VOL. 131 | NO. 254 | Thursday, December 22, 2016
View From the Hill
Memphis Democrat Karen Camper Learns To Work With Majority
BY SAM STOCKARD
Editor’s note: This is part one of Nashville correspondent Sam Stockard’s feature on Memphis state Rep. Karen Camper. Read part two in the Friday, Dec. 23, edition of The Daily News or online at memphisdailynews.com.
Bipartisanship forms the backbone of state Rep. Karen Camper’s legislative philosophy.
The Memphis Democrat from Whitehaven recently received the honor as one of the 2016 Elected Women of Excellence, an award established by the National Foundation for Women Legislators to recognize hard work and legislative efforts.
But being recognized by other women lawmakers for her efforts was just part of what made it special.
“It was phenomenal because this particular group is probably, out of the various legislative organizations, the one that’s the most bipartisan, in my opinion, of representation in terms of women that participate,” Camper says.
For Camper, 58, being well-rounded is simply part of life.
Retired from the U.S. Army as a chief warrant officer, she owns Key II Entertainment and serves as executive director of a nonprofit, The Humble Hearts Foundation. She entered the Legislature after getting involved in neighborhood issues and making a run for the Memphis City Council.
Camper also chairs the Shelby County Legislative Delegation, a position requiring a strong personality and the ability to make people from varying backgrounds work toward the same goal.
“She’s a good leader,” says fellow Memphis Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson. “I’ve kind of watched her evolution in the time I’ve been there as a legislator, and she’s doing good things.”
With Democrats making up only 25 of the 99-member House as the 110th General Assembly prepares to convene, working with Republicans is “a given in the culture we’re in,” Parkinson points out.
“It’s very important for a legislator to find areas where there’s common ground and to file legislation that’s suitable for the entire state, because at the end of the day what we do affects the lives of citizens across the state of Tennessee, not just in our particular districts,” Parkinson says.
Camper holds a similar outlook as she and the Legislature’s Black Caucus prepare to make a push in 2017 on criminal justice reform, minority business and education initiatives.
“For me, (bipartisanship) has always been important, keenly important, particularly on the committees I’ve served on here,” she says.
As a former member of the Judiciary Committee, Camper saw bipartisan support as crucial for moving legislation and working with constituents.
“Whatever the issue is, there’s somebody that’s impacted by it, so when you have people coming together to resolve problems for people it just means a lot,” she adds.
Camper recently attended a White House roundtable at which legislators focused on methods for stopping gun violence nationwide.
She received the invitation after passing legislation this year designed to alert authorities in case a person under an order of protection tries to buy a gun. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would be required within one day to inform any agency entering the order into the National Crime Information Center.
Several similar bills failed across the nation, especially in other red states, Camper points out, but she found success by framing it as a measure to protect families instead of to restrict guns.
Likewise, the gun violence prevention roundtable didn’t target gun ownership rights or weapons legislation but searched for ways to “change our message” and become more effective in quelling deadly shootings, she points out.
Coming from Memphis, which has its share of problems, Camper says the city and Shelby County need to take a different approach.
The Bluff City’s murder rate for 2016 has already broken the record set in 1993 and the year began with a spike. Memphis reported 60 murders in the first three months of the year, giving it a homicide rate of 9.13 per 100,000 population, compared to Chicago’s rate of 5.5. Memphis reported 161 homicides in 2015.
“We can’t just think about stiffer penalties and harder sentencings and things like that. We’ve got to think in an intervention way: How do we stop it from getting there?” Camper asks.
Questions must be raised about where local and state government and put their resources to prevent gun violence, she says.
A bill dubbed “constitutional carry” is expected to be renewed in the 2017 session allowing people to carry a handgun without obtaining a conceal-carry permit.
Camper, though, doesn’t want to get caught up in a constitutional debate.
“I have a firearm, I was in the military. I believe in the Second Amendment to the fullest extent,” she says. “However, there are still some things we can do to prevent people from dying at the hand of gun violence. It’s not about whether people need to give up their arms.”
Camper hopes to sit down with the Tennessee Firearms Association to see what their concerns are and how they can work toward “compromise” to reduce gun deaths without infringing on people’s constitutional rights.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.