Her pregnancy isn't her platform: Allie Phillips on the issues
Washington Post, Time and Elle have reported on the Clarksville District 75 candidate’s abortion
Allie Phillips' story has attracted national attention. It highlights the extremism of Tennessee’s abortion ban.
At 19 weeks pregnant, Phillips and her husband Bryan Lynch found out their daughter Miley Rose had multiple fatal fetal anomalies. Miley wasn’t going to survive. Allie wouldn’t either if she didn’t have an abortion. Tennessee's trigger ban forced her to travel out of state to terminate her pregnancy. When she arrived at the clinic in New York, she was informed her daughter had already passed. Physicians performed the procedure, and Phillips returned to Tennessee.
She scheduled a meeting with her state house representative. She asked Rep. Jeff Burkhart to run a bill, Miley’s Bill. It would allow women with fatal fetal anomalies to terminate their pregnancy in Tennessee. Phillips didn’t want another family to endure this trauma.
His response? “Well, I guess I’m just a guy, but I didn’t think you could have complications after the first one (pregnancy).” Phillips walked out. She decided to run for office — his office.
Nearly every major media outlet — Time, Elle, Washington Post and countless others — has covered this chapter of the Clarksville Candidate’s story. But there’s more behind her platform than her pregnancy.
“My abortion made me aware of how out of touch our elected officials are — not just on reproductive rights but on everyday issues — education, gun control, healthcare,” says Phillips. “I’m fighting for reproductive rights, but I’m running so regular people are represented.”
Before calling her a one woman issue, Allie Phillips asks you to hear her story, the stories of the ones she loves and the stories of those she hopes to represent.
Education: Keep public tax dollars in public schools
Phillips fears for the future of Tennessee’s public schools. Her six year old daughter Adalie attends an elementary school in Clarksville.
Gov. Lee is pressuring the state legislature to pass his Education Scholarship Freedom Act.
The so-called “school choice program” is an expansion of the Educational Savings Account pilot program that passed in 2018. Both initiatives take tax dollars from public schools and give them to parents to help pay for private school.
“School choice is a scam,” she says. “It defunds our already underfunded schools.”
School choice spells disaster for everyone, but especially for low income families like Phillips’. Scholarships don’t cover the full cost of tuition. The average private school tuition in Tennessee is $11,341. The proposed scholarships are $7,075.
“That’s just tuition,” says Phillips. “That doesn’t include sports, field trips or even lunch.”
First grade Adalie is part of the 46-percent of pupils eligible to receive free or reduced lunch in Tennessee.
“She’s picky,” says Phillips as she pulls out a CapriSuns. “Sometimes I pack her lunch, but she eats school lunch about 3 days a week. It definitely makes a difference in our monthly budget.”
There’s no such thing as free lunch at private schools. They aren’t eligible to receive the federal funds that support the program.
It isn’t just Adalie she worries about. Phillips frets for her friends' children too.
Joney Denny recently relocated back to Tennessee from Kentucky. She and Phillips are thick as thieves — they have been since the fourth grade. The 29-year old and her husband have two children. Both are enrolled in public school. Both have disabilities.
10-year-old Asher has ADHD. He is on what is known as a 504 plan which provides students with extra assistance in the classroom — like tailored instruction and assignments.
8-year-old Jaycee’s disability is more severe. She suffers from cerebral palsy and has an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Unlike a 504 plan which provides general education assistance, IEPs are for students who require special education services such as transportation, and an extended school year, in addition to tailored instruction and assignments.
“Education is everything to me,” says Denny, who is in her third year of special education studies. “I started volunteering with special needs students when I was in 5th grade.”
Denny argues school choice isn’t just a bad choice, but a dangerous one for disabled students. Parents relinquish many rights under the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA) when they send their student to private schools — including the right to dispute a disciplinary action at a hearing.
“That’s a big one,” says Denny.
A 2018 study conducted by the State of Tennessee concluded students with disabilities were three times more likely to be disciplined than their peers. It gets worse. The study showed students with disabilities received corporal punishment at a higher rate than non-disabled students. A law has since been passed preventing disabled students from receiving corporal punishment. However, disabled students are still expelled at twice as often as their non-disabled peers and recieve exclusionary displine — such as time out, no recess and silent lunch — more frequently.
Scholarships also don’t guarantee admittance. Private schools still have the discretion to accept or not accept a student.
“It’s not pass GO, collect your $7,000 coupon and go to whatever school you want,” says Denny, who is also an aid at local Clarksville school. “It doesn’t work like that. It’s still up to the school on whether or not they want to accept a student. You don’t get to go somewhere just because you want to.”
