Earlier this year, I asked a longtime observer of the Tennessee General Assembly his opinion of Sen. Richard Briggs. Here’s the response:
“Briggs is a pretty decent guy by legislative standards. Intelligent, rational, deliberative, circumspect. He isn’t easily spooked. He can be pretty passionate on issues/legislation he feels strongly about and thinks important.
“While some might disagree with some of Briggs’ positions and stances, they strike me as coming from a place of personal and intellectual honesty – and from a person genuinely trying to do what he thinks right.
“He’s not a big hot-button issue puncher, I can’t recall him demagoguing on anything. Unlike a number of people here, he seems largely immune or at least in control of the fearful, greedy, ignorant or simply ambition-driven impulses that often storm through the legislature.
“As such, that may sometimes put Briggs at a disadvantage. But he probably sleeps better at night than some.” (Learn more about Briggs here.)
I inquired about Briggs because he was catching heat for being the old-fashioned, “Don’t buy it if you can’t pay for it, and don’t borrow money you can’t repay” kind of Republican – the kind that used to populate East Tennessee back in the day before the “I’m gonna march right off that cliff behind my president no matter what kind of crazy crap he’s spewing” lemmings took over the party of Lincoln.
Briggs is an old-school Republican – not a Trumpublican – and he’s getting beat up on social media for it.
He’s different in other ways, too. He’s not a political hack, unsuited for honest work.
He’s a heart surgeon and a decorated career military man who decided to run for county commissioner in 2008 after the 2007 Black Wednesday episode held Knox County government up to national ridicule as a model of down-home corruption. Six years later, he decided to primary the embarrassing incumbent, District 7 Sen. Stacey Campfield, who was getting national exposure for his shenanigans. Briggs won handily.
He has battled (vainly, so far) for affordable healthcare and is now catching heat for spreading up-to-date, science-based information about COVID-19. He has weighed into the controversy over mask-wearing and restrictions on public gathering and is attracting the attention of internet trolls – not unlike another doctor – Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has worked with six presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat. Fauci came to prominence in the fight against AIDS and has been on the job against every kind of pestilence to hit American shores for nearly a half century. He has ticked off Trumpublicans by refusing to endorse Trump’s flights of fantasy regarding COVID-19. This week, he confirmed reports that he and his family have been getting death threats.
The drumbeat against Briggs hasn’t risen to the level of death threats, but it is increasing in volume and venom as the pandemic wears on. He is undeterred.
“We have 40,000 active cases of Covid in Tennessee right now, and there’s a lot of blame to go around, starting with a lack of national leadership. We probably don’t need to totally shut the economy down, but if we could spread people out in restaurants, get them to wear masks and wash their hands, we could get it down to a much lower level.”
When reminded of public resistance to safety measures like seatbelt and helmet laws (which still come up in the legislature under the title “The Right to be Stupid”), he said the current crisis is more comparable to the political battles over second-hand smoke.
He wishes the critics would pay more attention to science and less to Donald Trump. His recommendations are practical, and he sounds like an old soldier when he gets wound up:
“You can still smoke at home. The reason we ban smoking in public buildings is not because it’s hurting you – it’s hurting other people.
“Masks work. It’s been proven all over the world. I believe that social distancing works, too. I’m not advocating closing the economy down, but we know that this virus is spread via aerosolized droplets, so if we had 95 percent of the people doing social distancing and wearing masks, we could beat this foreign invader that has put 700,000 Tennesseans out of work and been the worst, most sudden economic hit we’ve ever been hurt by.
“Let’s fight this thing by avoiding groups in too close contact for too long. Avoid bars where you go into an enclosed area for too long.
“Let’s don’t surrender to it – Let’s get together, and let’s fight the thing and win!”
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.