Fighter for the People 


Pam Gaia, a former state representative from District 89 (Midtown) and a pioneer in reform legislation, died last week, as we were preparing for press. Though we noted her passing on our Web site, we did not have the opportunity right away to say in print that we missed her. One week later, we still do -- and will continue to. We are not alone.

Gaia, who served in the General Assembly from 1974 to 1990, was the moving force behind legislation that allowed consumers more ready access to generic, less expensive drugs. She was perhaps even better known for her ongoing crusade on behalf of nursing-home residents, who had been perpetually overlooked until she insisted the legislature focus on improving standards for their care.

She was not one for halfway measures. In pressing for her issues, Gaia was prepared to stand alone, if need be, and was frequently in the doghouse with more cautious legislative leaders. A dispute with then Speaker of the House -- later Governor -- Ned Ray McWherter in the mid-'70s resulted in her virtual ostracism from the councils of power. But she kept soldiering on. As her legislative colleague, state senator Steve Cohen, said last week, "She was a fighter for the people."

Gaia made an abortive try for Harold Ford Sr.'s 9th District congressional seat in 1990, then held down a variety of jobs in local government. It must have been frustrating for her not to be in the forefront of the progressive causes she once championed, though she never stopped working on their behalf, even as a private citizen.

On her last night alive, Gaia, who was suffering from cancer, went with her brother Rick to a favorite restaurant, Pete & Sam's, and ate with gusto. She never gave up.

Asked to characterize her at the height of their feud, McWherter opined, "She's a fine little lady." We might quarrel with his well-meaning use of the diminutive, but otherwise that's a fair assessment.

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