Tim Chavez’s Nashville career wasn’t the case study in ideological evolution that it may have seemed. Reviewing the late columnist’s body of work might lead a reader to think the controversial Chavez underwent political transformation from a standard-issue, left-leaning newspaperman to an orthodox conservative ideologue.
Even some of his colleagues saw it that way, which may help to explain why the historically liberal Tennessean’s 312-word obituary last week was surprisingly terse, shorter than this newspaper’s 416-word tribute.
Had it not explicitly said so, you wouldn’t have known from reading the morning daily’s undersized story that Chavez had toiled there for a decade — nor would you have gleaned that during much of that time the goateed scribe was the epicenter of the paper’s opinion page. As obituaries go, it wasn’t exactly the Fred Russell treatment.
Toward the end of his career at 1100 Broadway, Chavez was a kind of pariah there, in part because he was a difficult personality but not least because he was willing to run afoul of the paper’s institutional politics by championing charter schools, railing against the popular mayor — and now governor — Phil Bredesen and taking on the vaunted unions and Democratic (big D) interests.
Positions like that can get you booted from liberal circles around these parts. But fundamentally, Chavez’s politics never really changed. He didn’t waver from championing the least fortunate among us — those who had no megaphone, much less a printing press, at their disposal. He just happened to be open-minded enough to revise his views based on experience and facts — a rare trait.
Chavez embraced charter schools and sweeping education reform because schools were and are failing poor students. “Too much in American public education is geared to serve money-sucking institutions — from the teaching colleges to the teacher unions to the vast district administration,” he wrote. “The child comes last, as do taxpayers, who are always told they need to provide more funding.”
He called out teachers’ unions for the counterrevolutionaries they are. “Teacher unions don't want such changes… Sadly, they have black Memphis lawmakers on their side even though African-American children are suffering in traditional public schools and from a system first geared to preserving union member jobs no matter the poor level of performance.”
He spent the better part of a year writing passionately about the injustice of draconian TennCare cuts and how devastating they would be for poor and uninsurable families.
“It is cruel and heinous to have your life placed in someone else's hands,” he wrote. “You've committed no crime. Yet your life has been deemed less worthy. This is what happens when the bar is lowered on the value of human life. The ripple effect is wide and reaches extremes we never dreamed. And now it could come to Tennessee with 323,000 people to be cut from TennCare rolls.”
And even after cancer had ravaged his body and stolen his livelihood, Chavez began a blog called Political Salsa, where his voice continued to resonate. There, he broke the story about Juana Villegas DeLaPaz, whose routine traffic stop resulted in the pregnant woman being hauled into custody.
“Of all the inhumanity and devastation heaped upon immigrant families by Metro Nashville’s 287g deportation program, the very worst has been leveled this week against a pregnant woman pulled over, handcuffed and forced to have her baby under custody,” Chavez wrote last year before both local and national news outlets, including The New York Times, followed the story.
“I claim no ideology or party. Both betray,” he wrote on his blog. “I believe in creating change for Americans without health care insurance, for wounded veterans needing more help and for Hispanic immigrants denied human dignity for the contributions they bring.”
No doubt Tim would have thought this space better used to illuminate the plight of someone suffering the indignities of cold, soulless public policy. Instead, we honor the dignity he showed as he faced his own suffering, and take some solace knowing that he hurts no more.
Contact Garrigan at firstname.lastname@example.org