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The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper

What Happened to Tennessee: The Battle of Blue and Red. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired March 03, 2024 - 20:00   ET




A year ago, a gunman armed with two assault-style weapons and a handgun shot and killed three children and three adults at the Covenant School in Nashville. It was one of the deadliest school shootings in Tennessee's history. This led to a renewed push for gun control with thousands of people protesting in the state capital. Three Democratic lawmakers joined that protests and two of them were then expelled from the state house representatives. An unusual move that highlighted the power of the Republicans in the state legislature.

Tennessee is considered one of the most conservative states in the country, with some of the most restrictive laws in abortion and voting rights. But it wasn't always run by Republicans. For decades, Democrats ruled the legislature and the governor's office. Then the party shared power until about a decade ago.

So how did this state end up with a Republican super majority?

CNN political commentator Van Jones grew up in Tennessee. As a Democratic activist, he wanted to find out how and why Republicans came to dominate his home state. What he found surprised him. For the next hour, he'll show you not only how deep the divide is between Republicans and Democrats, but also how the two sides are not as different as you might think.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: The GOP-dominated House voting to expel two young Democratic lawmakers because they've taken part in a gun control protest.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Representative Jones and Representative Justin Pearson, both black, were expelled from their seats. Representative Johnson, who was white, was nearly spared.

REP. JUSTIN JONES (D), NASHVILLE: Shame. Shame on you, colleagues. Shame on you.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It struck me as surreal. I'm like, that's my home state legislature. I used to work in that building and now it's being broadcast all around the world.

I talked to my family who lives in Tennessee, but I wasn't really on top of what was going on. After the expulsion I started paying a lot more attention.

JAKE GRUMBACH, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, UC-BERKELEY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC POLICY: I actually saw it as Tennessee again being part of this national tug of war over the direction of the country and really over democracy itself. Expelling state legislators is something that happen very rarely throughout American history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Representative Bulso.

REP. GINO BULSO (R), WILLIAMSON COUNTY: The gentleman shows no remorse. It's clear that he wants to be expelled. He and two other representatives effectively conducted a mutiny. A mutiny, which to this body and to the state has been unknown in its 227-year history.

You simply cannot allow one much less a group of members to hijack proceedings on the floor of the House.

GRUMBACH: What that represented was more norm erosion, legislative norms of bipartisanship that you don't expel a legislator because they say something that you disagree with. And this showed again Republicans sort of out in front on those eroding norms.

V. JONES: So you have a democracy index and Tennessee is dead last. Why is it?

GRUMBACH: When we think about electoral democracy, what I measure, we're talking about free and fair elections, where every individual voter has an equal say, an equal voice in setting what the government does and who is elected to office. And so I use 51 different variables in this measure. All of this comes together to make Tennessee that 50th out of 50 as of 2018.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The makeup of Tennessee's general assembly, it is a Republican supermajority, as you can see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That super majority holds true in the Senate as well.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's becoming more and more difficult for Democrats to be heard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You get the gerrymander. It gives one party control. So there's really no democracy.


BULSO: With the super majorities we have in both the House of Representatives and the state Senate were able to pass legislation without actually negotiating with anyone on the other side of the aisle. V. JONES: All right. Well, left here a long time ago, coming back and

it's a very different place. I just don't understand how did things get to that point. I hope I can find out this week.

Hey, how you doing? Hey. Good to see you. Are you hungry?


V. JONES: With regard to the expulsions, when they happened, were you surprised?

BLAISE GAINEY, POLITICAL REPORTER, WPLN NASHVILLE: No, I wasn't surprised. They wanted to make an example of, you cannot come in here and do this.

V. JONES: Can you walk me through how you go from having a bunch of kids in a private school gunned down to two black lawmakers getting thrown out? It just seemed like, huh? How did that happen?

PHIL WILLIAMS, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, CHANNEL 5 NASHVILLE: I think part of that goes back to the issue of the super majority. The super majority can silence the minority, and so the Tennessee Three felt like the only way for them to really be heard was to do something completely an orthodox.

