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Meet the AOC of Tennessee: Aftyn Behn will be sworn into the Tennessee House of Representatives Wednesday
The 33-year-old, progressive community organizer represents a new vision of Tennessee’s Democratic party
She’s been called loud— cue the clip of her calling for Glenn Casada to resign — a “limousine liberal” — pull the private school pictures — and a drama queen — press play on one of her many parodies of former Tennessee state house finance chair Rep. Diane Black.
But now, Aftyn Behn deserves a new nickname: “The AOC of Tennessee.” Tomorrow, the outspoken activist will be sworn into the Tennessee State House of Representatives.
The anti establishment upstart cinched the District 51 seat in September, earning 81-percent of the vote in the deep blue district which includes parts of East Nashville, Madison, Downtown and Donelson.
Like the New York congresswoman, Behn, a progressive community organizer, ran a grassroots campaign to pull off an impressive and unexpected primary upset in August, before trouncing Republican David Hooven in the general election. She represents a new vision of the Democratic party and threatens the status quo.
“I knew that it was long odds, and I knew that it was uphill, but I always knew it was possible,” says Behn, who will be the first woman to hold the district’s seat in more than 50 years.
“Aftyn inspires me and gives me hope for what is possible in our state. Her energy and expertise is desperately needed in the legislature as we face relentless attacks on our civil liberties and democratic values,” says Anna Walton, a fellow staff member at the Tennessee Justice Center, where Behn worked as a community organizer from 2017 to 2018.
Once sworn in, 33-year-old Behn will be the youngest sitting female member of the Tennessee State House of Representatives and the only woman representing Nashville.
“This was a win for women,” says Francie Hunt, Executive Director of Tennessee advocates for Planned Parenthood. “Tennessee has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country. It’s one of the many consequences of inadequate female representation.”
Women comprise just 12% of the Tennessee House of Representatives. The only state house with less female representation is West Virginia (11%). Of the 11 women in the Tennessee House only two are democrats: Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) and Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis).
The progressive pledges to work tirelessly to overturn the draconian laws and expand access to reproductive healthcare.
“Aftyn’s core team was all women,” says campaign director, Kate Briefs. “She’s someone who practices what she preaches. She knows representation matters.”
Upsetting the establishment: The Democratic primary election
Despite the historic primary upset she pulled off weeks ago, Behn’s race received little attention up until election day. She says, keenly self aware, “People didn’t take me seriously.”
Her opponent, Anthony Davis had the clear upper hand. The East Nashville Beer Works owner, was appointed to by the Metro Council to serve as the interim representative for District 51, after the sudden passing of Rep. Bill Beck (D-Nashville) in June. Davis served as Beck’s finance chair for several years and up until his death. Before that, he held the District 7 — which encompasses much of the District 51 state house district — Metro Council seat for eight years (2011-2019).
The 43-year-old received support from many Democratic power players, as well as key groups such as RPAC, Tennessee Highway Contractors, Tennessee Professional Firefighters and Tennessee Radiologists.
Even after the 5’3 firecracker defeated Davis, Democrats didn’t rush to rally support for her. The caucus waited until Tuesday, September 12th, two days before the general election to endorse Behn.
Behn says, in the beginning, some Democrats saw her contest as “disrespectful”.
Though she didn’t officially announce her campaign until June 15th, news leaked of her plans amongst political circles in mid-May. The optics were “awkward.” A week before word spread of her contest, Behn met with Beck at his office. She says she scheduled the meeting to discuss the recent legislative session and the looming special session.
“Nashville has evolved and is younger and more diverse,” says Behn. “But its leadership hasn’t for a very long time. Leadership should reflect its constituents. Rep. Beck was a warm and accessible Representative. He did a lot for the district’s neighborhoods during his tenure, but I didn’t feel like he represented the district’s current progressive profile.”
However, she did not express these feelings to the late legislator that day or before sharing them with others.
“I regret not being more direct and transparent about my interest in running,” says Behn. “I’ll admit when I’m wrong. I should have handled that differently.”
A defiantly different campaign
Her campaign was defiantly different from Davis’s. He campaigned for the classes. She canvassed for the masses.
“He called a list of heavy hitters,” says Behn. “We knocked nearly 8,000 doors and sent over 30,000 texts that first week and asked voters what they cared about.”
