Eddie Mannis puts Nashville in the rearview mirror

Betty BeanKnox Scene, West Knoxville

Eddie Mannis was warned ahead of time that not all of his fellow Republicans were going to be glad to see him when he got to Nashville.

That piece of news was disappointing but hardly shocking to Mannis, owner of Prestige Cleaners, a business he founded with used equipment and sweat equity and built into a 100-plus employee workforce. He has also been deeply involved in public service, most notably for organizing Honor Air, which flies veterans to Washington to visit the memorials dedicated to them. He is a cradle Republican who grew up admiring the likes of Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander and has coordinated disaster relief drives and contributed to countless charities.

But once he got into politics, he started seeing a different side of the Grand Old Party.

“I was told that they wouldn’t associate with me and didn’t want to be seen with me. That was made clear to me early on,” he said.

“It wasn’t everybody – just a select few (some of whom were in leadership positions) who wanted to try to make it as hard for me as they could. And in some cases, they did. There was a time or two when they tried to humiliate and embarrass me to get me to quiet down.”

It wasn’t like he’d never faced that kind of treatment. He’d been relentlessly attacked by the right wing of the Knox County GOP during – and even after – his campaign, and it took the intercession of U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and state Sen. Richard Briggs to keep the state executive committee from considering a challenge to his right to be the party’s nominee.

He was also aware that certain big donors had shunned his 2019 campaign for mayor, which he ended up losing to Democrat Indya Kincannon.

It’s gotten as hard for a Republican to get elected mayor of Knoxville as it would be for a Democrat to win in Halls Crossroads – if a Democrat ever ran there, which they mostly don’t. And the degree of difficulty gets steeper when traditional donors decide to zip up their pocketbooks for reasons they won’t say out loud.

So, in summary, Eddie Mannis was too Republican to be mayor and not Republican enough (in the opinion of the party’s far-right wing), to be a state representative. But hardly anybody came right out and admitted the real reason they weren’t supporting this self-made, philanthropic, lifelong Republican model citizen who happens to be gay.

Still, the hostility he faced in Nashville was unexpectedly ferocious, considering that some of it came from the very people who had recruited him to run for the legislature after former District 18 Rep. Martin Daniel announced that he wasn’t going to stand for re-election.

“Leaders of the (House Republican) Caucus reached out to me in February 2020 and asked me if I’d consider running,” Mannis said, thinking about who was on the conference call and remembering that Farragut state Rep. Jason Zachary was on the line, too.

“I was shocked by the call. The timing was not good. I had just come off the mayor’s race and Covid had just started and it was just two or three weeks till the filing deadline. I kind of laughed:

“‘You want ME? Do you know I just lost a mayor’s race that I worked for 2 years on? And I voted in the Democratic primary?’ I was over the hatefulness. I just wanted civility.”

He told them he’d think it over, and after talking to friends like Burchett who helped him work through his objections, he decided to run. He won both primary and general elections by decent margins, but the in-fighting was exhausting.

“I’d decided I could bring some things to the state that could be of value,” he said. “And it never dawned on me that the local GOP would just lose it. It didn’t take me long to realize what was going on, but it got very difficult. I was trying to save a business during Covid, campaigning and fighting every day with some member of the Knox County Republican Party…”

It was jarring to hear that some of his fellow Republicans in Nashville already loathed him, sight unseen.

“I didn’t go into it with an agenda, but I knew that going there as the first openly gay Republican would be a challenge, so I was very careful about what I did and what I said. When I disagreed with someone, I’d do it with the utmost respect.”

The thing that shocked him most was the barrage of anti-gay and anti-transgender legislation his colleagues were bringing to the Education and Instruction Sub-Committee where he served. It was as if this was the most urgent issue facing Tennessee’s school systems.

“It was stunning,” he said. “I couldn’t get my arms around what is happening in Tennessee. I wanted to ask, ‘Can you slow down and think about what you are doing?’’’

The meanness and stupidity of much of the discussion – like bills proposed by legislators who are convinced that schools are being forced to provide litterboxes for students who “identify” as cats – stunned him.

“First of all, is this something that’s really happening? Where is this happening?’ I get there’s a certain level of political grandstanding that maybe goes along with getting re-elected, and I personally don’t understand transgender … but neither did any of my colleagues (who were up in arms about boys allegedly demanding to play on girls’ athletic teams). I don’t necessarily think that boys should play girls sports, but I’d ask for specifics: Where’s this happening? And I’d suggest that we should leave it to the experts – the TSSAA or the NCAA – and not try to intrude with a broad-brush legislative approach.”

Eddie Mannis on the campaign trail.

This past February after an anti-LGBTQ vote, Mannis decided to try to reason with some of his colleagues. He went to some of their offices and sent emails to others.

“I asked them to think about what they were doing to LGBTQ students … just wanted to express from personal experience the impact this can have on children. Do you think I am gay because I had gay influences? Have you ever sat down and talked with a gay person?”

His efforts were not well-received. One colleague came to his office seething with anger. Then he was summoned to House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s office where the entire leadership team was waiting to rake him over the coals for “insulting” his colleagues.

“His objective was to make me shut up. At the age of 62, I was being accused of being ‘disrespectful.’ I left that room thinking it’s been a long time since I’ve felt bullied. It’s all about power and control and I’ve had enough. I had some really good colleagues there. But there are too many people there who are just mean and vindictive – winning at all costs is what matters, and that’s just not my thing. …”

He thought about quitting on the spot but decided to finish out the session. He wishes things had turned out differently. He says his successor, Elaine Davis, will have no trouble in the Nashville litterbox.

“I’ve had enough of her, too. She didn’t even have the decency to talk to me, and she’s attempting to destroy my character? She’ll fit right in.”

He worries that he’s letting a lot of vulnerable young people down, but he knows he can’t accomplish what he wants to as one isolated voice. And he will find other ways to serve, just as he always has.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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