V. JONES: Brother man.

J. JONES: Good to see you.

V. JONES: How you doing, sir?

J. JONES: Welcome to the people's house.

V. JONES: Is that what it is?

J. JONES: Hopefully. It's good to see you. Thank you for shining some light in here and what's going on. And welcome back to your home state.

V. JONES: The first time you came in this building, how did it feel to you? I mean, do you remember?

J. JONES: My first time in the legislature the Senate Republican leader said, you know, I just want you to know that you're worthless. You don't belong here. And that was my welcome to this place.

V. JONES: He said to your face?

J. JONES: To my face.

V. JONES: I don't think people understand the level of youth activism which you were part of.

J. JONES: Yes. I was arrested when I climbed up and we covered the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first gun wizard of the KKK, an enslaver, a competitive general with a black sheet to say that this is not a symbol we want in our state anymore. There's another statue over here of the first black lawmaker who entered into this building, exactly 150 years ago. Samsung Keeble, the only statue of a person of color.

V. JONES: Maybe someday you'll have one of these statutes. You never know.

J. JONES: They'll vandalize it.


REP. JUSTIN PEARSON (D), MEMPHIS: How are you, sir?

V. JONES: Good to see you.

PEARSON: Good to see you.

V. JONES: Man, in the flesh, in the flesh.

PEARSON: Yes, indeed. Back in the people's house.

V. JONES: I worked in the summer of 1989 as the House majority leader Jim Naifeh's intern. So last time I was here Democrats ran this place, believe it or not. So a lot has changed. Anything different in the state of Tennessee?

PEARSON: Probably one or two things are different than then. Democrats are not in the majority, are not on the way to being speaker of the House in the next couple of years here. It's a long-term game. I think one of the biggest changes or transitions that have happened is the radicalization of the conservatives in the Republican Party.

I think we're seeing white supremacy codified in legislation in ways that probably would not this case in similar ways then.

V. JONES: Those are fighting words.

PEARSON: Those are -- it's true.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The proposed bill in the Tennessee legislature would make it illegal to display the Pride flag in a public school. Representative Gino Bulso introduced that bill.

BULSO: If I were to categorize our representatives in the Republican caucus in the House I'd say you'd have the conservative members. Those who are more conservative, those who are most conservative. And so when we're looking at legislation it normally is debated between and among those different groups.

UNIDENTIFIED PRODUCER: Which of these three camps do you place yourself in?

BULSO: I think I'm in the most conservative camp.

J. JONES: I don't know if you heard it, Van, but there was a recording released of their caucus meeting after our expulsion. It just showed the mentality. They really saw this as a continuation of the civil war.

REP. SCOTT CEPICKY (R-TN): If you don't believe we're at war for our republic, you need a different job. The left wants Tennessee so bad because if they get us, the Southeast falls, and it's game over for the republic. And you've got to protect this. Freaking republic have in Tennessee or you know what, let's all go the hell home.

BULSO: I've heard that there was an audio that was leaked. I have not heard it, but I was in the caucus meeting, obviously. Tennessee does represent values that our country has held since its founding.


And so it cannot fall to the type of wokeness that we've seen go rampant in some of the other states that are not doing so well. So as goes Tennessee in many respects, so goes the country.

GAINEY: They need everybody on the same page or else they're going to lose what they believe is some war.

WILLIAMS: And I don't want to sugarcoat it. There was some wall political uses of power when the Democrats controlled the state house but it wasn't this sense of, we've got to win at all costs because our entire culture is at stake.

CEPICKY: I've been called a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist. And by golly, I'm biting my tongue. And I'm going to have to swallow this seeing Mr. Jones back up here walking these hallowed halls that the greats of Tennessee stood in and watch them disrespect the state that I chose to move to, by golly, it's got to stop.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Justin Jones who was expelled then reinstated on Monday.

J. JONES: It feels great, democracy. We will win in the end.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Justin Pearson has been reinstated now by a Tennessee County Board.

V. JONES: Do you feel like you can be effective lawmakers in an environment like this?

PEARSON: A good lawmaker isn't the one that just gets a law passed because if we wanted to pass a law to allow everybody to get an AR-15 tomorrow that might pass. Does that make you a good lawmaker?

