As I was introduced to Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Diane Black on Thursday afternoon, I told her that one of my favorite stories is about her when she was a young, single mother in Baltimore. Her nursing job required her to sign on no later than 6:30 a.m. for work in the emergency room each day but … she had to bathe, dress, and feed her three infants and get each to a different sitter before then. Diane Black, today a member of Congress, was never late as a nurse in the ER.
Minutes later, I learned her heroics and never-give-up spirit was actually Act II in a remarkable early life. “When I tell people that I have gone from the halls of public housing to the halls of Congress they are amazed,” she laughed. “But it’s true. I didn’t know we were poor until I went to school and found I was from the ‘other side of the tracks.’ My mom and dad, who are today 92 and 94, never went past the 9th grade but I wouldn’t trade a thing for the way I was raised by my mother and father.”
At that she hid her smile but kept its warmth. “It made me who I am today and it’s why I feel if I don’t give up, work hard from early in the morning until late every night, and stay inspired by what’s best for Tennessee, I’m going to be your next governor. I’m also going to do the best job you ever saw.”
Sitting with only a handful of people at Council Fire around a dining room table, she was able to make a delightful impression as she and her campaign staff are getting an early start on a busy summer. It is said Black is among four top Republican candidates in the August primary.
The other top Republican contenders are Williamson County businessman Bill Lee, the current Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, and Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd. The four top-tier leaders are believed to be in something of a knot for the voters to decide while former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is believed be the leader in the Democratic race against to have the Democratic edge over House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh.
“When I was eight my dad finally got a job as an electrician and we moved into a tiny 1,500-square foot house where my parents still live. On weekends dad would work on a bedroom for me in the attic and when I was 10 I thought I was in heaven with my own room. Dad taught me to make every second count, to work hard by example,” her eyes still held their warmth.
“But the biggest moment in my early life was in the seventh grade. My guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do in my life and I told him … I really want to be a nurse but Mom says we don’t have the money…”
“Young lady, you are going to be a nurse because YOU are going to pay for it! You are going to study as hard as you can, get a scholarship, and then work to pay your tuition. It happens all the time! I think you can do it, too!”
Since that very moment, Diane Black has never looked back. “But do you know that in Tennessee right now, a full 25 percent of our high school graduates have no idea of what to do? We need a huge investment in technical and vocation schools where high school seniors who don’t go to college can begin work immediately.”
Black feels the same as I do in that we are topsy-turvy with college instead of learning a trade … only 60 percent of freshmen who enroll at UT will graduate within 6 years and 95 percent of them will owe an average of $30,000 in student loans. Conversely, a kid who signs up at the Electricians’ local right out of high school will get a good paying job immediately, go to school two nights a week and in the same six years will be making about $50,000 with no debt. And the pick-up truck will be paid off! Hello!
“I don’t know where we got this idea that to learn a trade, as a carpenter, a plumber, a mechanic or anything else is inferior to college …. Different people are talented at different things. That is what has made Tennessee such a fabulous state.”
Black is far from naïve. She knows education is a top priority, that mental health in our state is loathsome, and that we’ve got a long way to go in the opioid/heroin pandemic. “I worry about rural Tennessee. Over half this state is rural but until we get broadband state wide, industry can’t function and until our roads are updated, trucks can’t maneuver on roads build 100 years ago.”
She also knows the truth – Tennessee does a smooth lip game over education but the state is ranked in the Bottom Ten in the United States. The TNReady testing failures for each of the past three years is a punch line on late-night talk shows and for the Nashville mayor to call for guns to be confiscated after last weekend shoot-up at the Waffle House is ludicrous.
“Taking away guns will never work. Focus on the root cause – mental illness. Look at Boston several years ago. Those guys didn’t have any assault rifle so they got a pressure cooker, loaded it with nails and pellets and it blew up. The damage was horrible. The fact is, it wasn’t the pressure cooker’s fault … no more than it’s the gun’s fault when a naked, mentally-ill person uses it for the wrong purposes.”
For the record, neither the Congressman (she prefers that over ‘Congresswoman’) nor I mentioned our opposite involvement in the sadistic soring of Walking Horses. We were both invited guests and respect for our host, plus the manners we were taught long ago, strongly prohibit such discourse. There will come a time but, I must say, I admire Diane Black more than ever before.