WINDSOR TERRACE — President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat legend, probably would have trouble today getting his party’s nomination, said John DeBerry, a longtime pro-life member of Tennessee’s state House of Representatives.
DeBerry, 69, is running for re-election, but not as a Democrat, which has been his party since the 1960s. Instead, he is campaigning as an independent after the Tennessee Democrat executive committee voted to take him off the ballot for the primary election in August.
Committee members cited DeBerry’s support of school vouchers and his pro-life votes as reasons for the ouster. They also complained he had accepted campaign donations from Republicans, and that his voting record aligned more with the GOP than Democrats.
“When I became a Democrat in the 60s, it was a totally different party,” DeBerry told The Tablet on Oct. 13. “All my grandparents and great grandparents were Eisenhower Republicans, but my parents were Kennedy Democrats, and that caused a rift. But they were young, and Kennedy was going to bring a brave new world.
“But even President Kennedy would probably be thrown out of the Democrat party today. That’s because back then, they did not campaign on abortion, the destruction of marriage, or the rights to marry the same gender, or giving a child more rights than parents. I mean, a child today can get an abortion without the parents knowing about it.”
The executive committee approved the ballot change with a 41-to-18 vote. By that time, the deadline had passed for DeBerry to file as an independent or even a Republican.
Consequently, DeBerry said his constituents lost the opportunity to choose whether to return an incumbent representative to the state House. DeBerry’s District 90 spans central and western portions of Memphis.
DeBerry complained his ouster wasn’t through an election, but by the vote of a “tribunal.”
But not all politicians in Tennessee opposed DeBerry. The General Assembly passed a bill last summer that modified the state’s election law so that an incumbent removed from the ballot by his or her party can run as an independent, even though the deadline to file had passed.
Now DeBerry is back on the ballot facing Democrat challenger Torrey Harris.
“It’s different in that I got the party I’ve been affiliated with for many years doing everything possible to see I don’t get elected,” DeBerry said. “It’s like a vendetta at this point.”
If elected, Harris, 29, would be the first openly-LGBT legislator to represent District 90.
DeBerry said he wouldn’t make a campaign issue out of any opponent’s lifestyle. He noted, however, that he was opposed by liberal-progressive candidates his past three elections, but he won handily.
DeBerry said he never strayed from his core beliefs on the sanctity of marriage, the right to life, and the rights of parents.
But he stayed with the Democrat Party because District 90 had been redrawn into a Democrat district. There were not enough Republicans to elect him, he said, but there were plenty of “moderate, conservative, and spiritual-minded people” to favor him for 16 election cycles.
DeBerry is an ordained Memphis preacher who owns an advertising, marketing, and public relations firm. He is an eyewitness of the city’s history in the Civil Rights movement. Memphis is where an assassin’s bullet killed Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.
Last August, knowing that he had a contentious election before him, DeBerry planned to keep quiet during a House debate over a bill that would increase penalties for demonstrators who deface public property.
The bill was filed in the wake of nation-wide protests that turned violent over the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. But according to DeBerry, the debate on the House floor riled him when he heard comparisons made between the summer rioting and the Civil Rights Movement.
“I could not keep my seat and remain calm,” he said.
DeBerry launched a spontaneous speech to put the record straight. It also set the tone for his campaign.
“I am one of those individuals who walked in back doors because the law said I had to,” DeBerry said on the House floor. “I’m one of those individuals who rode on the back of the bus on the back seats that were not cushioned because the law said I had to.
“So, all of these things we continue to refer to are the things that me and my generation lived. We saw it for ourselves. I went with my father when he and our neighbor got one of those ‘I am a man’ signs and went downtown Memphis and watched him stand there proudly with Dr. King, and other men and women, black and white, who had enough courage to stand up against what was wrong.
“How did they do it? They did it by standing like men and women of integrity, and class, and common sense, and values. When the riots started and folks started burning stuff down, that’s when my father took my arm and we left.
“We left because that was not what we were there for. That was not what Dr. King was there for. That was not what others who are famous in the civil rights days were there for.”
“I may not be back here next year, and I’m sure everything I say is going to be misconstrued, and misquoted, and used against me in November – fine, fine – because I stand for my father’s legacy. I stand for the men and women who acted like they had some sense and some courage and changed this country by being men and women who stood for something.”