J. JONES: We're heading into the shoeshine place, an arcade where the citizens were. The dissent is a message to the future. We may not have the votes now, but each time we dissent, we are letting the future know that there's still somebody who would not bow down, that there were people who fought to make this state what it ought to be.

V. JONES: I'm sitting here and listen to you talk and I just feel like proud, you know, and also a little bit shame because I don't think that my generation kept that same fire.

PEARSON: We talked so much about ancestors. You think about what they endured and what they were called, depths away from the capital.

V. JONES: I think part of why people are so impressed with you, young people, is that you didn't back down.

J. JONES: Tennessee is the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan but also the Nashville Student Movement, so we have this dual history and I think that's really the history of America.

V. JONES: I really felt talking to those young Justins like I was talking to civil rights leaders from half a century ago.

J. JONES: These young people made themselves people who come out --

V. JONES: That must have been how it felt to talk to a John Lewis. It's young people telling the older generation that they need to do better. You don't realize sometime how far away you veered from your own values or your own true north until somebody reasserts it, and when a young person reasserts it, it's especially bracing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, sir.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep up the good fight.

PEARSON: Thank you. We're in it together. Yes, you stay in the fight, too. We need you. We need you.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We want the young people of Tennessee to be there to make the democratic process works.

V. JONES: So let's take a step back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The convention rolls on. The keynote speech kicks off the day's big political activity. Key noter is Governor Frank G. Climate of Tennessee.

GRUMBACH: Tennessee was run by Southern Democrats through the 20th century, through the early 2000s, you had a number of moderate or conservative Democrats. You had very progressive Democrats from places like urban Nashville and Memphis. This created a more moderate state with a divided state government. In the 2010 wave election, Tennessee becomes unified Republican for the first time since really the Civil War and Reconstruction.

V. JONES: It seems like 2010 was a really pivotal moment. Obama came in 2008.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: It is good to be in Nashville.

HENDRELL REMUS, CHAIRMAN, TENNESSEE DEMOCRATIC PARTY: There were some counties that are ruby red today that were actually Obama counties in '08 here in our state. We begin to see that shift after all of the birth certificate and the Tea Party and all of that hot, heated rhetoric.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If the message loud and clear, he can't run the country.

REMUS: I believe those individuals who were on the fence or just holding on to the party just because they've been Democrats all these years were now aligning themselves more racially and culturally than they were with party identification.

BULSO: But it wasn't so much the views of Tennesseans changed. I think you had the Democratic Party that was continuing to lurch towards the left.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What I really wanted to talk to you. I am a Republican.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're being seen as the party that is radical, pro-abortion, anti-gun soft on national security. I mean, to the point of extremism.

BULSO: A lot of Southern Democrats now probably vote and identify more as Republicans.

V. JONES: Democrats become Republicans, counties that had gone blue for Obama and suddenly become red.

REMUS: Yes, absolutely. That's 2010.

V. JONES: That's the worst year for you all to get whooped because then they got a chance to redistrict. That gave the Republicans the power to gerrymander everything, correct?

REMUS: That's correct.

V. JONES: Did they use that power?

REMUS: They use it.

V. JONES: Do they abuse it?

REMUS: They abuse it with surgical precision.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tuesday night's results were decidedly Republican.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a paradigm shift in our state.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Republicans now have a super two-thirds majority in the House and Senate.

GRUMBACH: And in this moment, they start taking increasingly conservative policy changes around all sorts of policy areas. Guns, health care, abortion, but especially when it comes to democratic institutions like voting rights and districting. What happens in Tennessee is going to happen in nearly any red controlled state after this time period. But Tennessee is really leading the charge in many ways.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In a late-night deal, Tennessee lawmakers passed one of the country's most restrictive abortion laws.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first state in the country to restrict drag show performances.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tennessee legislature has declared war on queer people.

GRUMBACH: In Tennessee, the puzzle is, why do these parties stay in power in states when they're passing things that are not all that popular? And part of that reason is restricting democratic institutions like voting rights, even with things like strict voter I.D. law, below average wait times for in-person voting. Felon disenfranchisement and a series of other things that make it more costly and burdensome to vote.

WILLIAMS: About 60 percent of Tennesseans in a presidential year will vote for the Republican, but if you look at the state house Republicans have 76 percent of the seats. If you look at the state Senate, Republicans have 82 percent of the seats. I think that creates a situation where people feel like it's useless.

