Edward Nelson, 32
For 16 years, no Democrat has even run for Tennessee House District 19. A Navy Vet, a sociology student, a Vans shoe expert, Edward is re-defining the face of a Tennessee democratic candidate. This 32-year-old is taking on the rise of white nationalism and teaching us all how to be unapologetically progressive.
If you could get a beer with any politician, who would it be?
Well, I've actually never drunk before but I do like a good ginger ale. So I would probably have one with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just so we could discuss strategies. I want to know what she felt worked for her and what she felt didn't work since we're running on very similar platforms.
What was the best advice you received before you ran for office?
When I was looking at this run, the first person I talked to seriously about this gave me the best advice: just run.
There were no insider secrets. We didn't talk insight at all. It was just, “You have nothing to lose by running for office. So just do it.”
It was really the best thing that I may have heard so far to this point. That's what got me into this whole mess.
Name one interesting fact about yourself outside of politics?
So in 2012, I started a website and a Facebook group called Strictly Waffles. It was a website and a buy/sell/trade Facebook group that was centered around the Vans shoe company. We grew to be the world to be the largest English speaking Van centric website in the world.
Where in your district is your favorite place to hang out?
At my office. I'm always there. If I'm not knocking on doors I’m in my office.
But outside of that, Cardin’s Drive-In. It's been around since the 50s or 40s. It's a burger and shakes place that serves breakfast. It's a gem out there.
And if I'm not there, I'm probably at Ijams which is this incredible park that we have in my district. It's it's an urban wilderness park and there's a big huge cliff with a swimming lake and paddle boarding docks. It’s just this incredible little gem that we have in south Knoxville that I am so happy is in my district.
In your own words, what does the Tennessee State House do?
In the state house, we write all of the laws and vote on all of the laws that are going to affect people here at the state level. The Republican legislature for whatever reason has preempted the local municipalities from being able to do anything on their own. Municipalities can’t raise their minimum wages, they can’t decide what goes on within their city limits, it's all been preempted at the state level.
We also balance the budget. It’s really funny to see all the politicians run on it. “I balanced the budget!” But literally it’s your soul damn job to do it but for whatever reason, they get really excited about it. It’s the bare minimum, the lowest bar you can possibly set.
But most people don’t know what any of these positions. When you run for office up you magically become a civics teacher, which is not something I was prepared for. It's good though, because I really did to get into the minutiae of what happens, how it really affects people in their own yard.
What are your potholes? What are these issues that are neglected in your district but should be addressed?
We have a legislature that has ignored and not done anything to stop hospital closures that are rampant across the state. We have nine hospital closures, all rural. That's the most per capita. There's only one state that beats us, that's Texas and they have four times our population. Yet the Republican legislature is okay with that.
A big thing for me is criminal justice reform or just justice reform. I hate that term criminal justice reform. Justice reform in a way that will really affect communities here. I think that our initial ability to legalize marijuana at the state level has been really bad. It would help all of our farmers and it would help our people.
We have a major opioid problem in the state and legalizing marijuana at least medically would do a whole lot to curb that problem. That’s really something that no one is addressing. There are people on the Republican side who are trying to pass a bill legalizing marijuana or at least decriminalizing marijuana. But we have this group called Freedom Caucus that just says no on everything.
Another thing is we are having this resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism in Tennessee, particularly in East Tennessee. I've had white supremacists come to my events and shut them down or attempt to shut them down because of the type of platform we're running on.
The Traditional Workers Party came to my university and spoke. There's a pagan white nationalist group that is buying 40 acres in East Tennessee to set up a commune. It's really something that I did not expect to experience when I came back to Tennessee. It's really been an eye-opener because we have some really progressive areas in that state. But for whatever reason, this district is now a haven of white supremacy.
We had someone at the state level try and pass a resolution that just said that white nationalists and white nationalism is bad and we need to recognize that these people are radical and many are terrorists. It didn't even get a second in committee. It died in 19 seconds.
That we can't even get a second on a resolution like that is really something. That's something that is affecting me very blatantly and I'm a 32-year-old white guy. So I can only imagine how it's affecting these marginalized communities, immigrant communities and our black communities here.
