Wade Munday and the changing face of Tennessee politics

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Let’s be honest with ourselves: middle Tennessee residents are likely weary of politics in 2018, and the fact of the matter is the season is just heating up. 

Already we’ve been to the polls a couple of times: to vote on transit and for local primaries, and again to vote for a new mayor (with the specter of a possible return visit thankfully exorcized). The county general election and state and national primary election looms in the near future—August 2, 2018. And then on November 6, 2018 voters must return to the polls one last time for the general election for state and national offices. 

We are at serious risk for burnout, and with a committed anti-LGBT base, lack of voter interest and turnout amongst liberal voters would be a severe blow to progressive agendas generally, and LGBT rights specifically. But while we may be fatigued, there’s a lot of reason to hope this year. The shift in the discourse may be subtle, but it’s real.  

Elsewhere in this issue, we take a look back at a student-led anti-gun protest. This “die-in” was held at Legislative Plaza and was organized by students from conservative Williamson County—with a strong contingent of LGBT identifying students and GLSEN members. And it was held on the anniversary, and in honor of the victims, of the 2016 Pulse Massacre in Orlando—the most deadly mass shooting in US history to target the LGBT community specifically. 

We also get a view into the political landscape of Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District (currently held by the notoriously anti-LGBT Scott DesJarlais)—where the candidates include many LGBT-friendly candidates, and where the Republican challenging DesJarlais is a Baptist who doesn’t flinch at having a gay son. 

And we sit down for a chat with one of the Democratic Party’s leading contenders for the governor’s nomination, Karl Dean. Dean’s unflinching support of the LGBT community is well known, and his governorship would mark the first time someone holding that position was a dependable and predictable ally. 

Wade Munday, running as a Democrat for Tennessee State Senate District 25, exemplifies these trends: he’s a theologically trained, values-oriented candidate, who isn’t willing to let his conservative counterparts own the values platform. Like the youth advocating in our streets, he has firm convictions, liberally-oriented but held with an openness to dialogue that is refreshing in our current climate. And like the new breed of candidates beginning to seek office in Tennessee, he’s not afraid to bring these conversations into traditionally conservative strongholds. 

Munday’s interest in politics isn’t new—it’s been simmering since his youth. “Politics has always been important to me, ever since I was a kid,” Munday recalled. “I think the first political act I took part in was writing a letter to George H. W. Bush during the first Gulf War, and he responded back with some standard correspondence and a magazine about The White House that I flipped through until it fell apart and I couldn't look at it anymore.” 

“So I don't think it was a surprise that I would run for office because of my interest in politics but I didn't know when that would happen… But I never wanted politics to interfere with my faith and what I practice both in my personal life at home and on Sunday morning. So I started studying religion in high school, thought about becoming a minister, then did some travel and thought about becoming a missionary.”  

“Then I decided that I'd rather be a very educated layperson within the church and decided to go to divinity school,” Munday explained, “really because studying religion, theology and philosophy was another thing that was very important to me… I really just studied what I wanted to study and hoped that I could find a job afterward! So it was a bit of a risk, but I enjoyed my theological education. I went to Trevecca Nazarene University which had a great religion department in terms of preparing me for what I would learn at Vanderbilt Divinity.” 

Divinity School prepared Munday for many things, including a career in non-profit work, which took him to Boston. But, ultimately, the lure of Tennessee was strong. “For one year I lived in Boston, and I remember living there and looking at homes in Springfield, in Robertson County, because it's a quaint small southern town, kind of idyllic, what you think of when you think of the south, with a beautiful town square and a little coffee shop…” 

Munday had moved back to Nashville and continued to dream of his move to Springfield, until it became a reality. President Trump’s election pushed him to another new reality. “I decided that now was as good a time as any to get politically involved. The tone and rhetoric of that national political campaign was so negative that I felt compelled to be a positive change and to try to talk about influencing our political dialogue using reason, accountability and kindness.”  

“If I had a campaign mantra, it would be reason, accountability, and kindness—kindness being one of the most important things for a political campaign to consider. It doesn't mean that you can't go negative, but it certainly means that you treat your opponent and constituents on the other side as human beings, and that they are not completely off base in their assumptions about policy or the divide between the two parties.” 

Munday is a non-traditional candidate—though not in the mold of a Trump. “[Divinity and non-profit work] is a nontraditional path, but I think there's a lot of variety in life and in the people's lives that I hope to influence through policy… So the fact that I come from a different background is probably better than if I were a cardboard candidate that took the traditional route—went to law school, practiced at a firm, and then ran for office. I'm happy to be different in that way.” 

As a candidate who has come quite far from his roots, Munday is also well aware of where he comes from and brings that to his campaign as a strength. “One of the greatest advantages is that, somewhere along the way—and I don't know if this came with growing up in the south with the family that I've got, which is rather large and diverse—but I learned to talk to anyone and be open to what others have to say. I think that's the greatest advantage.” 

“I said at the event at Canvas the other day that the first duty of love is to listen—that's a quote from Paul Tillich, a theologian. That's incredibly important for the campaign trail. To know your neighbor, to get you neighbor's vote, you have to love your neighbor. To love your neighbor, you have to listen to your neighbor.”  

“That means I have to sit down and listen to people whose political views might be odious to me,” he explained, “ but if I am to love them, I've got to listen to them, and to listen to them I've got to keep them on the line. I can't just immediately shut them off or turn them away from my ideas. I think maybe a theological degree was helpful to bridge two opposing sides that we're dealing with so often in the south…” 

While candidates in the recent past, including allies and LGBT candidates, from rural distracts have distanced themselves from the community, Munday is in his district talking about LGBT rights and hosting meet and greets with the LGBT community through Middle Tennessee.  

For Munday, it’s all about reaching out to people, bridging gaps, and serving those who have needs. “I think the group is larger than what we see,” Munday said. “I think there are so many individuals who live with shame, who live in the closet, and that's not the freedom that America espouses, it's not the freedom we aspire to live in… So for me it's important to reach out to everyone…” 

“So going to a gay nightclub for my campaign is not so much a political statement as it is a way to talk to all different kinds of people,” he added. “We certainly are not in a post-anti-LGBT society; there is still a lot of hostility towards the gay community, a lot of misunderstandings about the gay community, in the rural south.” 

And in pushing the anti-LGBT agenda, Munday sees our legislators as violating the sacred duty entrusted to them. “There is legislation that has come up in the General Assembly that has distracted us from our core mission in Tennessee—managing the state budget properly and wisely. These are things like the bathroom bill or the marriage amendment. When you come down to it, our state legislators are first entrusted to wisely manage a rather large $30+ billion budget… Being anti-gay should not be the agenda of the state legislature.” 

Munday shares the optimism that there is change afoot in the current climate, and he intends to be part of that change, one way or another. “ I would hope that through my candidacy, and through others around the state, we can move past these arguments that have taken place in the last ten or twenty years and get down to the business of serving others and including in that group of people we serve the LGBT community… So I would ask people to always be talking about politics, and to talk to people in your family and community about our campaign, and hopefully the word spreads and people know that there's a candidate in this district that wants to represent them fairly.” 

And be on the lookout across the state and country for candidates like him. Little by little, we may be able to take back our country.