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Dennis Prater, local Democratic Socialist candidate for county commission

Democratic socialism, not so slowly but quite surely, is on the rise in America.  We see this clearly in Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for president, and more recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise win in a New York congressional primary.

Less noticeable but just as significant are the multiplying rolls of America’s largest socialist organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which have rocketed from 5,000 to 44,000 members in less than two years.  In my neck of the American woods, East Tennessee has had its own DSA branch for a little over a year.

Dennis Prater, one of its members, is running for county commissioner in the district where I live.  (We both reside in Johnson City, the burg of 66,000 made famous by Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel.”)  As part of his neighborhood canvassing – he will have knocked on 40% of our district’s 5,000 doors by next month’s Election Day – he stopped by my house several weeks ago.  This past Thursday, he came by again, so we could talk more in depth about his life, his candidacy, and the local DSA branch.

Prater’s voluminous sideburns and broad smile make him appear younger than his 42 years.  (When he first came to my door, I assumed he was a young campaigner for the actual candidate – oops!)  However, get him talking, and you realize he’s crammed plenty of knowledge and practical lessons into his noggin over four decades.  He also seems indefatigable: besides his two jobs and running for office, I’d crossed paths with him at the “no children in cages” protest in June, where he was handing out water on a sweltering afternoon.

As we conversed over glasses of local cider, I appreciated Prater’s ability to cite precedents where socialist principles have been effective, such as community wealth-building in Cleveland, Ohio and Preston, England.  His nice turns of phrase kept things lively; when I asked him to elaborate on the DSA’s mission to expand democracy in all aspects of life, he blurted out, “Well, most workplaces are dictatorships!”  (A quick mental review of my employment history in healthcare, where productivity and the bottom line have consistently been the driving factors over quality and employee happiness; where glib slogans are the thinnest of veneers for toxic, out of touch leadership; and yeah, he’s right.)

The son of two teachers, Prater was born in a little town outside of Knoxville, before going on to attend the University of the South, then writing his Master’s thesis on utopianism at Boston University.  He’s now an Adjunct Professor, teaching English and the humanities at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and Northeast State Community College.

Prater began his involvement in social movements while in Boston, concurrent with Dubya’s War in Iraq.  He also worked on different political campaigns at a grassroots level.  As a union member, he joined the United Campus Workers’ fight against job outsourcing at ETSU.

Like many of us, Trump’s capture of the Electoral College two Novembers ago galvanized Prater still further.  With prodding from fellow DSA members and local Democratic Party leaders, he was emboldened to run for office himself.

When asked what he would focus on if elected to the Washington County Commission, Prater’s immediate reply was that he’d press for a resolution to expand Medicaid in Tennessee, as we are one of 17 states that’s failed to do so under Obamacare.  Prater rightly sees how this neglect of its citizenry has been fatal to many, while hobbling our response to the national opioid epidemic.

In the true spirit of democratic socialism, Prater would aim to “include more voices” in county leadership and decision making.  One possible means to this end would be the formation of a district committee that would help him prioritize the needs of those he represents.

Prater wants to represent immigrants as well as Johnson City’s sizeable LGBT community, noble emphases in our present-day cultural climate.  The latter carries a strong local relevance, considering that the Washington County Commission nearly passed an anti-marriage equality resolution in February 2016, failing only by a single vote.

Prater would also like to see budgeting become more participatory.  For instance, in talking with parents in lower income brackets, they have commonly lamented the lack of play areas and constructive activities for their younger kids and teens, with the proposed athletic complex in our city privileging the fitness needs of the well-to-do.

Instead of the sad spectacle of cities begging for megacorporations to grace them with subsistence-level wage opportunities, Prater would urge a focus on cooperatives and true community wealth-building.  One way to do this would be encouraging local organizations and businesses (we have a strong higher education and health care presence in town) to utilize the talents already present here.

When asked if the Bible Belt is ready for democratic socialism, Prater replied that “there’s a lot of space to articulate a left-wing Christianity.”  Without divulging his own religious beliefs or absence thereof, he’s convinced there are plenty of biblical texts (Isaiah 58, for one) that can buttress a Christian perspective of enlightened social justice.

As he awaits the outcome of our August 2nd election, Prater remains active with the Northeast Tennessee DSA branch.  He speaks with pride of the DSA’s big tent, which has room for anarchists, Marxists, and European-style social democrats.  Locally, the DSA meets weekly on Wednesday evenings for study groups and strategy sessions, while sharing space with and supporting the Appalachian Liberation Library.

In response to our city’s recent criminalization of homelessness (under the guise of arresting “illegal campers”), the local DSA group has also started planning and fundraising for a way station where homeless individuals can stay without fear of prosecution, as they access social services.  My wife and I have contributed to this worthy effort, and I encourage you to give, too.

Towards the end of our conversation, Prater repeated a favorite maxim of his:  “If we don’t do it, the fascists will.”  1930s Germany proved this point with ghastly results.  The election of Trump, after the DNC illicitly yanked the presidential nomination from Bernie Sanders and handed it to Hillary, is another prime example.  Here’s hoping, with the ascendance of candidates of conscience like Ocasio-Cortez and Prater, that we still have time to right these wrongs.


(To learn more about the DSA, please visit their website.  Prater also recommended these two books as good resources.)

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