V. JONES: Are you visiting or you're from Nashville?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm from Nashville.

V. JONES: Are you from Nashville, too?


V. JONES: Do you mind if we talk to you?


V. JONES: Come on. Come on. Thank you. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would say the word that comes to mind is a certain amount of despair.


The despair part of it is, does your vote count?

V. JONES: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does it make a difference? Especially in bigger picture of Tennessee. I already described the other as the reddest of the red states.

V. JONES: The reddest of the red.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very authoritarian and the gerrymandering is just deadly.

CHUCK TODD, JOURNALIST: Take Nashville where when they drew the congressional lines instead of keeping the community together, they did what's called in the redistricting community cracking and packing. So they cracked Nashville to create more Republican districts and get rid of a potential Democratic district.

BULSO: This concept of political maps being drawn in a way that might tend to favor one party more than another has been something that's been going on since the founding of our country.

V. JONES: Do you believe that but for gerrymandering, you would be in the U.S. Congress right now?

ODESSA KELLY, 2022 DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR U.S. HOUSE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I won 75 percent of the vote here in Nashville. I was doing well.

V. JONES: But they deliberately created a district that has 14 counties because in two different states to make it impossible for you to win.

KELLY: Yes, they crack nationally across every black community, the sounds to black vote and voices.

V. JONES: So the biggest city with a third of the economy doesn't have anybody from Nashville in Washington, D.C.

KELLY: This has been a Democratic stronghold for close to 200 years.

V. JONES: Wow.

KELLY: And the three congressional districts that were made in Nashville are all now represented by Republicans.

V. JONES: You know, somebody like you should probably run for office.


KELLY: I've heard that before.


V. JONES: So I spent a lot of time with the MAGA folks and I've been able to find some common ground on some issues. Could you describe anything that you think might allow for something to break here?

PEARSON: I mean, this issue of gun violence is an issue that MAGA Republicans in our state said they wanted to see addressed. So it's a possibility. The problem is the people who are in office are not willing even to listen to their own constituency on this issue.

Most of those parents from the Covenant, a wealthy, white, private Christian school, are Republican.

J. JONES: They are.

PEARSON: And they're the ones begging -- they're out there with signs that say Republicans for red flag laws.

J. JONES: But I think something so important, the black mothers who've been grieving for a long time are the people on the front lines of the fight.

Shaundelle is one of the steadfast mothers in the movement who is testifying in the legislature long before thousands of people gathered. She went there sometimes by herself testifying before the lawmakers talking about her son, Akilah.

SHAUNDELLE BROOKS, GUN REFORM ADVOCATE: Please vote against this law.

J. JONES: She's one of the strongest people I know.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: A deadly shooting this morning at a Waffle House restaurant. Four people are dead and more --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Identified as Taurean Sanderlin, Joe Perez, DeEbony Groves, and Akilah DaSilva, 23 years old.

BROOKS: It's five years of not having my son here. So that pain is probably never going to go away because he's not here. I remember going there by myself testifying, pleading, begging, pouring my heart out.

It was impossible to imagine the pain I feel when your loved one is murdered until you experienced it yourself. The pain is like no other.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Miss (INAUDIBLE), we're out of time. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Didn't make a difference. Lawmakers here are different.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clerk, take the roll.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Chairman, you have seven ayes and to nos.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bring a handgun without a permit in Tennessee is now legal for most adults.

V. JONES: I know you had another son that also was shot but survived.

BROOKS: Someone asked him to perform and after leaving the venue, someone started shooting outside and there we go. That call again. Your son is shot.

V. JONES: How's he doing now?

BROOKS: Better, he's recovering. The bullet is still in his head. It's in his brain. He's gone through physical therapy. There's so much more that is wrong and that's the painful part because I'm grateful he's here, but he's not the same person.

V. JONES: And no family should have to go through that once let alone twice.

BROOKS: Yes. It's hard. But I have to keep going.

V. JONES: Keep going.

BROOKS: We have four young people now lost their lives. And it was like nothing, but now we have the Covenant shooting, a rich neighborhood.


