ICU doctor leans on experience treating coronavirus in announcing bid for Tennessee governor

Jason Martin

Jason Martin, an intensive care unit (ICU) doctor, announced his candidacy for Tennessee governor on Monday, saying he hopes to take his experience on the front lines of the pandemic to the governor’s mansion in a state still grappling with the spread of COVID-19.

Martin, a Democrat who works at community hospitals across Tennessee, says the countless hours he spent in intensive care units during the pandemic led him to believe the state’s leadership had failed Tennessee residents.

He has become a prominent medical voice since the early days of the pandemic, at times offering a behind-the-scenes look at new hospital precautions, high-stress medical situations and how treating COVID-19 patients has affected his life at home, where he is a husband and father of three daughters.

He has also on a number of occasions used his growing platform to attack Gov. Bill Lee (R) for his handling of the pandemic, claiming that Tennessee’s top chief is steering the state in a way that is driven by partisan politics. That included calling for a federal investigation into Lee last month.

Martin, during an interview with The Hill last week, worked to create a stark contrast between himself and Lee, claiming that the governor “has just failed to lead and failed to message in a way that can save lives.”

He specifically took issue with Lee’s opposition to a statewide mask mandate, and the executive order he signed earlier this month that allows parents to opt their children out of mask requirements in schools despite the growing threat from the highly infectious delta variant, contending that Martin is “waging a war against public schools.”

A number of GOP governors across the country have implemented similar policies in their states, including in Florida and Texas.

Before potentially challenging Lee, however, Martin will face Carnita Atwater in the state’s Democratic primary. Atwater, described by the Tri-State Defender as a “self-styled community leader,” is the executive director of the New Chicago Community Development Corporation.

Like Martin, Atwater has also been outspoken in her criticism of the sitting governor. She filed a $20 billion class-action lawsuit against a number of Tennessee officials, including Lee, in December, accusing them of genocide because of insufficient investments in the New Chicago neighborhood, according to The Tennessee Tribune.

When asked how he will set himself apart from Atwater, a vocal community advocate, Martin said public service comes in several different forms, recognizing Atwater’s contributions while also laying out his experiences “on the front lines of health care in the state for the last 10 years,” including his work at a veteran’s affairs hospital, teaching at Meharry Medical College and helping patients in rural communities throughout the state.

“Public service has lots of different faces and so, you know, I absolutely applaud Ms. Atwater for her public service, and I’m gonna be out there talking about mine because I think it’s applicable to a lot of the needs of Tennesseans right now,” Martin said.

Casey Nicholson — an ordained minister, the former chair of the Greene County Democratic Party and a candidate for state House representative in 2008 — has also announced a bid for the democratic nomination for governor.

He attacked Lee’s leadership during the pandemic in a Facebook post rolling out his campaign on Friday.

According to The Tennessean, however, Nicholson has not filed paperwork as of Friday.

Martin said his campaign will focus on three key areas: elevating health care, strengthening education and increasing job training and job creation.

“Unlike many folks in politics, I have not spent the last, you know, 15 years of my life coming up with, you know, detailed policy platforms, but I do have some issues that I think are very important to me, and I have some principles that will guide my leadership,” Martin said.

He made the case for Medicare expansion to pump more money into the health care industry, stopping the “broad-based onslaught against public education” by addressing the underfunded nature of schools, and utilizing unused federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to “create a more favorable environment for job training and job creation” by setting up vocational training programs.

“We are committed to elevating those three issues, and, and the pillars that will guide our policy will be truth telling and putting the people first,” Martin added.

During a video announcing his campaign, Martin touted “health” and “growth” as “the pillars of a strong community.”

Martin did, however, recognize the narrow odds his nascent, left-leaning political career have for securing the reins of the governor’s mansion in a solidly Republican state.

Tennessee has been reliably red in state and national contests for the past 10-plus years: Republicans have controlled the governorship since 2011, and no Democratic presidential candidate has won the Volunteer State since former President Clinton’s nearly 3-point victory in 1996.

Lee also has a sizable bank account saved up for the campaign, according to the Daily Memphian. He reported a balance of $2.4 million as of early July in his mid-year campaign finance report, and has raised more than $686,000 over the last six months. He also reportedly spent more than $356,000 during that period.

“The odds are long, but I love being the underdog,” Martin said.

He also recognized the unusual nature of running for elected office during a pandemic, when traditional campaign strategies are not feasible.

Martin said getting his message out on the campaign trail under the current conditions “is gonna be extremely difficult,” adding that his campaign will likely focus on outdoor events marked by masks and social distancing, in addition to virtual gatherings.

He recounted emotional scenes from the ICU when explaining what led him to become more involved in politics.

“The pain of those moments was so disconnected from what I perceived to be the abdication of leadership from Gov. Lee,” Martin said.

“And that was a real, you know, call to action, that someone needs to go out and start speaking truth about, you know, about how deadly the virus is, about the trauma that it’s causing to our community, about how masks can help mitigate the spread, about how, and ultimately, about how, yes, the vaccines are the way forward, the way we get out of this,” he added.

When pressed on how he will address consequential issues affecting Tennesseans that are not necessarily in his wheelhouse as a doctor, Martin likened governing the state to his experience as an ICU physician trained in pulmonology and critical care medicine, contending that his current job has taught him how to weigh conflicting recommendations, recognize when he needs help and seek out experts in those situations.

“I’m not a kidney doctor, I’m not a heart doctor, I’m not a liver doctor. But I deal with those people who have those complications all the time. And, you know, part of being a good leader is rising when you need help and finding the best people who can help you solve those problems. And so that’s what I do every day,” Martin said.

“That same skill set of knowing your limits, being able to surround yourself with experts, and being able to, you know, balance various recommendations, directly applies to what it takes to be governor,” he added.

Updated at 11:06 p.m.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 doctor Governor gubernatorial candidate icu Intensive care unit Memphis Physician Tennessee

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video