Denny doubts private schools would jump to accept Jaycee or Asher.
“Do you think admissions look through the stack of applications and say we want a disabled kid whose parents don’t have a dollar to donate?”
Phillips echoes her close friend’s concerns. First grader, Adalie is autistic. She like Jaycee, has an IEP.
“Adalie would not do well in a private school,” she says. “She needs the attention, the resources and the rights of a public school.”
Even if there were a private school Phillips felt was a fit for Adalie — she would struggle to transport her there. She and her husband share a car.
“Private schools don’t offer transportation,” says Phillips. “I watch 4 kids here at the house. That’s how I make money. They get dropped off early. There’s no way with one car Bryan and I could get her to a private school.”
Lynch’s car quit working a little over a year ago. They can’t afford to pay $4,000 to have it fixed. His vehicle is a vegetable. It sits in the driveway next to an engine he bought to replace the defunct one.
“He still doesn’t have all the parts he needs,” says Phillips. “We can’t afford those yet. It’s going to be awhile before this thing is up and running again.”
Denny is in the same boat. She and her husband also share a vehicle.
“With me in school, another car is out of the question,” says Williams. “We’re just getting by.”
Gun Control: Red flag laws
Talks of education triggered a conversation on gun control. Phillips is appalled by the legislature’s refusal to pass red flag laws. She calls it “criminal.”
“They have blood on their hands,” says Phillips. “These tragedies are preventable. They choose the second amendment over the lives of our children.”
Her husband, who grew up hunting and still enjoys an occasional trip to the “range”, is also in favor of red flag laws.
“It’s just common sense,” says Lynch. “Most gun owners agree. They’ve done studies showing that.”
According to a recent referendum, 84-percent of Tennesseans support the measure that would temporarily take handguns away from those a judge deems mentally unstable.
Phillips goes further. “You should have to take a safety class and show that you own a safe.”
She continues, adding the Covenant Shooting is an example of how, “...issues have to hit home for most people to care.” She cites Governor Lee’s call for a special session.
“If his wife’s friend had not been killed, I don’t think he would have called for the session,” she says. “It hit home for him. It hit home for most Tennesseans. It hit home for everyone except the Republicans in the legislature receiving NRA money.”
Healthcare: Expand Medicaid and cap insulin
That’s not the only crime against constituents. Phillips says the legislature's failure to expand medicaid is downright despicable.
She and Adalie are on Medicaid. Bryan is not. He doesn’t qualify, so he goes without health insurance.
“My options are: Make less money, hurt our family and qualify or pay $300+ a month for a high deductible plan,” he says frustrated. “If they expanded the program, I’d qualify.”
Very few working men meet the razor thin requirements. Tennesseans typically have to make less than $2,000 month to qualify. Disabled individuals and women with children and/or who are pregnant are usually the only ones who get the golden ticket.
The General Assembly has voted against expansion every single year since its inception. Also known as the Medicaid Match, the program provides coverage to people who make too much money for traditional Medicaid, but too little to pay for their own insurance. It is estimated that 150,000 Tennesseeans would qualify for insurance with expansion.
Denny interjects. She calls TennCare a nightmare.
“When we moved here, we immediately applied for TennCare,” explains Williams. “I’m talking Day 1.”
She says she and her husband’s applications were approved about a month after. Asher’s application wasn’t. His is still pending.
In addition to ADHD, fourth grade Asher has anxiety. He typically takes medication for both conditions. He hasn’t had any in three months.
“I’ve called. I’ve emailed. I’ve tried going to their office,” she says. “No one can give me an answer. They tell me just to wait.”
Williams wasn’t going to wait. Her child needs medication now. After thirty days of “pending” and pyrrhic responses from TennCare, she took matters into her own hands.
“I called to make an appointment with his old doctor in Kentucky,” says Williams. “The office told me we would have to pay for the visit and prescriptions out of pocket. We weren’t Kentucky residents. We didn’t have KCHIP (Kentucky’s Medicaid program) anymore.”
Without insurance, his prescriptions cost a pretty penny. According to Williams, the total for the two medications would be over $400.
“That’s for one month,” she says. “That also doesn’t include the doctor's visit.”
Phillips campaign manager Megan Lange isn’t on Medicaid. The 32-year-old has health insurance through her husband. Even with insurance, she shells out over $2,500 a month managing her Type 1 diabetes. She says she spends nearly everything she earns on medical expenses.