More people are showing up. Tennessee got more attention now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lord, we thank you for the opportunity to come together tonight. We're so thankful for the countless ways you've cared and loved our community since the tragedy on March 27th.

SARAH SHOOP NEUMANN, CO-FOUNDER, COVENANT FAMILIES FOR BRIGHTER TOMORROWS: Hi, everyone. Thank you all so much for coming. I feel like this is how we really bring change in Tennessee is to have real conversations in an honest safe space.

I grew up conservative. I was a gun owner. After the shooting we realized our entire state and truly the nation is a disaster with gun violence.

MARY JOYCE, BOARD MEMBER, COVENANT FAMILIES FOR BRIGHTER TOMORROWS: On March 27th my daughter was in the third-grade class. Three of their classmates were murdered. And I'm telling you, like, there are pieces of my daughter that are missing that I'll never get back. I thought no way it's going to happen to us. We're this beautiful school. And it wasn't enough. And it makes me so angry to be at special session, we met all summer with these men and women and privately they say something, and then publicly they go and do something completely different.

BULSO: When you're meeting in person with someone, especially someone who is suffering from a very recent tragedy, you tried to be as empathetic and as understanding as you can be, and in the meetings that I've had with some of the Covenant moms, I've been very candid with everyone about what my positions are on the second amendment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Republican lawmakers saying the governor's proposed red flag law is unlikely to pass.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After little children were slaughtered in a Christian school there.

MELISSA ALEXANDER, COVENANT SCHOOL PARENT: This is a really sad day for our state. We're going to keep showing up every session and we're going to do that until we get change. My name is Melissa Alexander. I would encourage everybody to not give

up. If there's a state like Tennessee with gun owners, with conservatives that can say, look, this is not acceptable anymore. We need change. If that can happen in Tennessee, it can happen across the country. And so it's up to us in this room, it's up to our state.

HOLLY MCCALL, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, TENNESSEE LOOKOUT: Every Republican is so afraid they're going to get a primary challenger who's going to cite that they're weak on guns, they want to take your guns away. That these associations don't even have to do anything anymore. It's baked in.

GAINEY: It seemed as though Governor Lee first came out I think he honestly wanted to do something.

GOV. BILL LEE (R), TENNESSEE: I think that we have an obligation to set aside politics and pride, and accomplish something that the people of Tennessee want us to get accomplished.

WILLIAMS: The head of the Tennessee Firearms Association sat down with me on camera.

If Republicans support a red flag law, will there be consequences at the ballot box from your group?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, absolutely. And probably in the courts as well.

V. JONES: All the red flag law says is that if one of your loved ones has a gun and is acting crazy, you can ask law enforcement to help.

WILLIAMS: And their position is they would rather lock up the person than lock up their gun.

BULSO: That type of legislation is both ineffective and it's unconstitutional. And it's nothing that we would ever consider passing in Tennessee.

V. JONES: I want to have a chance to talk to somebody just as passionate that we need guns to be available and protecting. There are people who are very well-organized, who can go very passionately the other way.

RICHARD ARCHIE, WESTERN TENNESSEE DIRECTOR, TENNESSEE FIREARMS ASSOCIATION: The tradition of Tennesseans to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes preexist the founding of this state. This right come from God, not from government.

V. JONES: You represent a growing force in this state. You are a part of an organization called the Tennessee Firearm Association. I think that's pretty well-respected.

ARCHIE: Correct. The last 10 years, I would say that we've had some modicum of success and putting good conservatives into office. That is giving us a leg-up.

V. JONES: You think everybody should be able to carry a handgun? That wouldn't bother you. No permit, that'd be fine for you, correct?

ARCHIE: We have that in Tennessee.

V. JONES: Have in Tennessee right now. So they didn't bother you at all. I think about those kids that were at that private school in Nashville. I just don't understand why you aren't more moved by that.

ARCHIE: Do you know what the largest loss of life from the school massacre in the United States was?

V. JONES: I do not.

ARCHIE: OK. It was Michigan. When a gentleman ran for schoolboard and he didn't win the race, he lays the underside of that school with dynamite and with gasoline, and that's the largest loss of life. There wasn't a single firearm used in that at all.


