Anyone following Tennessee politics is aware of the growing divide in state government. Though Republicans possess a super majority, the party seems fractured since heated debates of gun control and mental health have raged. Governor Bill Lee championed extreme risk protection orders, a move that brought the ire of Republicans across the state, especially those in the legislature.
Though far greater consensus exists on issues of mental health, the special session saw rifts grow between a fast-paced House of Representatives and a more patient Senate. On the heels of that special session around those issues, there seems to be little healing.
Just this week, House Speaker Cameron Sexton joined a popular talk radio program to suggest the Senate’s inaction during special session made them complicit in the recent murder of a Belmont University freshman. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson followed on the same program calling Sexton’s comments “inaccurate” and “counterproductive.”
It seems more than ever, despite single-party control, the legislature is apart. Feuds from the Governor’s residence to the two legislative bodies have many concerned at what the second semester of the 113th General Assembly might accomplish.
But during argumentative chaos, there seems to be those who have remained above the fray.
This past week, first-term Senator J. Adam Lowe (R-Calhoun), who represents the newly formed District 1 consisting of Bradley, McMinn, Meigs and Rhea Counties, hosted a private event in Nashville. Unlike the normal legislative fundraisers, Senator Lowe and his team chose to host a more causal assembly, choosing the upper deck of a local restaurant outside the cityscape. The atmosphere was relaxed with propane fires and soft music provided by Emmy Moyen, a local Belmont music major. But what was most interesting about the event were those who were present and that they lingered for over an hour.
“Rarely do I see people stay this long,” said one attendee who chose to remain nameless. “We attend dozens of these events during the fall and the normal goal is to make an appearance and get out.”
It is customary for legislators to use down time while out of session to host such gatherings and fundraisers, even in off-election years. Just elected in 2022, Senator Lowe is not up for re-election until 2026 yet the event had upwards of 40 lobbyists, legislators, and state directors.
Senator Lowe was little known to the Nashville political establishment prior to his election to replace long-time Senator Mike Bell. He is a college professor, father of four, and former small business owner who enjoyed a brief stint on the Bradley County Commission a decade ago. His election was a surprise to many in the establishment. Senator Lowe raised the majority of his support from the district to secure a decisive win over a sitting state representative in the primary and then won the general election with 83 percent of the vote. Senator Lowe also attributes his win to a strong grassroots support by individuals in his district.
Senator Lowe’s lack of notoriety has not seemed to hamper his ability to quickly garner influence among his governmental peers. His event was well-attended but what was most revealing were those in attendance including Senate leadership, members of the House of Representatives, commissioners, and the Governor himself.
So how does a freshman senator from Southeast Tennessee manage to fill a venue with such individuals in a time where no one seems to get along? The answer seemed to lie in the comments offered by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson and Governor Bill Lee.
“Senator Lowe has quickly become a valuable part of our body,” said Majority Leader Johnson. “He is a true friend and confidante, and his insight has become valuable to me and our colleagues.”
Governor Bill Lee echoed similarly.
“There are very few legislators that I know I can trust to discuss ideas and get feedback,” said Governor Lee. “Very few that call, or I can call and just work through ideas, and I am grateful (Senator Lowe) was sent here to Nashville.”
During the months leading up to special session, Senate leadership and the Governor were at an impasse around proposed “red-flag laws,” few further apart on the issue than Leader Johnson and Governor Lee. Further, at present, the House and Senate chambers are on the verge of war over delayed bills around mental health. Yet, one freshman senator has built trust and shown leadership enough for everyone to lay down their arms, if only for one evening.
“I am thankful for all those who have dedicated their time and passion to serve Tennessee,” said Senator Lowe. “Though there may be great disagreement, I still believe everyone is working toward what is best for the families of Tennessee.”
Senator Lowe said that though he and Governor Lee had disagreed on passing red-flag laws, they were able to move forward on other measures to improve public safety. Lowe was the only senator outside of leadership to carry a bill during special session. One of only five bills to pass, Lowe’s safe storage bill eliminated sales taxes on safety devices and expanded a state program for free gun locks. Even now, Senator Lowe may be guiding some discussion around the Governor’s upcoming push for school choice, an initiative that is sure to bring even more vitriol to the Capitol in 2024.
That despite only having served for a year, Senator Lowe may be prepared for it all and in a position of trust with those who desperately need a bridge.
Time will tell how much of a rising star Senator Lowe is becoming but what is certain is that stardom is not what compels him. He rarely engages Nashville media but instead opts for radio and public appearances back in his district. Since adjournment, he has hosted more than a dozen town halls and meetings with constituent groups and plans to have more. Recently prior to the special session, he invited the Democrat Caravan to come to Athens to see the opinions of his constituents regarding the gun issue. He stated that he is not focused on pursuits of leadership but rather is most excited about the legislation he is working on for the next session.
Senator Lowe may not be in leadership, but his influence is becoming apparent.The State Senate is made up of 27 Republicans and six Democrats
The General Assembly will reconvene in January 2024.