When Knoxville entrepreneur/philanthropist Eddie Mannis got elected to serve in the legislature two years ago, he drew national attention. He and fellow newbie Torrey Harris, a Democrat from Memphis, were elected to the state House on the same night and became the first openly gay members of the Tennessee General Assembly. The Victory Fund, a national gay-rights group that works to elect LGBTQ candidates, sounded this hopeful note:
“Their presence in the state legislature could dilute toxic anti-LGBTQ voices and lead to more inclusive legislation.”
The Victory Fund clearly didn’t know much about Tennessee Republicans. Maybe Mannis didn’t either.
“It was two years of hell,” said a longtime Mannis friend. “He went in being very optimistic, but reality has dashed that optimism. His dad’s death in January really caused Eddie to reassess and turn inward. Cecil (Eddie’s father) was such a pillar of strength that his death left everyone reeling.”
One legislator with whom I spoke in 2020 about Mannis’s prospects in Nashville predicted that he was going to hate his time there, reminding me that someone urinated on former Rep. Rick Tillis’s chair because Tillis was suspected of being the author of a Twitter account critical of allies of former Speaker Glenn Casada, whose legal issues keep growing even though he stepped down as speaker and, like Mannis, is not seeking re-election.
Mannis, a lifelong Republican who built a successful dry-cleaning business from the ground up and who has been active in more civic and charitable causes than I can count on my fingers and toes combined, was coming off a bruising and unsuccessful campaign to become mayor of Knoxville. Most of us who talk about such things think he lost because he is a Republican.
When Mannis opted to run for the open seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Martin Daniel, we were not surprised when he was immediately assailed by the right wing of his party, which questioned his GOP bona fides, attacked him for not supporting Donald Trump, and after he was elected, denounced him for stuff like opposing a bill that discriminates against transgender students.
And we really shouldn’t have been surprised on April 5 when he announced that he will not run for re-election as District 18 representative, and that he would be supporting city council member Janet Testerman to succeed him.
Another friend of Mannis said his time in office has been a non-stop battle with the MAGA faction of the Republican Party: “I think he had to struggle from the moment he won that primary. The vitriol was incredible. You can’t chalk this up to anything else other than that. Meanwhile, they’ve had their share of closeted Republicans who seem to get by fine as they hide their lifestyle. But the minute they come out, a vocal minority has a large problem with it. …”
This view is endorsed by a close observer of Tennessee government and politics whom I asked about his impression of Eddie Mannis:
“He struck me as a class act, smart, thoughtful. Never had much occasion to talk much with him. And I hadn’t heard that (a member of GOP leadership) had refused to talk to him. Not that it would surprise me much. Homophobia runs deep in the GOP caucuses. Never mind the fact that there have always been gay Republicans (and Democrats) serving in the General Assembly. They just hide it.”
Testerman will be opposed by Democrat-turned-firebrand Republican Elaine Davis, who co-hosted a radio talk show with Knox County GOP Chair Daniel “Clean Sweep” Herrera, who directed a spectacularly unsuccessful campaign to elect partisan Republicans to non-partisan city council seats last year.
A Davis victory will energize Democrats, who have a good candidate – UT Professor Gregory Kaplan, a Sequoyah Hills resident with a long record of civic involvement.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.