You’re the first Democrat running in this district since 2002. What are the unique challenges you face in this district?
I am the first Dem in 16 years to run here. So it's been a long time without any of these conversations that I'm forcing the other side to have now. This district is huge and very rural, we're about half the county by area. And it's very spread out.
Something we saw across Tennessee when Al Gore lost in 2000, the Democratic Party sort of stopped caring about Tennessee. This is not unique to Tennessee, obviously in other Midwestern states as well, but the Democrats had a super majority in Tennessee for decades.
And after that loss, we sort of saw this the Democratic Party taking a step back in Tennessee, with the exception of Nashville and Memphis.
But in these rural areas like in East Tennessee, we haven't had any work being done here in a very long time. I've knocked on people's doors in my district, who built their houses in the 70s. Yet I'm the first politician ever come and knock on their door to ask what's important to them. As the candidate, I shouldn’t have to pick up basically two decades of slack and run with. We’ve had to really start from less than nothing.
We also have the white nationalists. We recently discovered we had been targeted as far back as January, probably the day that we announced. We saw that they were talking about us on their discord servers.
But just last month, we had an event out in very rural Knoxville County. It was on Thursday at lunchtime voter outreach event, just doing a meet and greet at a cafe out there. White nationalists showed up right at 11 o'clock to protest us and harass the people who were coming to see us. We shut down after about 10 minutes just because we didn't want to bring any negativity to the small business.
They said they're going to be at every one of our events that we have until the election. We had another event the following week a falafel place that is owned by a Syrian refugee. We had over 100 people come through and stand in solidarity with us and support us. Then this group of national white nationalists drove by all the people there, saw us, and put racist recruitment flyers up around town.
We're certainly not going to stop doing what we're doing because of some stooges with swastika stickers come and yell at us.
You're not a career politician. You’re a student, and you're not even major in political science at that but sociology. Before that, you were in the Navy doing medical-related work. Why now run for office and engage in government?
I think bluntly because a lot of things suck for a lot of people. I spent 10 years in the Navy, I deployed six times, and I was around the world fighting for people. I came back here to see that nobody was doing that here. We need people who are going to fight for folks, not for corporations. We need people who are going to go in and stand for what's right to fight for what we think people really deserve.
I've always been political. It’s hard to not be political when your life literally depends on who is in office.
My grandfather was in Korea and Vietnam, my dad was in Desert Storm, Desert Shield. And then I was in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom. And so none of those wars where we're just wars, it was the wrong people making the wrong decisions can have some really serious consequences.
But when I got back to Tennessee, and I asked, “Why are things worse in so many ways than they were when I left in years ago?” I wanted to help.
And I hear a lot of people say, “Well we have to run Democrats in these races, we have to run somebody.” And then I saw that in my district, nobody had run in 16 years and the incumbent was retiring.
I always instilled in my sailors the mindset that, “I don't mind if you come in with the problem. But I also want to know what we're doing to fix it. Don't just complain without having some sort of solution.”
You also asked about why not just stay in medicine? Well, you know, I initially wanted to do that.
I practiced medicine for four years in the Navy, I went through a program called independent duty corpsman school. And it's, it's basically like a physician's assistant program lite. It teaches you, some graduate level A&P, lots of emergency medicine, lots of diagnosing, and treatment methods, all sorts of stuff like that I went to school, there are two different programs, there's one for submarine people. And then there's one for surface people. So I went to both of those programs. I spent about just over two years in school to learn all this stuff. Once you graduate, that you have all the rights and responsibilities basically have a doctor.
So I did that for four years. When I got out of the Navy, I thought I’d be a PA. I was sure the stuff that I did in the Navy is going to carry over. Then I went to school, they said, “Thank you for your service. The first class will have you go through his medical terminology.” I would have to go to school for six years in order to finish.
So I shifted over to something that I was really interested in, which is sociology. That’s really helped me with this campaign. Because everything that we're running to do with this platform, we're discussing at the macro and micro level in my classes.
