Jason Martin, a Nashville physician and vocal critic of the state government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, officially launched his bid Monday for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2022, with hopes taking on Republican Gov. Bill Lee next year.
As COVID-19 infections sweep across Tennessee, deaths and gasps for life became growingly depleting for Martin, director of Hendersonville Medical Center’s critical care unit.
And apart from 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 ‘Fend for yourself,’” he said in an exclusive interview with The Tennessean. “I think it’s costing people lives.”
Entering the race with no prior government experience, Martin – a self-proclaimed “authentic outsider” and “moderate” Democrat – will kick off his campaign with a 95-county listening tour. He said he will run on a platform of affordable health care, fully-funded public education and job creation.
The odds are stacked up against him and other Democrats in a heavily Republican state where the GOP has firm control of the state Senate, House and the governor’s office. Martin said he is still hopeful.
“We are going to catch lightning in a bottle,” he said.
Martin: governor’s pandemic response ill-advised
For almost 18 months, Martin shuttled between two hospitals in Sumner County, intubating patients and holding up i-Pads for family members to say their goodbyes.
“That’s a heavy phone call to be a part of,” he said. “(Families) say, ‘We love you. We are going to see you again, I know we will.’ And you think to yourself, ‘It’s a 50-50 shot.’”Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account
Martin saw 25 patients within more than 12 hours Thursday. Four of them died, he said, three of whom lost their lives to COVID-19. Sometimes, COVID-19 killed them slowly, he said.
“Some people just linger for weeks and months. You can see them get skinny. You can see the skin on their face get tight and shiny,” he said. “That’s a miserable thing to observe.”
More than 13,000 Tennesseans have died of COVID-19, state data shows. Had the state reacted to the pandemic differently, Martin said, a lot of deaths could have been prevented.
Lee has stressed local control while resisting a statewide mask mandate. Early in the pandemic, Lee restricted private gathering sizes to prevent the spread, ramped up coronavirus testing and allowed county mayors to issue local mask mandates.
But as the pandemic has gone on, he has been reluctant have the state step in and do more. He has stressed the person decisions of Tennesseans. Deeming vaccination a personal health decision, Lee did not publicize his COVID-19 vaccine shot like some other governors have done.
Meanwhile, the Lee administration has been roiled in controversy in recent weeks as the state’s health department fired its top vaccine chief Dr. Michelle Fiscus and halted all its vaccine outreach to teens amid pressure from conservative lawmakers.
Most recently, Lee signed an executive order requiring schools to allow parents to opt their children out of local school mask mandates despite previously acknowledging the authority of local districts.
In December, Martin was one of the doctors urging Lee to mandate masks in businesses to battle the winter surge.
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 really be powerful if the governor would say, ‘That’s just not true,’” he said. “He always creates a little bit of doubt, in my opinion, that feeds a narrative that maybe the vaccine isn’t right for everybody.”
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 is in favor of Medicaid expansion, an idea Tennessee’s Democratic lawmakers have pushed unsuccessfully for years. Tennessee Republicans have not done so.
The state should also arm rural hospitals with the resources they need to avoid closure, providing rural communities adequate access to health care, Martin said. That could in turn create more jobs, he said.
On education, Martin is opposed to Lee’s school voucher program, which was blocked by a judge last year. The case is pending before the state Supreme Court. The program would have allowed parents to send children to private schools using public money in Davidson and Shelby counties.
Martin said he wants to fully fund public schools and improve the quality of education. Martin’s three daughters all go to a private school. When asked, he said he chose the school because of its diversity and proximity to his home.
“If public schools were funded adequately, we wouldn’t find ourselves having to make a choice,” he said.
On other issues, 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 will accept those refugees.
Martin, who grew up in a conservative, working-class family from Mobile, Alabama, said his life experience taught him how to bridge differences.
Compared to most progressive Democrats, Martin thinks of himself a moderate “peacemaker.”
“You can’t have compromise if you don’t have difference,” he said. “How can we lower the tone of the political rhetoric? How can we make it more purple and less red and blue?”
With a difficult path ahead, Martin said he will run a campaign less focused on partisan differences but more on “common ground.” Instead of running for a lower position, Martin said he hopes to bring a “fresh perspective” untainted by the political churn.
Martin retained first-term state Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis, as campaign consultant. Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer serves as the campaign’s political director, and Keith Maune serves as the treasurer.
Martin has 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 state Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, win a GOP-controlled seat in 2020, also joined Martin’s campaign.
So far, Carnita Atwater, New Chicago community leader in Memphis, is the only other candidate who filed paperwork to run in the 2022 primary, state records show. She would be the first Black female governor if elected in November 2022.
Martin will also face a primary challenge from Casey Nicholson, former chair of the Greene County Democratic Party and candidate for state House representative in 2008, when he lost the bid to Republican David Hawk. He announced his bid on Facebook but has not filed paperwork as of Friday.