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VOL. 40 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 6, 2016

Akbari proving to be worthy successor to iconic DeBerry

By Sam Stockard

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Those who wondered how Raumesh Akbari would do in following legendary Memphis legislator Lois DeBerry now have a much clearer picture.

Akbari, a 32-year-old lawyer with degrees from Washington University and St. Louis University Law School, may come off as soft spoken. But she will take a stand on social issues, carry meaningful legislation and, despite being in the super-minority as a Democrat, has caught the eye of Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, who selected her to serve on an ad hoc committee handling a sexual harassment investigation of Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham.

The lifelong Memphian and graduate of Cordova High School won a special election in 2013, taking the seat held for more than 40 years by the late Lois DeBerry, who was the second black woman elected to the state House, a former speaker pro tempore and, at the time of her death, the chamber’s longest-serving member.

“Because Lois DeBerry’s personality was so big, all of us were holding our breath wondering who was going to step into her place,” says Rep. Brenda Gilmore, a Nashville Democrat who chairs the Legislature’s Black Caucus.

“But (Akbari) has just come into this Legislature. She is what you call a stateswoman. She’s smart. She knows how to get down to issues without being offensive to anyone, but at the same time having the courage to dive in and get to the real issue.”

Akbari knows DeBerry left some big shoes to fill.

“I tell people I hope I can just walk beside them because of what she was able to achieve for the state,” Akbari explains, calling DeBerry one of those leaders who comes along once in a generation.

Akbari sponsored legislation in the 2016 session dealing with juvenile justice in an effort to provide more options on sentencing and pretrial diversion and to determine if the state’s methods for handling juvenile offenders are working.

One passed bill requires the Department of Children’s Services to report annually to the governor and legislative speakers, evaluating the effectiveness of juvenile court probation departments and requiring community service agencies and private probation services to set strategies for improving juvenile outcomes under the court’s supervision.

The freshman legislator says she wants to ensure the General Assembly is “making smart decisions” to help children find their way out of the judicial system.

“I’m loving the conversation that we’ve had about it. It seems to be very bipartisan,” Akbari says, especially with “blended sentencing,” a bill that didn’t pass this year dealing with situations in juvenile courts when harsher punishment can be imposed on serious youth offenders.

Young people in the juvenile justice system have a “higher risk” of being sentenced as adults, Akbari says, but when rehabilitation and developmental science, counseling and increased juvenile services are emphasized, some juveniles have taken advantage of those opportunities and gone on to college, “which is a totally different trajectory for their life.”

Jumping in

Entering state politics was always in her future because she felt it was the best way to “effect change” in her community, says Akbari, who has a twin sister, Raumina, who is a third-year medical student. Their parents, Hooshang and Lisa Akbari, are the directors and lead trichologists of Hair Nutrition and Research in Memphis.

Raumesh Akbari didn’t think she would make it into state politics quite this fast, but after doing volunteer work with state Rep. Barbara Cooper on voter registration and local issues, she netted the veteran lawmaker’s support and captured the special election three years ago.

Now that she’s in the mix, she’s taking on the city’s toughest issues.

“There are so many concerns in Memphis with education, crime, trying to keep our youth engaged, trying to keep people in our city. I thought that would be the best way,” Akbari says in explaining why she ran for a state House seat.

In addition to juvenile justice legislation, she sponsored bills tackling concerns about the effectiveness of Achievement School District in Memphis. A 2015 study by Vanderbilt University showed Shelby County schools taken over by ASD are making little to no progress, while Improvement Zone schools operated by the local district are improving.

The Black Caucus called on ASD to hold up on taking over more schools because it hadn’t moved any of those in the state’s bottom 5 percent out of the lower tier, as promised.

Memphis lawmakers, including Akbari, sponsored several pieces of legislation designed to bring more accountability to ASD, but they were sent to summer study, which is typically a legislative graveyard.

One Akbari bill would have required ASD to create a framework for priority schools and publish it so parents and stakeholders could get a better idea of how they are operating.

Akbari and those who want ASD to slow down won a victory of sorts when the state district backed off on school takeovers this year after TNReady tests flubbed in an online rollout.

State Rep. Raumesh Akbari

Memphis (D), District 91

Age: 32

Religion: Baptist

Education: Cordova High School, bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, law degree from St. Louis University School of Law

Career: Attorney

Politics: Elected to state House in 2013; House Criminal Justice Committee, House Education Instruction & Programs Committee, vice chair of Tennessee Black Caucus

State officials initially called it a “hold harmless” year, then they recently ended their contract with Measurement Inc., the company responsible for statewide standardized testing.

