ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – He’s only 32, but Tennessee Fourth House District challenger Bobby Harrell has spent a lot of time on factory floors in his working life — and the Democrat said he wants to stand up for and listen to working people.
“I don’t want to be the kind of legislator. who tells people what I’m going to do, tells people how I’m going to help them,” the Elizabethton native told News Channel 11. “I want the people to educate me on what needs to be done within the community.”
Harrell is challenging Republican John Holsclaw, who is seeking his fourth term representing Unicoi County and a portion of Carter County. Holsclaw has had GOP primary opposition in the past three elections but hasn’t faced a general election opponent since 2014.
Harrell was a lifelong Republican until four years ago. He said that’s when the Bernie Sanders presidential run opened his eyes to Democratic policies he believes are much more representative of ordinary interests and needs of working people in the fourth district.
He said he believes two major steps that a legislator can take to help constituents are raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid. Harrell, who now works for the City of Elizabethton, said he has seen the struggles working people endure to try and afford child care and health care on the earnings many of them gain in factories, fast food outlets and other low-paid positions.
But he isn’t necessarily set on the national progressive rallying cry that calls for a $15 minimum wage.
“At the very least it should be $11 an hour,” Harrell said. “I’ve worked different jobs in the area and at $11 an hour I’ve barely scraped by, but I believe it at least needs to be that.”
Also on the economic front, Harrell said he supports more government support for small businesses “and not just large corporations,
“We’ve seen it in Johnson City and a few businesses (in Elizabethton) that’s been forced to shut their doors.”
Harrell also said Tennessee’s legislature should expand Medicaid, something he said would bring another 100,000 statewide the benefit of health care coverage. And he’s for seeking some way to increase funding for subsidized child care “for people who are trying to raise kids on their own.
“A lot of them can’t return to work because they have no one to watch their children.”
Harrell said he believes such measures would help reduce the need for abortions. He said he’s pro-choice, but added that “I feel like we need to look at the causes of why women do get abortions,”
In a district where gun ownership is a right cherished by many, Harrell said he supports the Second Amendment. He added that he believes in background checks for firearms purchases, opposes private citizens owning “fully automatic weapons” and supports consideration of a requirement that people carry some type of insurance associated with gun ownership.
Harrell said he supports an approach to police reform that shifts funding from things he said police don’t need at least in this area — riot gear, armored vehicles, rubber bullets and the like — to better training, helping police learn to carry out psych evaluations and other non-traditional approaches.
If he’s elected, though, Harrell said he will consistently come before people in town halls and other listening sessions. He said that’s an approach he doesn’t believe Holsclaw has taken.
“I feel like their needs to be someone who better represents the people,” Harrell said.
“One of my platforms is participatory democracy. Before I take any kind of vote on an issue, before I address it in Nashville, I would hold town hall meetings with my district and I would discuss it with groups of people.
“I would approach the African-American community, approach the working class community, and say ‘how could I do it different? How does this affect your daily life?’ Just keep everybody more involved with the process.”
If he doesn’t succeed this time — and he acknowledges he’s a longshot candidate — Harrell said he’s not done with politics.
He hasn’t been doing much door to door campaigning out of respect for people’s concerns about COVID-19, Harrell said. The best way to learn more about his candidacy is at his Facebook page, Bobby Harrell for Tennessee State House.