By BROOKE WANSER
Matt Reel points to his life in the military and past work in Congress as a reflection of the people who comprise the Volunteer State.
“I see hyper-partisanship and I see dysfunction in the system of the government that I believe very strongly in,” Reel said during an interview with the Home Page on July 9. “I see people making decisions based on what the politics of it are, and not necessarily what’s good for the country.”
Reel, a Democrat and Green Beret, is running for U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s District 7 seat in Congress against Justin Kanew, a relative newcomer to the state. Sen. Mark Green is the Republican candidate.
Though he announced his candidacy back in December, Reel has been away on a Green Beret mission in South America for the past six months, returning home to campaign just a week ago.
He grew up on a 250-acre farm in Primm Springs, where Hickman, Maury and Williamson counties intersect. With parents who were public educators and grandparents who served in the military, Reel was aware of local politics at an early age.
During the summer between his sophomore and junior year of high school at Hickman County High, Reel worked on Sen. Sara Kyle’s first campaign for the Public Service Commission, what would become Tennessee’s Regulatory Authority.
“I was really drawn to the fact that you can help people through public service and you can help people by getting involved,” he said.
In his final semester at Austin Peay State University, Reel was on an internship with then-Sen. Lincoln Davis when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred.
That day, “I said, ‘hey, I’ll see you later, I’m joining the military,’” he told Davis.
After speaking with a military recruiter, Reel decided to work for Davis’ congressional campaign before joining the military in 2003.
As a Special Forces Green Beret, Reel has been involved in three combat deployments
In between deployments, Reel served as a field representative and district casework manager for Davis during his congressional run, later serving as legislative director, then as deputy chief of staff for Congresswoman Terri Sewell.
Reel also has recently served as congressional liaison for the Veterans Health Administration, and deputy staff director for the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs.
“It’s important today that democracy is a participatory sport,” Reel said. “Whether you’re into it or not, it’s making decisions about your day to day lives, and you need to participate.”
For veterans and all Tennesseans, “I saw needs and I saw things I thought I could help,” he explained.
Reel points to Green’s record on blocking Medicaid expansion as a point of contention in the race.
“It not only meant that 400,000 people in the state are going to continue to go without health insurance, including 54,000 veterans, but also it’s decimated our rural health care infrastructure,” he said.
That includes the closing of nine hospitals since 2012, he said, the second highest number in the nation.
Reel also worries about the economic impact the closed hospitals signal.
“The healthcare industry relies on those Medicaid and Medicare dollars to keep a robust healthcare infrastructure in the state as a whole,” he said.
Reel pointed out the inequity of the Medicare wage index in the state and region, which means state hospitals are reimbursed at a lower rate than other hospitals across the country. He wants to work on rewriting that wage index.
While Williamson County residents have myriad schools options, Reel pointed out that most of the smaller counties across District 7 must rely solely on their public schools.
“Williamson County is really a model for the rest of the state,” he said, but that doesn’t mean every school district would look the same.
In 1988, Reel’s father helped lead a lawsuit against the state [Tennessee Small School Systems vs. McWherter] to include equal teacher’s salaries under the Basic Education Plan formula.
The lawsuit was decided in 2002, at which time Reel’s father was invited by Gov. Ned McWherter to come to the Department of Education and help rewrite the education formula.
Reel still wants to focus on raising teacher pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tennessee was ranked 40th in the nation for 2017 teacher salaries.
“These teachers spend more time with our kids than anyone, and teachers need to be able to focus on the classroom,” he said. ‘They shouldn’t have to be buying school supplies for schools.”
Though the economy in the Nashville area is bustling with low unemployment rates and companies jockeying to move their headquarters, Reel said some of the smaller counties in the district are not so fortunate.
In addition to repairing healthcare and education and providing rural broadband, Reel said he wants to, “spread some of that growth and attract businesses and industries to other parts of this district.”
A fifth-generation Tennessean, Reel believes he is the best candidate because of his connection to the people and concern for their needs.
And he’s not deterred by the portrayal of District 7 as bright-red Republican.
“I don’t think Tennesseans are all that partisan, and I think Tennesseans have a lot of shared values,” he said. “Maybe they’ve felt like they’ve had to pick between the lesser of two evils, and I think it’s important to give them a better option,” he said.
“Whether you want to play or not, you’re in the game and decisions are being made on your behalf,” Reel said of the political arena.
“I’m not an activist who was just awoken by some national election,” he added. “I’ve been a part of this my whole life, and I’ve been a part of trying to make my community and country a better place.”
Occupation: Green Beret, Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army
Education: Bachelor’s degree, political science and public administration, Austin Peay State University
Community involvement: Centerville Church of Christ, member; Veterans of Foreign Wars, member
Family: Mother, Marilyn; stepmother, Mary; brothers, Lincoln and Ben; grandparents; Clifford and Jean Reel, Ken Sneed
Visit his website at www.reel4tn.com.