Davis raised just over $77,047 from party powerhouses including former Mayor Megan Barry, real estate titans Bill Freeman and Mark Deutschmann, attorney Charles Bone and Micaela Reed, wife of Titans’ lobbyists Sam Reed.
Though she did not receive backing from the establishment, Behn managed to raise $50,156. Most of her donations came from individuals across Tennessee from her grassroots organizing network. Her average donation was $256 — a fourth of the size of Davis’s.
Behn is complimentary of Davis, who called and conceded to his junior opponent on election night when defeat became evident.
“There is no ill will between Anthony and I,” says Behn. “I respect him and his service to our community. In the end, we were just two different candidates with two different visions.”
To any Democrats still doubting her ability to succeed within the Republican supermajority, she says, “Why do you want a young, progressive woman to fail? Maybe your time is better spent supporting me and the movement I’ve built instead of trying to primary me next year.”
Tennessee politics are Hotel California
It’s hard to believe that nine months ago, Behn says she considered washing her hands of her involvement in the legislature.
“Tennessee politics is like Hotel California,” laughs Behn. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
On March 27 tragedy struck. Three nine-year-old children and three adults at Covenant Christian — a private Presbyterian grade school in Nashville’s affluent Green Hills area — were gunned down by a 28-year-old transgender man.
Behn has been a fierce advocate for the LGBTQIA community for years. Her long-term partner has a trans-teen son.
“The shooting happened on a Monday and Trans Day of Visibility was on Friday,” says Behn. “We had rallies and parades planned, but none of that could happen. Members of the trans community were being bombarded with death threats and blasted by trolls on social media.”
That was Monday. The following Thursday Republicans proposed a resolution to expel three democrats, now dubbed “The Tennessee Three” — Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville), Justin Pearson (D-Memphis), and Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) after they joined protesters demanding stricter gun laws. The Republican ruled House voted on the resolution and Rep. Jones and Pearson were expelled.
With democracy under attack, the seasoned organizer sprung into action. She helped orchestrate the historic, week-long protest at the legislature.
The Knoxville native got her first taste of politics in Texas. During her senior year at the University of Texas she interned at the Arc of Texas, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of persons with disabilities. The psychology major developed talking points on disability policies for the state legislature. She graduated in May 2008.
That summer she “knocked her first door” as a part-time, paid canvasser, making a whopping $10 an hour, for United States Representative Lloyd Doggett.
“I hated it,” laughs Behn. “But you know…if you can canvass in the Texas summer heat, you can do just about anything.”
Behn would go on to work several clinical psychology roles, before heading back to the University of Texas to pursue a Masters in Social Work. Juggling multiple low-wage jobs, the two-year program would take her three years to complete.
In August 2014, 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests and riots rung out across the country.
The grad student was rocked by the event. Chris, a 20-year-old, black, male receiving assistance from the transitional housing unit, where Behn worked was too. He told her he didn’t expect to live to see 21. A week later, he was shot and killed.
Behn turned her outrage into activism. She immersed herself in Austin’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Two years and 6,000 miles later, she found herself in the midst of another historic humanitarian event — the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis. In 2016, more than 33,000 asylum seekers and over 73,000 refugees from war-torn countries such as Libya, Iran and Syria fled to Europe. Her final semester, she was selected for a 6-month internship in Geneva, Switzerland with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She was tasked with developing specialized materials and policies for LGBTQIA refugees. At the end of her internship, she was hired as a consultant by the same department.
While in Switzerland, Behn cast her vote for Hillary Clinton.
“I remember going to the Post Office and mailing off my absentee ballot for Hillary,” says Behn. “I really felt like my vote mattered.”
Like many, Behn was stunned when she woke on Nov 5, 2016.
Return to the Volunteer State
Hillary’s defeat devastated the Texas alum. It also inspired her. After 8 years away, in November 2016, Behn headed home. She planned to get involved in politics.
“I thought if I wanted to effect real change, Tennessee was the place,” Behn says. “I still believe that.”
She laughs, as she recalls “breaking the news” of this new professional pursuit to her parents. Upset, the two recounted the sacrifices they made for her education and travel opportunities — only for her to return to East Tennessee.
