Dr. Jason Martin seeks Democratic nomination for Governor of Tennessee in 2022

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Jason Martin, a Nashville physician and vocal critic of the state government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, officially launched his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022 on Monday, hoping to face Republican Governor Bill Lee next year.

As COVID-19 infections sweep through Tennessee, deaths and lifelong gasps have become increasingly exhausting for Martin, director of the intensive care unit at Hendersonville Medical Center.

And in addition to treating patients from his day job, the 46-year-old doctor now hopes to save more lives by entering politics.

“Overall, I feel like the governor’s response to COVID has been ‘Stand up for yourself’,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Tennessean. “I think it’s costing people’s lives.”

Entering the race without previous government experience, Martin – a “genuine foreigner” and a self-proclaimed “moderate” Democrat – will kick off his campaign with a listening tour of 95 counties. He said it will operate on a platform of affordable healthcare, fully funded public education and job creation.

The odds are against him and against other Democrats in a heavily Republican state where the GOP exercises firm control over the Senate, House, and state governor’s office. Martin said he was hopeful.

“We’re going to catch lightning in a bottle,” he said.

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For nearly 18 months, Martin shuttled between two Sumner County hospitals, intubating patients and wielding i-Pads for family members to bid them farewell.

“It’s a heavy phone call to make,” he said. “(The families) say, ‘We love you. We will see you again, I know we will. And you’re like, “It’s a 50-50 shot. “

Martin saw 25 patients over 12 hours Thursday. Four of them died, he said, three of whom lost their lives due to COVID-19. Sometimes COVID-19 killed them slowly, he said.

“Some people just linger for weeks and months. You can see them getting skinny. You can see the skin on their face getting tight and shiny, ”he said. “It’s a miserable thing to watch.”

More than 13,000 Tennesséens have died from COVID-19, according to state data. If the state had reacted to the pandemic differently, Martin said, many deaths could have been prevented.

Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor and outspoken critic of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022, is pictured at his home on Friday August 20 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee

Lee emphasized local control while resisting a statewide mask mandate. At the start of the pandemic, Lee restricted the size of private gatherings to prevent the spread, stepped up coronavirus testing and allowed county mayors to issue local mask warrants.

But as the pandemic continued, he was hesitant for the state to step in and do more. He underlined the personal decisions of the Tennesséens. Viewing vaccination as a personal health decision, Lee has not released his COVID-19 vaccine to the public like some other governors have.

Meanwhile, the Lee administration has been rocked by controversy in recent weeks as the state’s health department fired its top vaccine chief, Dr Michelle Fiscus, and halted all of its vaccination campaigns with teenagers under pressure from conservative lawmakers.

Most recently, Lee signed an executive order requiring schools to allow parents to remove their children from local school mask warrants despite previous recognition of local district authority.

In December, Martin was one of the doctors urging Lee to impose masks on businesses to combat the winter wave.

Martin on Wednesday criticized Lee’s pandemic leadership as “bad government” and said leaders should rise above political rhetoric and speak out against misinformation.

“It would be really powerful if the governor said, ‘This is just not true’,” he said. “It always creates a bit of doubt, in my opinion, which fuels a narrative that the vaccine may not be good for everyone.”

Health care, education and jobs

Martin said his campaign will address at least three issues: affordable health care, improvements in public education and workforce development.

The doctor said he was in favor of expanding Medicaid, an idea Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee have unsuccessfully championed for years. Republicans in Tennessee did not.

The state should also equip rural hospitals with the resources they need to avoid closure, providing rural communities with adequate access to health care, Martin said. This in turn could create more jobs, he said.

On education, Martin opposes Lee’s voucher program, which was blocked by a judge last year. The case is pending before the State Supreme Court. The program reportedly allowed parents to send their children to private schools using public funds in Davidson and Shelby counties.

Martin said he wanted to fully fund public schools and improve the quality of education. Martin’s three daughters all go to private school. When asked, he replied that he had chosen the school because of its diversity and its proximity to his home.

“If public schools were adequately funded, we wouldn’t be forced to make a choice,” he said.

On other matters, Martin said he would welcome Afghan refugees to settle in Tennessee as long as they follow the legal process. When asked last week, Lee did not offer a definitive answer as to whether the state would accept these refugees.

“Moderate” Democrat

Martin, who grew up in a conservative, working-class family in Mobile, Alabama, said his life experience has taught him to overcome differences.

Compared to most progressive Democrats, Martin sees himself as a moderate “peacemaker”.

Jason Martin, a Nashville doctor and outspoken critic of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022, is pictured at his home on Friday August 20 2021, in Nashville, Tennessee

“You can’t have compromise if you don’t have a difference,” he said. “How to lower the tone of political rhetoric? How can we make it more purple and less red and blue? “

With a hard road ahead, Martin said he would lead a campaign less focused on partisan differences but more on “middle ground.” Instead of running for a lower post, Martin said he hoped to bring a “new perspective” unscathed by political churn.

Martin retained State Representative Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, first term as a campaign consultant. Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer is the political director of the campaign and Keith Maune is the treasurer.

Martin also hired Ben Jones, former campaign manager for Democratic congressional candidate Kiran Sreepada, who ran against incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Green, R-Clarksville. Jacob Kleinrock, who helped Senator Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, win a GOP-controlled seat in 2020, also joined Martin’s campaign.

So far, Carnita Atwater, community leader from New Chicago to Memphis, is the only other candidate to have filed to run for the 2022 primary, state records show. She would be the first black female governor if she was elected in November 2022.

Martin will also face a main challenge from Casey Nicholson, former Greene County Democratic Party chairman and state runner-up in 2008, when he lost the bid to Republican David Hawk. He announced his offer on Facebook but did not file documents on Friday.

Contact Stella Yu by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @bystellayu_tnsn.

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