Meet The Environmental Organizer Making Waves In Tennessee’s Senate Race

September 29, 2020

Marquita Bradshaw

Marquita Bradshaw is a 46-year-old community organizer and single mom from Memphis, Tennessee. This year, she made history as the first Black woman to receive a major party’s nomination for U.S. Senate in Tennessee. Bradshaw’s primary win was an upset victory — a success she credits to the unique grassroots nature of her campaign, which has focused on environmental justice and building healthier communities.

Bradshaw will face off in November against former Ambassador Bill Hagerty for the seat being vacated by Senator Lamar Alexander (who is retiring this year), and spoke to Supermajority News about her activist career, being a “first,” and why we all need to vote. 

What made you decide to run for political office after working in environmental activism?

The U.S. Senate has been inaccessible to working people when it comes to shaping policy for a while now, especially around environmental policies. You cannot have healthy and safe communities if you don’t have a national framework of environmental laws that keep people safe by protecting the air, water, and soil. The health of our environment is also connected to people’s health. 

In your primary victory speech, you noted that your campaign is using environmental justice principles to shape a U.S. Senate platform for the first time in United States history. Talk to me about how environmental policy shapes your message and campaign. 

Environmental justice, when it’s defined legally, is everything a person needs to be healthy and safe where they live, learn, work, worship, and recreate. It’s the framework we use to give value to people’s narratives of what they are experiencing across Tennessee. We then allow those narratives to shape the empirical data of what policies should be set in place. The people that are closest to the pain know more about the issues and how those issues should be solved. 

You’re the first Black woman to win a major party’s nomination for U.S. Senate in Tennessee. What does it mean to you to represent a “first”?

It’s disappointing — you would think we were a lot further along. But we are working through that whole culture of confederacy that has kept people out of leadership roles that should be reflective of the people they serve. 

You also pulled off what many considered to be an upset victory during the primary — The New York Times reported that you won with just a fraction of the budget of one well-funded challenger. Why do you think voters are drawn to your message?

They’ve been able to inform a platform with their voices. Every issue reflects a story that has been collected across Tennessee during this election, and also through the experiences that I’ve had. Policy is usually at a level that only politicos bounce back and forth, but we want to help everyday working people be part of that process.

You obviously face a tough race in November, as Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democratic Senator in 30 years. What would you say to someone who says this race is a done deal?

Right now, we have a lot of Tennesseans who haven’t been participating in the process. [Tennessee ranked 44th in voter turnout in 2018, based on data from the MIT Elections Performance Index.] We do not have a “red state”— we have a state where people have either been disenfranchised from voting or lost faith. It’s my job to make them feel comfortable enough that they have a representative to serve them, and to get them involved in not only the voting process, but in getting others to vote. 

What is your team doing to combat voter suppression and help get out the vote in Tennessee?

We’re giving people tools to be empowered about this process. We not only have a team that we’ve built out to do the traditional political organizing, but we also have a strong grassroots effort to reach voters. That’s what makes this race so dynamic, and that’s what’s going to make us win in November.

What motivates you as a progressive candidate, and as a Black woman, running in a deeply red state, in this contentious national political climate?

I want better for my own community. I want everybody to have access to this dream called America, and that’s what motivates me. I know what it feels like to not be served at the U.S. Senate level.

We entered this process because of environmental racism — how federal environmental policies were not enforced the same when it comes to Black, brown, Indigenous, and poor white communities. There are over 1,100 EPA Superfund sites across the state of Tennessee, either active or archived. [More than] 220 of those exist in Memphis because somebody was not watching out for our community. This is my commitment to voters: Not only will I fight for my community of South Memphis, but I’ll fight for your community just like it’s mine. 

What kind of example do you hope to set for other progressive women who want to run for office, but aren’t sure how to get started?

There are a lot of training programs across the United States, many of them free, that help women receive training, and that’s a good place to start. Because the race we’ve been running is so grassroots, it has not only inspired other women across the state, but also lower-income Republicans who have felt left out. It’s all about making sure that people know that the best resource you have is your connection to people.