As chair of the Tennessee Senate Education Committee, Sen. Dolores Gresham has plenty of hot-button issues crossing her desk these days.
From a compromise bill aimed at opportunity scholarships – or vouchers, to opponents – for low-income children to ongoing issues with Common Core standards, teacher evaluations and more, hers is one of the most-watched committees in state government.
An interesting vantage point, to say the least, for someone who had never actively sought public office and had to be cajoled into running.
“In 2002, when it was time for redistricting, a friend of mine who was a state representative at the time said that there was something going on in Nashville that I’d be interested in,” said Gresham, R-Somerville, who represents Chester, Decatur, Fayette, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, McNairy and Henderson counties.
“I listened to the voicemail and said to my husband, ‘There’s absolutely nothing going on in Nashville that would interest me.’”
A retired lieutenant colonel with 22 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, Gresham was busy operating a family farm. She still does when she’s not in Nashville, so becoming involved in politics wasn’t on her front burner.
“It wasn’t in my frame of reference,” she said. “When he said there was an open seat and I should run, I said no. But I also said I would help him by talking to people and finding the person who would be an ideal state representative for us.
“We talked to several people who would be really good at this, and it was as though they’d put a mirror in my face, and said, ‘Thee, not me.’ Finally I talked with my husband about it and prayed about it, and said I’d run.”
The good news, she says, is that she won. The bad news, she adds, is that she won.
“I spent some time talking to God, and sometimes He answers me. My bargain with God was that I would only do this until the ‘real’ person comes along. I would just hold it down. At the end of my first term, I was unopposed. And the next time, my opponent wasn’t someone I would trust my district to, so there I went again.”
Having served in the state House and Senate in both minority and majority positions, Gresham has experienced varying levels of success as a legislator. Regardless, she insists, her job is to her district first.
“I find work in the legislature challenging, frustrating and rewarding, and in many ways it reminds me of work I did in the Marine Corps,” she said. “But my people are great; the eight counties I represent are wonderful, and the music is everywhere. I’ve been delighted to do this work, and representing District 26 is a pure joy for me. People have trusted me with this, and I am immensely grateful.”
That said, she does find things a bit easier as a member of the GOP supermajority – even though that kind of absolute power does have its perils.
“Having this majority makes it incumbent upon me and my colleagues to be super-careful,” she said.
“The bills we bring forward, the debates we have on the floor … we don’t want to pass bills just because our buddies brought them. We want to make sure that they are indeed reflecting of the desires of the people of Tennessee, for whom we work.”
Of course, she added, “It was a lot different in the minority, when I kept trying to nudge the majority to the right. Now the real challenge is not to do things because we can, but because of the legislation’s merit.”
That’ll be a key element for her as the education committee works its way through several contentious bills, but Gresham says she is ready for the challenge.
“When I first came to the Senate, I envisioned my first years as being a cheerleader, and about [being part of] the best freshman Senate they ever saw,” she said. “I was going to cheer my team on to great things. Much to my astonishment, the speaker asked me to chair the education committee.
“There went my cheerleading days.”
The challenge now, she said, “is to be aware that we have a unique opportunity to benefit kids, to really do some substantive work to benefit student outcomes and make things better for our schools, teachers and administrators.
“I am so happy to have these opportunities, and I embrace them and hope to work with my colleagues to have good things happen.”