Clearly, Akbari is disappointed most of those measures were put off because the same concerns continue to surface every year.

“I’m hoping at least the summer study will really delve into the issues, get some folks on board and maybe create some sort of metric and incorporate people’s concerns into legislation,” she says.

Facing Democratic primary challenges from Tony Nevills and Samuel Arthur Watkins this summer, Akbari is still keeping a close eye on Speaker Harwell’s Three-Star Healthy Project, a study proposed to look at health care alternatives to the governor’s Insure Tennessee plan.

“I hope we completely revisit expanding Medicaid, because there are too many people across the state and in my district who work hard every day and cannot afford health care,” she points out.

The governor took 15 months to study and negotiate an agreement with the federal government, and Akbari hopes the new committee will “circle back” to his plan.

The Durham situation

Akbari and the four-member ad hoc committee charged with looking at sexual harassment allegations against Durham could be called back to Nashville this summer to look at a pending report by Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

By resolution, the committee, which is chaired by Republican Rep. Steve McDaniel, asked Slatery to investigate alleged improper contact with women working at the Legislature.

House Speaker Harwell appointed the group after evidence mounted against Durham, a Franklin Republican, who was under fire at the start of the session for unrelated matters.

She selected Akbari because she wanted the committee to include a member of the Democratic Party, according to spokeswoman Kara Owen.

“And Rep. Akbari is an attorney who has gained a reputation among her colleagues as thoughtful, thorough and fair. The speaker thought she’d be a good fit,” Owen said.

Following an initial report by Slatery, Harwell banished Durham to the Rachel Jackson building.

When Slatery finishes, the committee will make a recommendation to Harwell on how to handle Durham.

“The investigation by the attorney general, so far it seems like it’s going to be really thorough and he’s really digging deep.

“I have not been privy to any of the folks he’s interviewing or his strategy, but I do know he seems to be really committed to making sure it’s a thorough investigation,” Akbari says.

A number of interviews are still being done and records are being reviewed, according to McDaniel, who could not predict a time frame for the investigation’s completion.

Akbari, the only Democrat on the panel, and McDaniel typically don’t agree on legislation, especially on social issues. In fact, McDaniel says they aren’t “buddies by any stretch of the imagination, but we have a good working relationship as colleagues in the House.”

Says Akbari, “I’m happy the investigation is moving forward. I think it’s important. When you have people saying this is what’s going on, we should take it seriously, especially when it’s a subject as delicate as this.”

On social issues

Akbari says she dislikes legislation such as the transgender bathroom bill, which stalled this year, and a bill allowing therapists to decline to treat people whose lifestyles violate their principles, which Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law. The latter also is typically considered to target gay and transgender people.

She says she “hates” the fact that constitutionally shaky and costly legislation often dominates debate in the Legislature because it takes away from other issues and puts a label on the General Assembly.

Yet, she’s willing to voice her views when she believes it’s going too far.

For instance, Akbari opposed legislation defunding the University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a measure that wound up passing. The office came under fire, mainly from Republican legislators, because of an administrator’s email encouraging teachers to use gender neutral programs for students and for another message perceived as anti-Christmas.

“I think as a young person, as a young adult going into college, it’s important that you have a good representation of what the world is like,” she explains.

Having an office set up to be sensitive to the needs of all students and to offer programs to “open people’s minds is important, especially in college,” she adds.

“It’s not that you’re indoctrinating someone. You’re really just exposing them to a world they have to be a part of, and as an adult, they have to know how to make decisions based on that world.”

She ran into a House of opposition during floor debate.

For instance, Rep. Roger Kane, a Knoxville Republican, accused the office of creating “a sense of divisiveness” and asked where Christian groups were included among the Office of Diversity. He called it “a feel-good group of people who are neither inclusive or diverse.”

Rep. Micah Van Huss, who sponsored the bill, wanted the funding to be shifted to minority scholarships and a program to print stickers stating “In God we trust.”

Ultimately, it passed the Legislature with some $440,000 in funding diverted, but not before Akbari, who lists her religion as Baptist, told House members it is “a fallacy” to say Christians are a minority in America.

“I cannot support legislation I know will hurt students and will not prepare them for the world today,” she said.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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