By Adrian Sainz and Jonathan Mattise
The Associated Press
U.S. Senate candidate Marquita Bradshaw just had to look at her parents for inspiration to become a community activist in Memphis, Tenn.
Bradshaw, who won the Aug. 6 Democratic primary election over a well-funded opponent in the contest to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood near an Army depot where waste disposal contaminated soil and groundwater. As residents got sick and died, her mother Doris and father Kenneth started the Defense Depot Memphis Concerned Citizen Committee, a group of teachers, business owners and professionals concerned about emerging health problems.
Bradshaw, who is Black, watched as her parents called attention to the dumping ground, which became a Superfund cleanup site after its closure in the 1990s. She’s using her experience as a community organizer to mount a grassroots campaign that now turns its attention to Republican Bill Hagerty, a White former ambassador to Japan endorsed by President Donald Trump.
Marquita Bradshaw, environmental justice chair of the Sierra Club Chickasaw Group, speaks July 7, 2020, during a news conference in front of City Hall in downtown Memphis, Tenn. Bradshaw scored an upset win over former Army helicopter pilot James Mackler in the Tennessee Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, on Aug. 6, 2020, and will face former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty in the November election. (Max Gersh/The Commercial Appeal via AP)
“My environmental justice work has taken me all over the state where I have met and engaged with people who are concerned with labor, environment, education, taxes, trade, and social justice policies,” Bradshaw says on her campaign website. “I am ready to serve, engage, and represent the people of Tennessee.”
The progressive’s win over a field of Democrats, including establishment choice James Mackler, has drawn national attention in a Senate race where the focus had been on a contentious GOP primary. Bradshaw is the first Black woman nominated for statewide office by either major political party in Tennessee, according to the state Democratic Party.
But she wants more. A single mother whose son is in college, Bradshaw, 46, has battled foreclosure and bankruptcy, and struggled with student loan debt while working jobs with no health insurance. She has also become a respected community leader in Memphis.
“She’s just truly authentic,” said political strategist Kenneth Taylor, who met Bradshaw when she went through a leadership program he helped put together last year. “For those of us who were raised in the African American community, she is what we would call ‘Auntie Marquita,’ that person who is generally going to step in, care for you, give you great advice.”
Progressive Democrats have said recent protests over police brutality and racial injustice and a renewed focus on inequality have strengthened their movement.
“People are tired of the status quo, and they’re tired of the same old same old, and they’re ready to vote people in that they can connect with very authentically,” said Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat who defeated a 16-term incumbent last month, in an online discussion that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders hosted this week.
On fundraising alone, Bradshaw trailed Mackler, who raised more than $2.1 million and had support from party leaders. She raised less than $10,000 but used social media and other tools to reach voters.
From unofficial results, Bradshaw appears to have won more than 40 counties, including by a decisive 20 percentage point margin in her home county of Shelby.
Bradshaw came in second in Nashville’s Davidson County, but not to Mackler, who is from Nashville. Robin Kimbrough, a Black female attorney from nearby Hendersonville, won that county and finished second statewide.
In an interview with The Associated Press Thursday night, Bradshaw attributed her victory to her work on things people care about.
“I have been working in community with other people addressing policy, not just environmental policy, but labor policy, tax policy, social justice issues and human rights,” she said. “With that framework, that was refreshing to voters.”
With a platform that favors increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, adopting the Green New Deal, expanding Medicare and requiring universal background checks for gun purchases, she spent about $5,800 through March, the last time she reported any campaign finance activity, records show. Now she faces a candidate who spent $9.6 million through mid-July.
Her fundraising is sure to ramp up. She said Aug. 6 that her team “will use every tool that we have in organizing to bring people in this process that have lost faith and want to secure the U.S. Senate seat for hardworking families.”
The next day, she tweeted a message to supporters: “And don’t worry, I hear y’all asking about yard signs. We’ve got you covered!”
Bradshaw faces an uphill battle to wrest the Senate seat from the GOP in a state Trump easily won in 2016. Two years ago, Republican U.S. Sen Marsha Blackburn brushed off popular former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Tennessee Democratic strategist Dave Cooley said Bradshaw was “effective in organizing around issues that are just kind of smoldering in the hearts and souls of Tennesseans.”
“It is enormously impressive,” Cooley said. “I doubt you could show a case study anywhere to match this, from just my first take. It’s a fascinating story about organizing principles in 2020 and the power of the Internet, the power of social media.”
Mattise contributed from Nashville. Associated Press reporter Sara Burnett contributed from Chicago.