V. JONES: Well, first of all, I would be happy to support any law against blowing up a school.



V. JONES: So we agree on that.

ARCHIE: And so therefore, passing a law does not take away a person's crime.

V. JONES: But what you're saying does make sense to me because people pass laws all the time. It's true they're all violated. But a lot of people in the middle are deterrable by what the law says. If I listened to you, I would think, well, why pass any law? And I'm worried about you. I think you're going to take away more guardrails. I think we're going to have morphinan. That's my fear.

ARCHIE: Well, I disagree with your premise wholeheartedly because I understand this that the only person that I can count on to protect myself and my loved ones is me. And if the Second Amendment says you have the right to keep and to bear arms for your common defense, what would be the next right that you would take away?

V. JONES: I think I'm more convinced than ever that I'm living in a bubble in California and New York with, you know, guns being essentially passed out to everybody and no ability to elect someone to represent them in a meaningful way. I mean, it's a much tougher world here. I can see the disconnect a lot better.



V. JONES: There seems to be a web of groups and actors that are behind the scenes. Some of them are in front of the scenes. The Sumner County Constitutional Republicans. Who are they?

MCCALL: They ran as a slate for county commission.

KURT RILEY, CHAIRMAN, SUMNER COUNTY CONSTITUTIONAL REPUBLICANS: We advocate for, you know, God-fearing, constitutional conservative, Christian values, right?

MCCALL: And their mission is to restore the county to Judeo Christian values and follow the Constitution literally.

WILLIAMS: I have sources who are very solid, moderate Republicans, who are appalled at what they see happening.

RILEY: We're not here to replace the Republican Party of Sumner County. Our job in our minds is to take the Republican Party and pull them to the right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're illustrative of what happens when you have one party system, when you have a one-party state.

V. JONES: Everything that goes on in Sumner County is really wild. So these are hard right groups. I mean, this isn't just conservative.

MCCALL: It's not conservative, it's not anything I would call Republican.

V. JONES: I understand how hard it is to try to change a political party's direction and trajectory. But I also have a lot of trepidation because as best I can tell the direction they're trying to go in is not one I think is healthy.

Sumner County administrative building. Here. Nice building. Hope we will find some nice people.

The first question I wanted to ask is, why did you agree to talk to me?

MATT SHOAF, SUMNER COUNTY DISTRICT COMMISSIONER: Well, I almost didn't. It was kind of a coin flip here, right? So if I'm being honest, you're going to come here and you're going to tell the story that you're going to tell. And so I might as well tell the story that I'm going to tell.

V. JONES: How the heck did you wind up becoming a political figure? For me, it was Rodney King. That was my big moment.

I want to talk to you about the resistance and what we are doing at least in Northern California that seems to be working.

You mentioned 2020. I think COVID was maybe a big turning point for a lot of people, including you.

SHOAF: COVID, the presidential election, social unrest, you look up and you're like, you know, the people in charge clearly are not worthy. Well, I'm a Republican. Heard the term fascist throw around when it comes to Republican, but, I mean, good grief. It's -- to me, it's pretty fascist to tell people they have to take an injection.

V. JONES: It felt like the government was overstepping.

SHOAF: It was. I mean, that's not a feeling. That's -- I mean, that was a fact.

V. JONES: So the government is overstepping, so you need to step up.

SHOAF: The truth of the matter was it wasn't that noble. What started in my house with some friends, we kind of network together and, you know, I think we were deciding like who we're going to take out, who are we going to run against, forced to listen to us. People put a gun to my head and said we're going to take your job if you don't comply. I was going to get fired over taking a vaccine and I listened, I got the message. So now we're going to threaten these politicians' jobs, and now they listen.

V. JONES: So you challenged existing incumbent Republicans and you get 14 seats.


V. JONES: Why did you feel as Republicans you need to challenge other people who are also pretty much already Republican?

SHOAF: You claim to stand for individual liberties, but you're not standing against the government overreach. You're either actively participating in it or you are acquiescing to it. In either case, you got to go.

V. JONES: Gotcha. Well, look, you know, I spent a lot of time trying to move my party more in the direction that I believed then. And so I respect you guys because it's tough. I mean, it wasn't until 2016 that the Democratic Party had any criminal justice plan at all.


