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VOL. 129 | NO. 61 | Friday, March 28, 2014

Harper Stays Focused on Constituents

JOE MORRIS | Special to The Daily News

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When her children were small, Thelma Harper spent long hours at their school.


As a room mother, she found plenty of ways to utilize her time and talents. As her children grew up, however, they didn’t want Mom around quite as much.

But as someone who likes to stay busy, Harper couldn’t sit still for long. That led to community service and, eventually, elected office.

“I realized that we were not doing everything we could be doing for our communities,” said Harper, now the state senator for District 19, which includes part of Davidson County. “Many services were not being provided equally throughout the city. I met up with some other people, and we realized that we wanted more than we were getting, and we went to work.”

Harper, a Democrat, highlights efforts to clean up the city’s dump, which had trucks running through North Nashville neighborhoods and creating a host of problems.

“I was tired of it, the community was tired of it,” Harper said. “We worked with the [Nashville Metro] council to see what we could do, and I spent a lot of time telling council members what the people wanted. I was working with people and working with the government, and I saw that by doing that I could help get what my community needed.”

She put her name in the hat for a Metro Council seat and was elected. During her second term, former council member and then-state Sen. Avon Williams became ill, and Harper was encouraged to run for his seat. She did, and was elected in 1989 to the seat she still holds.

“I was very happy on the council,” she said. “If my constituents felt I was worthy, I was happy to stay there and serve. We didn’t have the term limits then. But the community wanted someone in that senate seat who could do the work they wanted done, and when I put myself out there, they supported me. And they have supported me ever since.”

That support has been a comfort as she has seen the Senate Democratic Caucus go from a majority to a minority to a largely irrelevant handful of members in that body. Still, she said, the numbers game won’t deter her from doing the best she can for her district, and being heard on a variety of issues.

“I’ve been a minority all my life, but I’m a real minority now,” Harper said with a laugh. “But it really doesn’t bother me at all. I think for some people who had always had everything they ever wanted, it might be a problem.

“But I don’t worry about that. I ask my constituents what they want and try my best to make those things happen for them. If the other party has concerns, I try to work with them. That goes for the administration, too. Whoever is in power, I try to work with them, and that has served me well.”

In the current session, for example, she’s not moving a lot of legislation.

“When you realize that the other people aren’t interested in what you’re doing, you don’t try to bring a lot of grandiose things together,” she said. “I just have two or three items I am pushing that I can work with the administration and the rest of the Davidson County delegation on. Other than that, I spend my time listening to the people who I represent to see how I can be of help.”

Indeed, she is a tireless figure in her district. It’s a rare school program or senior center event that doesn’t get an appearance, and her famous hats have become legend. Don’t look for that to change any time soon, as Harper has plans to run for re-election this fall, and to date has not drawn any serious opposition.

“I love it,” she said. “I go to the senior citizen centers and talk to them. I go to the church functions, to the school pageants. Those are my favorite things. Knowing what my constituents want is something I work toward all the time.

“Sometimes that means I talk to them at functions, other times it means I sit in the audience with them and listen. That’s what I am doing as the new ball stadium [for the Nashville Sounds] is taking shape. We want to have more business in the district, and to make a lot of things happen on Jefferson Street. For that to happen, I have to carry the water for the people in my district.”

In the end, she said, “People just want you to listen. They will tell you what they want their government to do or not do. They just want me to show up when I can and hear what they have to say. Then my job is to carry those opinions to the Legislature, so that’s what I do.”

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