One of the things that I would like to see is that for Tennessee when people get out of the military they can use their training at all these jobs. Why can’t they come to Tennessee and the challenge a board? Like for me, I had a panel of 7500 patients that I treated every single day, had an appointment every 15 minutes. And I saw everything from stubbed toes to kidney failure, cancer. So many different things that I had to treat. And I couldn't do any of that the day that I got out of the Navy I went from practicing medicine one day to being a highly trained nobody.
So why couldn't I have come to Tennessee challenge the board, pass the board, go to school for a year, have some program place where I can do that. So I can do the job I did in the military. Y’all already spent over a million dollars to train me? Why should you have to spend more for me to go do less of the job and in a more limited capacity?
And I'd like to see that for all of all of the professions of the military. Truck driving, welders, all of this stuff that people do who are extremely highly trained at young ages. I know for me, at 20 years old, I was given a med bag sent to a ship off the coast of Beirut during the summer of 2006 when Israel was bombing Lebanon. I was waiting in the water and had a line of 7000 people looking at me for what to do.
People who do those jobs in the military know what they're doing. They do them so well and independently, there's no reason they shouldn't be able to do them in the civilian or the private sector. And the only thing that's stopping that is money. There’s a reason they wanted me to go to school for six more years because they can get about 100 grand out of me.
But that's not what it should come down to. It should be easier. That would help people transitioning out of the military. That would that would help keep you afloat when they get out. And it gives them a good guaranteed job for the most part when they get out. So they don't have to struggle finding a place they can get a job with support their families, it would really help not just veterans, but families of veterans across the board.
You’ve noted how much Tennessee has gotten worse since you left 10 years ago. Campaigns often focus too heavily on the negative things about an area. On the flip side, what is something you love about your district? What keeps you tied to the area?
My district is probably the most beautiful district in Tennessee. We have some of the most incredible views, the green spaces that we have, the landscaping, we are at the base of the Smoky Mountain. I get up every morning and I can see just over the trees the tops of the Smoky Mountains. Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited National Park in the country.
We have a lot of opportunity here. We have two major interstates that intersect right here. There's a ton of land here that we can develop properly. There are already industrial parks out there where we can put businesses, there's a lot of opportunity for growth there. I'm an outdoorsy kind of guy. I've always dreamed of hiking, the Appalachian Trail and it’s literally 30 minutes from my doorstep now.
So that's one of the major reasons I moved to East Tennessee. I grew up in western Tennessee, near Memphis. I knew I was coming back to Tennessee. When I was looking into it, I felt there's not a better place. And there's a reason I bought a house here. It really has the potential to be one of the greatest areas in Tennessee, if only we had the right people doing the right kind of thinking in charge.
And then also Cardin's Drive-In. They have a really good Peanut Butter shake that keeps me coming back.
Who have been your mentors?
My campaign manager! Beth is a 20-year-old college student who took off two semesters to run my campaign and she is just a magician. She's really incredible. And she has been my chief supporter and flag-waver here. I owe everything to the campaign has become is because of her. I'm just a candidate.
She's the science behind this whole thing. And I'm just the mouthpiece. And I could not and would never have gotten to this point without her.
Yeah, so the first person I sat down with when I was thinking about running was Gloria Johnson, who's just next door across the across the wall from me. She’s a former state rep who said, “ Why wouldn't you run? Run, just run, run, run, run!” She's been a real help to me because she's a veteran with all of this. I can always call her and ask her if I need something. I have a question about somebody because she knows everybody in this game.
Beyond that, we have a lot of really good organizations who have supported me here locally. Giving credit where it’s due starts with the Knox County Democratic Party. They are really well organized, surprisingly so.
We're the only county across the state 95 counties we’re the only one that had a coordinated campaign with all the county candidates which resulted in one of those races getting more votes in the county than any other Democratic candidate on the ballot and that's from including Senator, Governor, Congress on down. One of the county commission candidates got more votes than anybody which was really impressive and that's because of the coordinated campaign.
Outside of the party we have, believe it or not, a very strong group of Democratic Socialists here. Our local group has about 150 members. I just went to a meeting on Monday and there were about 60 people there and we had eight new signups. So it's one of the largest per capita in the country.