SHOAF: Well, you did some work on this, right, with President Trump. The First Step Act.

V. JONES: There's nothing more important than freedoms so thank you, sir.

SHOAF: I'm in support of that, by the way. I appreciate that. May not believe it, but I grew up poor, so I believe in criminal justice reform. So in that, we're six or seven kids that I grew up with, three of them didn't make it 40. One of them died in police custody. And now the cynical side of me looks at that and says, you know, why didn't they get any attention? I think that these rural areas got totally forgotten.

V. JONES: I was all prepared to have a big conflict given everything I heard about the movement he represents, he's conservative, but he's not a clown. He's a great guy, seems like a great guy. He felt like the system wasn't serving him and he stood up and fought back. I mean, when democracy is supposed to be all about. I think if something really going wrong here where I don't see a lot of difference between an Odesa, the two Justins or Mr. Shoaf. This story just got a lot more complicated.

KELLY: You already know. Come in.

V. JONES: I may do it. Hi, hello. Hello, hello, hello. Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Thanks, everybody. We're going to do some power mapping, talk about the issues that matter to us, to our communities.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So identifying who are the people, who are the institutions, who are your allies, who are the people that are movable, that you can convince to be on your side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. So come on up. Let me get this one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The reason why we do it like this is the conversation. So after this, we're going to go into a discussion round.

V. JONES: Let me just ask a couple of questions.

KELLY: Sure. Where were we?

V. JONES: We're in Sumner County.

KELLY: Oh. Have fun. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't go there often.


V. JONES: Hey, why don't you go to Sumner County?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because we don't feel like we're welcome back there. I feel like I'm always harassed by police.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's really happening now is that there's some cognitive dissonance, right? They really think that they're the good people in their mind.

V. JONES: And I'm sure that they believe that we are in here doing some satanic witchcraft. You know what I mean?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that there has been an active effort to separate us so that we don't go to Sumner and they don't come here and we all believe we're evil. But that is actually not true.

V. JONES: And they said they got together probably just like you, ran for office, just like you, trying to stop big corporate power running over them and it was very disorienting to me because a lot of those people sounded like you all. Here's what I will say. Nobody is a villain in their own movie. All right? Thanks, guys. Thank you. Appreciate you. So it's been a lot of kind of goose bump moments, kind of pinch me

moments. You know, talking to Odessa, I mean, I was her. I moved to Oakland after law school and I was working at the community level taking on these tough fights. And she said she was inspired by some of the stuff we were doing in Oakland, so there's all these kind of full- circle moments. And I was with a group of very special people because they know what they're up against and they're still fighting.



V. JONES: So we're only a couple of blocks away from the new headquarters.


V. JONES: For the state Democratic Party.

REMUS: Absolutely.

V. JONES: In Tennessee, led by you.

REMUS: Led by me.


V. JONES: You are the first black chair of the Democratic Party in the history of the state. Given how many black Democrats are already state, that's weird by itself. But you inherited a party that was getting whooped. How could the Democrat Party get beat this bad?

REMUS: I don't believe that the party took the necessary steps to fortify its majority that it had in the House and the state Senate at the time. I think the party had got comfortable.

V. JONES: I saw some stats that showed that half the time these people run for office unopposed. Given the stakes that just strikes me as criminal.

REMUS: There's a sense of hopelessness. People believe that, you know, why run? Why should I run? You know, I'm going to lose. They need to be looking back and saying, I can run for office in my county. I have something to offer.

V. JONES: And I just wonder what's the Democratic Party doing?

MCCALL: Nothing.

V. JONES: That's hard to imagine.

MCCALL: Well, to be honest, I think the Democrats became very complacent with that super majority. Folks who would like to vote Democrat, they vote Republican because they don't have any other option for whom to vote. V. JONES: On the one hand, you've got the gerrymandering and then you

have no competition anyway. That seems to make this whole thing a lot harder to fix.

All right, well, leaving Nashville, head to Jackson, Tennessee, my hometown. I go back once a year either for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and a place like Jackson, a political party, as an organized entity, doesn't matter a lot. What's going to matter is what church you go to, what sports team you like. That's going to play a bigger role. It's a small town. We're not going to get a lot of people that that little bit more than you, a little bit less.


