Nell Johnson’s daughter has always kept busy, but for the past two months she’s been riding a whirlwind; crisscrossing the state for speaking engagements and meetings, collecting awards. It’s been hard for Nell to keep track of Gloria’s whereabouts since she became one-third of the Tennessee Three.
“When she calls me, I’ll ask her, ‘Gloria, where are you at?’ I just never know.”
State Rep. Gloria Johnson might get even harder to keep up with pretty soon. She’d already planned to take a much-needed vacation this month, but now it looks like she’ll be spending her time off pondering an enormous decision – whether to run for the United States Senate against incumbent Republican Marsha Blackburn.
She’s getting a lot of encouragement to do it, particularly since she became one of the Democratic legislators who took over the well of the House chamber on March 30, 2023, and demanded that the Republican supermajority to do something about gun violence during the days of protest that followed the Covenant School shooting. The Republicans were attempting to ignore the hundreds of students and parents that had converged on the Capitol to push the lawmakers into action.
Johnson’s colleagues Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who carried a small bullhorn to the well to speak to the crowd when the microphone was cut off, were expelled for disrupting the House. (Both were later reinstated by their local legislative body.) The Republicans came one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to do the same to Johnson.
The pace is picking up for Nell, too. A couple of weeks ago, she, her daughter-in-law, Sheri Johnson, and grandsons Cameron and Landen Johnson drove up to Washington, D.C., to join Gloria, who flew in. Then they all went to the White House, where Gloria and the two Justins had an appointment to meet with President Joe Biden. Nell said she’d been to the White House with Gloria last Christmas, but this visit was more personal and lasted longer; and this time, Nell actually met the President.
“Well, he’s an older man – I’m 88 and he’s moving a little bit better than I was, but he shows the signs of being an older man: he moves very slow and he loves to talk about his Mama. He has a picture of his mother on the desk. He reached up and took both of my hands, then let go and picked the picture up …
“The vice president was there, too, but was on her way out, and Biden’s spokesperson (Karine Jean-Pierre) was there, too. She’s tiny. I told her, ‘You look even smaller in person than you do on TV.’ She seemed real personable. We didn’t get to meet the First Lady face to face – she was going in the other direction – but I thought she had the prettiest dress on. Royal blue with big pink roses on it. When she came back through, they said, ‘That’s the First Lady.’”
If Nell sounds a little reserved in her description of meeting POTUS and his crew, it might be because she’s a Republican. She disagrees with her daughter about a lot of things.
“I raised my children to think for themselves. But I don’t know WHAT I did to Gloria,” she said, laughing. “But I’m for my daughter no matter what. If anything gets me, it’s people saying they can’t be friends anymore because of politics. That’s one of the worst things in the world, although every once in a while, I’ll say, ‘if you don’t stop it, Gloria, I’m just going to jump out of the car.’”
It’s hard to predict what Gloria Johnson’s decision will be, but it’s clear that she’s seriously considering all the options. Her District 90 House seat looks solidly Blue, with or without her – to the probable chagrin of the Republican majority, which redrew Johnson’s old District 13 out of existence and threw her into Sam McKenzie’s District 15, whereupon she picked up and moved to the newly-created 90th and ended up winning handily, exhibiting impressive fortitude and political savvy, even if she had some health problems caused by exhaustion along the way.
In a story datelined May 28, she told political reporter Andy Sher of the Chattanooga Times Free Press that she is being urged to make the run by some “very serious people” and is seriously considering it. Donors are promising to ante up.
It won’t be easy. Tennessee is now a blood red state. Blackburn, who started her career as a state senator and served eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, won the Senate seat over former Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2018 by a hair over 10 percentage points, and seems a sure bet to run for a second term, although she has shown some signs of angling to become Donald Trump’s running mate.
Democrats will pin their hopes on activating women and young voters, blocs that have been severely impacted by recent GOP policies on gun violence, education and women’s reproductive rights.
Whatever she decides, Nell Johnson’s daughter has a history of beating the odds. She was diagnosed with serious heart problems complicated by Marphan Disease when she was 22-years- old. Nell remembers rushing to the emergency room with Gloria, whose heart was thumping so hard that that you could see her blouse move with each beat. She knows her daughter is a fighter.
“She works ALL the time. I call her up at night, 12 or 1 o’clock and say, ‘Gloria, let’s go to bed now.’ If everybody that voted for her worked like she does, things would get done, and if anybody has anything bad to say about her, don’t say it. That’s my daughter and I’m proud of her and I love her no matter what.
“Even if she is a Democrat.”
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.