Eager to get involved, Behn reached out to Rep. Gloria Johnson. The Democratic incumbent had just lost her reelection bid. Johnson, who would run again and win in 2018, would become a mentor, close friend and the only caucus member to endorse Behn in the Democratic primary. The female legislator suggested she apply for an open community organizing position at the Tennessee Justice Center. Behn interviewed and got the job.
In February 2017, she reported to work. Her first task: Assisting Marvin Berry, a paraplegic and Tennessee Justice Center client, to Trump’s first Nashville event as president.
“He wanted to go, check it out and advocate for Medicaid, and I thought this would be an experience I’d remember forever,” exclaims Behn. “...and it was.”
The disgraced former president would occupy much of Behn’s time at the TJC. She was responsible for drawing attention to the sweeping cuts he made to the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid.
“Rural residents didn’t realize the Republicans in power — on the national and on the state level — were the ones responsible,” says Behn. “They didn’t know about the Trump tax cuts or our state legislature’s decision to veto additional Medicaid funding.”
Draw attention Behn did. She trekked across Tennessee in her Toyota Yaris with a 7-foot-coffin hanging out the hatchback. Outfitted in grim reaper garb, Behn stood behind the wooden casket at rural rallies. The spectacle, she says, symbolized the lives lost due to Tennessee’s decision not to expand Medicaid.
The coffin wasn’t her only theatrical display on the issue. Behn once pulled a group of frustrated farmers in the back of a flatbed trailer through downtown Nashville. The passengers were protesting Republicans’ rejection of the Medicaid match program. It’s the only record of Behn supporting transpotainment.
But if Behn were nominated for an Oscar, it wouldn’t be for her role in Tennessee’s Medicaid madness, but likely for her attacks on former House Finance Chair, Rep. Diane. Black. The Sumner County Republican — who resides in an $11.5 million, 20,000+ square-foot mansion on Old Hickory Lake and has a networth north of $140 million — proposed billions of dollars in budget cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, pension plans, as well as education programs.
Elite and out of touch, the parallels between Black, and Marie Antoinnette — the French monarch who famously replied, “Let them eat cake”, when she was told her subjects were starving during the Bread Famine — were uncanny, according to Behn. She spelled out the similarities in a series of Letters to the Editor, aptly titled: “Let them eat cake.” Rural residents across the state submitted the ghost written op-eds to local newspapers on Behn’s behalf.
The newspapers were child’s play, compared to the costume to come. Black announced her gubernatorial bid in late 2017, and Behn committed to the “Dianatonnete” character she created. Wherever Black went, Behn went — dressed as “Diantoinette”, wearing a two foot-tall, white wig and a pale pink, period dress. She adopted a heavy French accent and ridiculed the Republican candidate at campaign stops across the state. It was important, she says, voters know how removed the representative was from reality. Black finished third in the 2018 Republican primary. Behn attributes her activism to Diane’s departure from politics.
As for the Marie Antoinette outfit, it’s currently catching dust in her closet. She’s patiently waiting for the perfect moment to resurrect it and all its glory.
“Maybe I’ll organize a drag show to raise money for trans kids on Broadway,” she winks, “It's now in the heart of my district.”
In 2018, Behn was recruited by Indivisible — a national political organization that arose out of the Trump election — to campaign across the state for former Democratic governor and then-senate candidate Phil Bredesen. That same year, the then 27-year-old, began organizing with one of the famed members of the Tennessee Three, Rep. Justin Jones, through the Moral Movement.
“2018 was a hell of a year,” says Behn, who also led efforts for Enough is Enough — a sub-group of the national PAC which aims to remove politicians who have sexually assaulted women — here in Tennessee. The group was out to oust Rep. David Byrd (R-Waynesboro). Three of the high school basketball coach’s former players accused him of sexual assault.
That year she would also work on Rep. Gloria Johnson’s campaign and deep canvass for Tennessee Immigrant Refugee Rights Coalition, better known as TIRCC and Planned Parenthood.
The years following would be just as action packed for Behn thanks to now indicted, former state house Rep. Glenn Casada (D-Franklin), the overturning of Roe vs. Wade and Tennessee’s trigger ban, a sleepover at the capitol and an arrest.
