WASHINGTON, D.C. — Political circles in the state of Tennessee, particularly among Republicans, are abuzz with excitement over the announcement by Dr. Manish “Manny” Sethi, 41, a Nashville orthopedic trauma surgeon and director of the Vanderbilt Orthopedic Institute Center for Health Policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who has formally declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.
Sethi, is the first top-tier Republican to officially launch his 2020 U.S. Senate bid, which he did on June 3 with the release of a campaign video.
The political neophyte’s advent into the race, makes him only the second candidate to launch a bid, after Democrat James Mackler launched his campaign in January, and according to The Tennessean, others, including former Gov. Bill Haslam, and Bill Hagerty, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, are seriously mulling jumping into the fray as well.
The newspaper said the race is Tennessee’s highest-profile election in 2020 and comes after U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced in November that he would not seek a fourth term, and while acknowledging that Sethi, who has never run for political office, “has significantly less name recognition than Haslam or Hagerty,” argued that “his early entrance into the race provides him an opportunity to build his campaign and raise money 14 months ahead of the August 2020 primary election.”
In an exclusive interview with India Abroad, Sethi, founder of Healthy Tennessee — a grassroots effort to promote community collaboration through free health and wellness fairs statewide — who has visited the White House twice in 2017 and met with President Donald Trump, and also testified before the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee as the panel considered options for stabilizing the individual health insurance market, said he had been mulling running for the Senate since 2018 but with Alexander’s retirement, his decision was a no-brainer.
He said that although he’s never been a politician or held public office, “when I was 18 years of age, I worked for Sen. Bill Frist (also a physician), the former Senate Majority Leader, and my parents had always been involved in Republican politics since I was a little boy.”
Sethi said that in 2016, “I was the chairman of the ‘Statesman’s Dinner’— an annual (GOP) dinner (where then South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was the keynote speaker) — and I raised over $700,000, and over the past 10 years, I have been traveling the state and I run this non-profit called Healthy Tennessee.
“So, all of these things together, I came to the conclusion that it was the right time (to run for U.S. Senate),” he added.
Sethi, born in Cleveland, Ohio, where his immigrant parents, both physicians first located to, when they arrived in the U.S. in the early 1970’s and then re-located to Chicago for a short while, before dropping roots in Hillsboro, Tennessee in 1982, said the key reason he had decided to run was because “I’m a product of the American dream in Tennessee, and came to this small town of Hillsboro when I was four years old.”
He said that when his father passed away in 2005 of liver cancer — the same year, he received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School — “I realized how much Tennessee had done for us, and I realized that life is short, and you really have to make your life count and you got to make a difference.
“And, I realized that I wanted to do something bigger than myself and so I came back home to be a trauma surgeon, and I started Healthy Tennessee and we’ve taken care of thousands of patients, across all counties in the state.”
Sethi said that last fall when Alexander announced his retirement and “the seat opened, I realized that it was the true opportunity to make a different kind of difference, and that’s what I really want to do it.”
After graduating high school, Sethi attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he simultaneously earned a Bachelor of Arts in Middle Eastern Studies and a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience, graduating magna cum laude in both programs.
The following year he completed a J. William Fulbright Fellowship through the National Institute of Neurology in Tunisia, working with young muscular dystrophy patients in North Africa and said this was what helped solidify his decision to enter medicine.
In 2005 Sethi received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School before completing postgraduate training in general surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. He then went on to complete the Harvard Combined Orthopedic Residency Program and returned to Tennessee for an Orthopedic Trauma Fellowship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
In the interview, Sethi said he had talked to Frist “about coming back home and he really encouraged me to come back home and to be a doctor here and make a difference and so, I came back here for good.”
Asked, if elected, what he would bring to the table both as a physician and an Indian- American and a member of a minority community, he said, “As an Indian-American, it’s incredible to do this because we need a voice and that voice has to be heard and this is a very powerful way to do it.
“As a physician, I do think in America, our healthcare is crumbling. People are paying more and more for their healthcare premiums and deductibles are higher and higher and I just feel like it’s not a sustainable situation.”
Sethi argued that “what we’ve seen with Obamacare is the hand of government and it’s really not fruitful for a thriving healthcare system in America. The fundamental problem with Obamacare and why it has to be repealed and replaced is that the hand of government in the individual insurance market has shown that it won’t work.
“If the hand of government is subsidizing all these people, we are never going to have a free market-based solution to healthcare and what we really need to do is replace it with a plan that creates a thriving, individual market without the hand of government…where it’s lower cost, you have different and better products, and more access.”
Sethi said, “We also need to have more transparency about doctors — what they charge, what are the outcomes…and we’ve talking about this for decades, but all these politicians are more talk, less action, and I am more action, less talk.”
He recalled, “I testified before Congress and I spoke directly to the president in the White House about these issues and what I would bring is a new solution — a free market solution.”
He noted that “for the past six months, I’ve been traveling the state, talking about the opioid crisis, which is really hurting so many people, and so, I think one of the issues we have is, the way you solve that problem in one part of the state is very different from how you solve it in another part of the state.
As to why he was such a strong supporter of Trump and how he came to be invited to the White House, Sethi said, “The president is a very grass-roots oriented thinker and through his social media, he is able to be in touch with so many people on the ground — like he has a sense of what’s going on and he understands the pulse of folks.
“Our economy is the best it’s ever been in many, many years, he’s de-regulating, which I think is really important, we’re finally dealing with some of the issues we’ve long faced us like the opioid crisis, like the immigration crisis and I feel very strongly about healthcare — that we are heading in the wrong direction.
But Sethi said, how he intended to campaign was not thinking “about Republican or Democrat. I just think about, look, I’ve got two kids, they are six and three, and I want their future to be bright and I want to keep the American dream alive that my parents came here for.
“And, I think, no matter where we are in the spectrum, how we feel about Trump, or how we feel about social policies, the one thing that we can all agree, that brings us all together as Indian-Americans in this country, is that at some point, very recently, someone took a major risk and left everything they knew, so that their children could love the American dream, and we’ve got to keep that dream alive.”
Sethi said that this was what “I am going to convince people of — that my intention here is that I am a product of two people who came to this country, simply for me and my brother, our future, and I believe that’s a shared experience with so many Indian-Americans.”
As to what the response has been to his decision to run among both the Indian- American/South Asian American community and the mainstream community, he said, “So far, people are really happy. So many people are talking to me and saying, we are proud of you, you are fighting to keep the dream alive, to pay back.”
He also reiterated that although not a politician, he has acquired a significant amount of name and brand recognition because “over a decade, I’ve been in almost every county in Tennessee to take care of patients. “In Tennessee, people are sick and tired of career politicians — they just say one thing and do the other,” he said.
Sethi agreed that it’s likely that more Republicans would jump into the fray, but said “I know the state (GOP) party really well, and as I said, I was the chairman of the state dinner and I helped the Republican cause in many ways, but they have to stay out of the primary election.”
“But, here’s the bottom-line — there’s going to be people who support this and who don’t. But, just like the courage that so many had shown when they came to this country to find the American dream, we also have to have the courage, no matter.
“But, just like the courage that so many had shown when they came to this country to find the American dream, we also have to have the courage, no matter what, to protect it and that’s why I won’t be deterred.”