People who are white, people who are black. They can't get away from each other. So people do figure out ways to get along. (INAUDIBLE) talking my sister. I left here 30 plus years ago. She never left. So she's been here the whole time. And she's seen the changes up close and personal.

When we were little I'm taller than you now, I wasn't always taller than you. You're bigger than me and my protector.

ANGELA JONES, VAN'S SISTER: I just didn't look then that much taller.

V. JONES: I do.



V. JONES: Dealer Lord, we thank you for this food that we're about to receive. Thank you for letting Anthony and Angela have a safe trip over here and let them have a safe trip going back. Bless this food. Amen.

A. JONES: Amen. Nobody eat onion?

V. JONES: No, ma'am.

A. JONES: Why?


TOMMIE KIRKENDOLL, VAN'S AUNT: Onions make you cute and young.

A. JONES: It has definitely worked for you.

V. JONES: It's working for you. But, no, I know. Here's what I know. When somebody offered me some to eat that they're not eating.


T. KIRKENDOLL: The whole thing was a little sauce.

V. JONES: A little bit of sauce there. So when I lived here, Democrats ran the state. I come back, it's run

completely by Republicans. What difference does that make just living here in Tennessee having the Republicans in charge?

KAPEL KIRKENDOLL, VAN'S COUSIN: With Memphis, you know the Democrat run Memphis. But the state, you know, Republican around the state values are a little different like now the gun issue. Anybody who could just go get a gun, that's how our governor made it. So you don't have to have a license or anything. You just go get a gun. That's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. And it affects big time because you always hear about shooting every day.

A. JONES: And it used to be a time like guns couldn't get it done. Well, now the way they have it set up, you don't have to have a background check to get a gun.

V. JONES: It sounds like a lot of problems in Memphis when you look at the state legislature, when you look at the governor, do you feel like they are helping?



K. KIRKENDOLL: I forget his name. The representative -- the young guy.

A. JONES: Justin?


V. JONES: Justin from Memphis?


V. JONES: Justin Pearson.

K. KIRKENDOLL: Now, he's trying to help. He's trying to help big time but when you go to Nashville and it's run by Republicans, no.

T. KIRKENDOLL, VAN'S AUNT: I just don't believe what they say. They don't always tell the truth all time.

V. JONES: You know, it's funny. I think it's hard to hate up close. You know, I met with Republicans and, you know, you sit down and immediately people will start trying to figure out a little bit more common ground. There might be some issue that they could compromise on, though, because some of those people are in counties here in Tennessee, white folks, they thought they're getting run over, too. They thought they're getting their rights violated by big corporations, developers, and that type of stuff.

A. JONES: And they probably are.

V. JONES: And they probably are. A. JONES: I'm probably the most cynical and jaded person at this

table. All of the things you talk about, we could find common ground. Everybody runs away from.

V. JONES: There is something building. I think this much extremism is starting to finally to create a reaction and a response that overtime I think we'll be able to take Tennessee in a better direction, I hope. But, you know, we had to come here on the ground and tried to find it. It's not obvious, you know, at this point, except for the two Justins. They are quite obvious and not alone. They're not alone.

Well, yes, I'm headed back to California tomorrow. And being back home has been really bittersweet for me. You know, on the one hand, it's just good to talk to regular people fighting the fight. But man, it sure feels like people are far way. And I don't see any dynamic that's going to bring people closer together, and that's really heartbreaking to me.

When I see something like this where there's not even a pretense of bipartisanship or even partisanship, just pure, you know, one-party domination, you know, it makes me worried if this model spreads to more and more states, we're really in trouble because we need each other.

I think there's a discontent with the status quo on all sides. And so it seems like the energy levels going up on both sides. It seems like new voices are coming in from both sides. The question is, is it going to be more chaos or can any common ground be surfaced?

COOPER: Tennessee is one of the 16 states and territories that will vote in this week's Super Tuesday primary where former president Donald Trump is expected to dominate. In the past two presidential elections, the former president won the state easily with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Thanks for watching THE WHOLE STORY. I'll see you next time.