“One of my medications is over $800 a month,” says Lange, a marketing and campaign consultant. “I’m not the only one hurting. We (Tennessee) have one of the highest rates of diabetes in the country.”
Tennessee is tied with Kentucky with the sixth highest rate of diabetes in the country. Roughly 730,000 residents, 13.6% of the state’s population have been diagnosed as diabetic.
25 states and the District of Columbia have capped insulin copayments. Tennessee isn’t one of them. Phillips wants to change that.
“There’s no excuse,” says Phillips. “We should have done something at the state level by now.”
She continues,“...they say health is wealth. The reality is, if you live in Tennessee, you need wealth to have health. It shouldn’t be that way. It doesn’t have to be.”
Fundraising the new way: An online influencer
Phillips’ financial situation bleeds over into all aspects of her life. Like many low income individuals, her finances make many decisions for her. She almost didn’t run for office.
“My opponent is largely self funded,” says Phillips. “Bryan and I can barely afford to make ends meet.”
Phillips and her husband live paycheck to paycheck. Combined the two took home $50,000 last year. That money has to house and feed their family of three.
“Regular people aren’t represented in the legislature because regular people can’t afford to run,” she says. “Our representatives don’t understand the issues of everyday people because their bank accounts don’t look like those of everyday people.”
Phillips keeps four kids at her home each day. Bryan delivers appliances. Their income is inconsistent.
“If a kid is sick, they stay home. I don’t make money. If I’m sick or Adalie is sick, I can't keep the kids. I don’t make money. If I go to the capitol or do anything for my campaign, I can’t keep kids. I don’t make money,” says Phillips candidly.
“I’m 1099’d,” says Lynch. “I get paid $200 each day I deliver, but I don’t deliver everyday. Some weeks I work 6 or 7 days. Other weeks I might work two days.”
“I’m going to need to raise at least $250,000 to run for a $28,000 a year job,” says Phillips. “It’s insanity, but it's reality.”
Phillips' friend State House Rep. Aftyn Behn reiterates her assertion.
“The cost of running a campaign creates a big barrier for many would-be passionate public servants," says Behn. “The establishment views a credible candidate as someone who can raise $50,000 from friends and family in one week.”
She understands the uphill battle Phillips faces. She had one herself. But, Behn also knows it's possible to overcome. Her grassroots campaign resulted in an impressive primary upset against the establishment.
“When I won, I promised myself and those who elected me I would work to break down barriers for other non-traditional candidates,” she says.“We need more women and more working class people in the legislature. We need people like Allie.”
So how is Phillips fundraising? She’s taken an unconventional approach. She’s turned to TikTok. Lange estimates 70% of Phillips’ $90,000 in campaign donations have originated through her account.
The millennial mom is an influencer. More than 340,000 people follow Phillips.
She created her first video during COVID. Two months into using the app, one of her time lapse coloring videos went viral. She shot up to 70,000 followers almost overnight.
“People always assume it was my abortion story that made me go viral,” says Phillips. “It wasn’t.”
Old school politicos have criticized the candidate — calling her online activity unprofessional and unpolished.
Behn disagrees. She calls it, “entrepreneurial”.
“Non-traditional candidates aren’t going to raise money the traditional way,” says Behn “I think what she is doing is innovative. It also creates a diverse donor base. She is reaching people other Democrats haven’t.”
Her opponent, Republican Jeff Burkhart won the recently redrawn Clarksville district with 55-percent of the vote. He loaned his campaign $110,000 — which he still hasn’t paid back — to do so.
Beating Burkhart would be big. It would be historic.
It would be a win for Democrats.
It would weaken the Republican supermajority’s stronghold. Democrats only account for 24 of the 99 seats in the Tennessee State House of Representatives.
It would be a win for women.
At age 28, Phillips would be the youngest woman ever elected to the Tennessee General Assembly. London Lamar was the youngest at age 32.
She would be the first woman to represent District 75.
Phillips would provide much needed female representation to the Tennessee House of Representatives. Today, women comprise just 12% of the Tennessee House of Representatives. The only state house with less female representation is West Virginia (11%). Of the 12 women in the Tennessee House only three are Democrats: Rep. Aftyn Behn (D-Nashville), Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), and Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis).
It would be a win for Tennessee. Phillips would focus on the kitchen table issues that affect everyone.
Phillips knows the odds are against her. She doesn’t have a political pedigree. She doesn’t have money, and she isn’t a man. But she isn't to be underestimated. She is ready to roar.
“When I first declared my candidacy, someone told me I was walking into a lion's den,” says Phillips. “I told them…I am the lion.”