“Just when you think Tennessee politics can’t get worse it does,” says Behn. “That’s what I learned over the years. But I’m more hopeful now than ever.”
Raised to resist
The Knoxville native credits her ideology to her upbringing. On paper her parents wouldn’t appear to be progressive. Her dad, now an administrator at the University of Tennessee, was an accounting professor and her mom, a homemaker.
“My mother is a recovering Jehovah’s witness who is still working on unlearning the anti-woman beliefs of the religion” says Behn. “She has always encouraged my brother and I to speak up and speak out.”
She laughs, “Although, being a grassroots organizer, I’m glad door knocking is in my DNA.”
As for her father, Behn says, he’s a true academic, who valued education and encouraged her to challenge the status quo.
Behn also attributes her progressive politics to Dr. Mark Banker, her high school history teacher. He introduced Behn to the ugly, exploitative politics that have plagued Southern Appalachia for decades.
Her senior year, Banker took Behn’s class on a field trip to the Clear Fork Valley, an old coal mining town located an hour north of Knoxville. Students saw firsthand the impact of predatory corporations and the corrupt politicians who kowtow to them.
The rural community was left crippled, after coal companies abandoned the area without reclaiming the land. Waterways, filled with fish fifty years ago, are barely even creeks. Methane gas from abandoned mines wreak havoc on residents’ health. Heart disease, cancer and a range of respiratory illnesses run rampant.
It was also Baker who first exposed Behn to rural organizing.
“He planted the seed,” says Behn, who also attributes her success to Tequila Johson, Senator Charlane Oliver, former SEIU political director Jason Freeman, Planned Parenthood’s Francie Hunt. “I think the best organizers come from Tennessee, and I’ve been blessed to have so many mentors and friends in this movement.”
Challenging the status quo won her the nickname of “woke” among Republican naysayers. But Behn insists, she will work across the aisle to pass bipartisan legislation.
She points to her work with Southern Connected Communities Project, an organization that seeks to expand broadband access in the Clear Fork Valley. Behn has served on the steering committee of the group for six years.
Just last year, RuralOrganizing.org — the organization Behn currently works for — helped pass a major piece of federal legislation called RECOMPETE that provides block grants to distressed rural communities. Staunch Republican Joni Ernst from Iowa was a cosponsor.
The pugnacious politician also plans to lead the vanguard on abolishing Tennessee’s grocery tax.
“Cheap internet and groceries are kitchen table issues,” she exclaims.” I’m sure there are some Republicans who believe in making life more affordable for their constituents.”
Playing the long game
She knows none of this will happen overnight. That’s why she says she intends to be in the legislature for “at least 10 years”.
“I want to be around long enough to witness the impact,” says Behn, who is laser focused on turning Tennessee’s red tide blue.
Setting out to sever the supermajority
She plans to partner with progressive groups like the SEIU and the Nashville Justice League — a local PAC formed in 2019 by the Central Labor Council of Middle Tennessee, TIRCC Votes, and the Equity Alliance Fund — to push polls, host town halls and ultimately place progressive candidates in positions of power.
She argues these organizations and their efforts have already proven effective. Last month in a runoff election, four females — three endorsed by SEIU and NJL — swept the at-large metro council seats.
“You see, we’ve been spending years bringing our vision of a better Tennessee to life--- it’s not sexy work, but what we’re doing will eventually be a playbook for turning red states around. ”
The far-left phenom is also excited to work alongside Charles Uffleman. Behn says she and the newly hired Democratic Caucus Director will coordinate a statewide campaign to flip seats and sever the Republican supermajority.
“Chas and I go way back organizing in the Hollers,” she tells tennbeat. “You couldn’t have two more seasoned professionals at the helm ahead of 2024.”
Behind Behn’s aggressive exterior is an 11 year old girl, inspired by the stories of strong women who came before her. She pulls out a photo. It’s her — standing proudly beside a poster at her 5th grade social studies fair. The subject? Tennessee’s role in the suffrage movement.
“They won the right to vote, and I won the fair,” smiles Behn. “But we still have a ways to go.”
What would she tell her younger self? She quotes AOC, “They'll tell you you're too loud - that you need to wait your turn; and ask the right people for permission. Do it anyway.”