberal revolution” in the 1970s triggered policy shifts that have largely benefited the rich at the expense of most people. “The elites started working together regardless of party and they tried to drain the middle class of their money, they deregulated Wall Street, they broke labor unions, they increased military budgets, and this was a Western phenomenon — it wasn’t just in the United States.”
He said the results have included widening income inequality and stagnant wage growth despite rises in worker productivity. He said one measure that breaks Congressional districts down according to income inequality, medical debt, bankruptcies and what he said are other negative results of the current paradigm puts Tennessee’s first district near the bottom.
“This inequality has hurt us disproportionately than it has some of the other wealthier areas,” Smith said.
He said he’d advocate for elimination of medical debt and student debt if elected, and support some New Deal-type programs, whether “green” or otherwise. But the disciple of John Maynard Keynes’s economic approach said a single-payer healthcare system may be the most important policy victory progressives could win on behalf of constituents.
“I think Medicare for All is one of the things we have to look at as sort of a linchpin to solving a lot of the economic problems that working people have,” Smith said. “We spend a tremendous amount of our income on health outcomes, there’s a lot of debt, there’s a lot of medical bankruptcies.
“We need a single-payer system where there is no charge at the point of service, and that’s going to be a huge tax cut basically … for most Americans. They’re not going to have to spend nearly as much of their disposable income.”
Smith said imposition of what he calls a more progressive tax system, which would include higher taxes on wealthier Americans, is another path toward a vibrant middle class and greater opportunity for rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure.
Smith cited Franklin Roosevelt’s approach of attacking the Depression as though the country was going to war. “I think that’s what we have to do with climate change and with the infrastructure and all of the other things that we need to do. We need to invest in our communities and we need to do that with jobs that can bring about renewable energy, jobs that can repair the infrastructure, and these should be jobs that pay a living wage and are hopefully represented by labor unions, and at least give people agency over their own economic lives.”
Will it play in Piney Flats? The electability question
Smith said getting non-voters to become voters is the key to having a chance of victory in what’s been a heavily Republican district for more than a century. He said he’s planning town halls soon, and efforts “to get out and talk with anybody that’ll listen.”
“I think the key to winning this is to get to people who don’t vote, who haven’t voted in the past. People who have been left behind by the system, and you’ve got to do that by knocking on doors. You’ve got to go out and meet people individually.
“That is going to take some money but I think we’ll have some money coming in after the primary, and we’ve got some money coming in already.”
Smith’s campaign manager, Victoria Hewlett of Elizabethton is trying to enlist other self-styled progressives to run for state offices. Ultimately, Smith said, he’s confident that the ideas he represents can give his campaign a chance if they get an adequate airing.
“If we can get the message out there to the people who don’t vote, and that’s obviously over half of the population, I think we have a chance to win this thing. If you just go for the people who vote and you just sort of have a bland agenda, I don’t think there’s a chance of winning. I think you’ve got to talk about big ideas and things that people, that are going to change their lives.”