In Nashville, it’s a familiar scene. Anti-tax protesters take to the streets, waving American flags and carrying tea bags. Elected officials talk about the need to fight the government’s “spending problem,” and a local radio host calls protesters “the sons and daughters of liberty.”
It may sound like a Tea Party in Music City, but this rally against a proposed state income tax took place in 2001. Diane Black, a registered nurse, was there.
“That was what I considered the Tea Party before the Tea Party became vogue,” says Black, newly elected to represent Tennessee’s Sixth District in Congress. Now 60 years old, Black served as a state senator from 2005 to 2010 and was a state representative when she and other legislators succeeded in preventing the income tax from becoming law in the early 2000s.
“Just as it took some pretty large measures like [the threat of] a state income tax to wake the people up in the state of Tennessee,” Black says, “I think that the American public has been awakened by the knowledge of this country’s direction.”
Tennessee’s wake-up call began in 1998 when Republican governor Don Sundquist, fresh off a landslide reelection and concerned about the cost of programs like Medicaid, risked his political capital on the income tax proposal. Amid the public outcry and opposition from within his own party, the plan failed, with disastrous results for Sundquist’s political fortunes.
Black remembers being unpersuaded by the governor. “You know, there were a lot of arguments that the state of Tennessee just couldn’t make it without having this income tax,” she said. “If you look at Tennessee to see how we recovered [in 2002] as compared to some of these other states that were so heavily taxed, you’ll see that we were able to come out of that economic downturn a whole lot sooner and better than those states.”
Republican officeholders who joined to oppose Sundquist’s plan, meanwhile, saw their stars rise. One was Black’s current House colleague Marsha Blackburn, a state senator during the income tax battle who was elected to Congress in 2002. Blackburn, Black, and state representative Mae Beavers (now a state senator) formed a Republican triumvirate known as the “Killer B’s,” the most vocal elected officials to oppose the tax plan. The Killer B’s marched and protested and made speeches alongside citizens, giving institutional heft to what was essentially a populist uprising.
“Folks said, ‘Well, what do you think about us coming down and honking our horns?’ ” Black recalls. “I said, ‘I love it! Come down! Let the elected officials know what you’re thinking.’ ”
The ascendancy of the Killer B’s in Tennessee politics presaged the convergence in the state of Republicans and conservative voters. Until last year, voters were still electing conservative Democrats like Blue Dogs Lincoln Davis and John Tanner; the latter declined to run in 2010 and was replaced by a Republican, while the former lost to his GOP challenger by 18 points.
Black’s district had sent moderate Democrat Bart Gordon to Washington for 13 consecutive terms (and Al Gore before that) when Gordon declined to run for reelection last year. Over the years, Gordon’s constituents had become increasingly Republican, voting for the GOP in the last four presidential elections. The district, which curves north to south on the east side of Nashville, includes 15 counties, many of which lie in the rural heart of what was considered Democratic Middle Tennessee.
No longer. Black won all 15 counties in 2010, beating her Democratic opponent by nearly 38 percentage points. That sort of swing should have been big news, but the race went largely unnoticed by the national press. Black says her constituents’ vote just makes sense.
“I think that the people’s values and my values have matched,” Black says.
It’s a trend discernible in conservative districts across the country, says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia: From Georgia to Idaho, conservative voters are trading conservative Democrats for Republicans. “We should change the letters from ‘D’ and ‘R’ to ‘L’ and ‘C’,” Sabato says. “We have a liberal party and a conservative party, two parties that are so distinct ideologically that voters know what they’re getting.”
In the Sixth District of Tennessee (still one of nine states without a personal income tax), voters knew they were getting more than a Republican. In the state general assembly, Black gained a reputation as a quick study and a wonk, notably during her service on the finance, ways, and means committee in the senate. “Looking at budgets, looking at tax issues, all of that came through that committee,” Black said.
“I have told Diane for years that she should come to Congress,” says her friend Marsha Blackburn. “Diane understands how to get things accomplished.”
Black tells me she won because people knew her record. “The reason why I was able to carry all those counties,” she says, “is that they had an opportunity to see me and knew what I had done in the past.”
And if Diane Black’s past is any indication of her future, it’s unlikely Congress will be passing dubious tax or spending hikes without a fight.
Michael Warren is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.