They endorsed me early on and we were able to get the Our Revolution endorsement. I’m the first and only candidate in Tennessee to be nationally endorsed by Our Revolution is really something we're proud.
Indivisible is really strong here in East Tennessee so they've supported a lot. I really appreciate that. Run for Something also endorsed me very early on, when I was a nobody running in a no-name district. It’s the hinterlands for Democrats, much less progressive. They're extremely responsive with answers and support no matter what time I need it.
Also Craig Fitzhugh, the House Minority Leader. He was also just running for governor unfortunately lost but he is not only a minority leader but also running for Governor, he gave me a whole lot of time and I really appreciate that. He is extremely responsive. It can be 10 o'clock at night.
It’s really great to have support like that, particularly in a district like mine. People keep asking if I am a viable candidate. I can be if people believed that I was. It’s a district that Donald Trump won by 50 points.
I really appreciate these organizations that take the time out to believe in us and support us and we're a long shot work alongside district but sometimes a long shot can become with the right amount of support can become really close races.
What advice would you give to another young Dems was thinking about running?
Easily I would say, run. Just like I was told. Just run for something. I got some people asking me if I was too young to do this because I am still in college.
If anyone tells you that you’re too young to be in politics, there's a reason or telling you that and it's probably because you are going to come and upset the status quo, and they don't want that. They want to be comfortable. So I would say that anyone who is thinking about doing it, thinking about running, getting involved, whatever, just do it.
And if you don't know how to get involved, you don't know how to run for something, it doesn’t matter. I can't tell you how many how many people I've talked to are running across the state would never have thought about running for office before. We're challenging something like that 96% or 95% of all of the legislative offices in Tennessee this cycle. We’re challenging places where no Democrat has ever won, even when we had a supermajority has ever won.
And that's really inspiring, and most candidates are just normal people. They're school teachers, small business owners, single mothers who stay at home with the kids all day there. We have a guy running for Congress in Middle Tennessee who is an Amazing Race winner. We have our congressional candidate here in my district who is an environmental activist who worked and fought for clean water her entire life.
We have people who are from all walks and all talks everywhere. We have people running on progressive platforms. So that's another thing I would say is, if you're going to run for office, be true to yourself, because you're gonna have a lot of people who come at you who are experts are going to say, “Don't talk about this issue or, maybe take this off your website.”
Don’t do that. I had a preliminary website up and was showing it to people who are “in the know”, and they would say things, Why are you talking about immigration on here, we only need to talk about health care, education, and jobs. That's it. Why do you have this thing about legalizing marijuana, or what is the stuff about abolishing the death penalty?”
So I said, “Listen, we're gonna talk about these issues. And not only are we going to talk about them now, since we've been told not to, we're going to make them central to our platform.”
Because that's the stuff that we care about. My father was in prison. Running on a criminal justice reform platform matters to me. My mother's disabled, and she's been given opioids for decades now to treat her pain when we know that marijuana would help her. So that's something that's important to me. I'm going to run on.
So I think that running on issues that matter to you and matter to your communities is what you should be doing and, and don't take advice from people who have never won an election before. Just because they think that this is what's been done and this is the only thing that we talked about so that's how we should be running races.
No screw that. Break the mold. Get out there and do something different. Because you literally have nothing to lose. I mean, if we make gains in this district, that's a win for us.
I don't want to pretend that outcome doesn't matter. But, but progress matters too. We have a chalkboard in this in this headquarters here. Our headquarters is an old union building. And we think that's really fitting because we're super pro-union for workers here. And there's a chalkboard and we have quotes up there that we change from time to time, depending on what's on our mind. And right now, it says “We have built power, we have organized, and what we have built is permanent no matter what.”
That’s a quote from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. No matter what happens with this race. The 1500 people who voted for me on primary day, that's the first time in almost a generation that they have been able on their values. So that's what's important. Run on your values. And don't let someone sway you away from something because they think it's unpopular or they think that it's not something that they're going to talk about, so neither should you. Just be true to yourself.
All this gets me fired up.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.