DeBerry Case Highlights Questions of Party Loyalty 

For 26 years — from the time, that is, of unquestioned Democratic Party dominance in the Tennessee General Assembly to the current era of a Republican supermajority there — John DeBerry has represented District 90, a constituency that links two majority-black areas in the north and south of Memphis via a solid thread through a predominantly white Midtown area.

click to enlarge John DeBerry
  • John DeBerry

DeBerry, a businessman, and minister of unusual eloquence, has wielded his influence in accord with the temper of the times. From being an obedient servant of the Democratic establishment who once served as Democratic leader pro tem, he has figured in recent times as an agent of political crossover, cherry-picking his issues but supporting the now-dominant Republican position on such issues as abortion and private-school vouchers.

Though DeBerry had been much more firmly grounded in the party politics of the past, his political profile had become something like that of the late former state Senator Reginald Tate, who was defeated in the Democratic primary of 2018 by current state Senator Katrina Robinson. More articulately than Tate did, DeBerry has defended his various heterodoxies both as reflecting the long-held views of his constituents and as a means of maintaining working relations across the political aisle.

For at least a decade, discontent against DeBerry has been building in the ranks of local progressives, and it materialized in the form of an April 1st letter to the state Democratic executive committee from Memphis activist Janeita Lentz asserting that DeBerry had "utilized the power of his office to work against the constituents in which he serves, undermining the voice of the people and the 'vision' of the Tennessee Democratic Party."

The legislator's derelictions were declared to include not only his positions on issues but his receipt of significant financial support from Republican sources, of voting for Republican Glen Casada over Democrat Karen Camper in the 2019 House Speakership race, and of making a substantial cash contribution to an election campaign of Republican state Representative Bill Sanderson.

After a debate in an online meeting of the party committee held last Wednesday, mere days after the filing deadline for the August primary ballot had expired, DeBerry, along with four other candidates whose credentials were challenged, was declared ineligible to run under the party label. The vote against DeBerry was 41 to 18, with two abstentions.

Though he seemed stoically accepting in the immediate wake of the vote, DeBerry, who had received no prior notice about last week's vote, subsequently complained that he had been "ambushed and blindsided" by the action against him, which had been put before the committee "after the filing deadline and in the middle of a pandemic."

And he asserted his right to appeal at a new hearing, scheduled by the party committee to be held on Wednesday of this week. As it quickly developed, he was by no means without defenders, especially among members of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, which issued a statement en masse calling for dismissal of last week's action against DeBerry. State Representative G.A. Hardaway and state Senator Raumesh Akbari had been among DeBerry's defenders during the committee vote last week, and he had also received public support from the aforementioned Camper, the House Minority Leader, who maintained, "The people of his district have sent John DeBerry to Nashville to be their voice 13 times. If someone believes their voices and values are better fits for a district, I encourage them to file for office and make their argument to the voters."

Calling last week's removal vote "a draconian attempt to perceive how a 'lesser than' people should behave or vote," state Representative Joe Towns said "this racially motivated and bullying attempt ... will not be tolerated by the black community."

Towns also noted, "Representative DeBerry has strong relationships on both sides of the aisle, and we need his influence to continue building relationships with Republicans."

DeBerry did indeed have support from across the aisle, a fact that could be as likely to reinforce his critics in the Democratic Party as to refute them. State Representative Mark White of House District 83, a Republican who faces a stiff challenge of his own this year from Democrat Jerri Green, called DeBerry "a moral compass for us all" and said "his ability to speak on issues with clarity and wisdom is something we do not need to lose on Capitol Hill. We need to keep Representative DeBerry, and I support any and all efforts to make sure that happens."

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