Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 27, 2017

State Democrats work to rebuild thin roster of viable candidates

Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, 73, who is mulling a run for retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s seat, served two terms as Tennessee’s governor (2002-2010) at a time when state politics had already swung decidedly toward the GOP. He also served two terms as Nashville mayor. - AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, File

Murfreesboro resident Jon Santee woke up “a different person” on Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency.

“I saw something that in my time I thought was pretty much unfathomable at a top political level,” says Santee, a 41-year-old father of four who works in the IT field.

Frustrated and upset initially with the Trump election, the case of a real estate magnate and reality TV star ascending to the White house, Santee decided to channel his energy into something more constructive.

And after a good deal of soul-searching, including longs talks with family and friends, he’s doing more than vote and write letters to his congressman: He’s seriously considering a run for elected office.

Santee isn’t certain what seat he might seek because he needs to maintain his full-time job. But he’s attending training classes held by the Rutherford County Democratic Party designed to attract potential candidates and teach them what works and what doesn’t when they enter a political race and, ultimately, how to win.

Trying to rebound

Strategy, training and recruiting are vital to Democrats as they try to rebuild their numbers.

A generation ago, it was a given that just about anyone entering politics in Rutherford County ran as a Democrat in partisan races. But after Mike Liles won a state House seat as a Republican in the early 1990s, then Donna Rowland captured another House post from 2000 to 2010, buoyed largely by her opposition to a state income tax, the county’s political shade started turning from blue to red.

Republican Sens. Bill Ketron, who switched from the Democratic Party in the mid-1990s, and Jim Tracy have represented Rutherford County for more than a decade, climbing the leadership ladder in the Legislature’s upper chamber where Republicans hold a 28-5 edge, rendering Democrats helpless to turn back Republican legislation.

As with many rural and suburban counties, Rutherford turned almost completely red in 2010 with former President Barack Obama’s first mid-term election.

Republicans hold a similar advantage in the state House with a 74-25 supermajority. The GOP has a 7-2 edge, as well, in Tennessee’s congressional delegation along with the state’s two U.S. Senate seats. A Democrat hasn’t held a Senate seat in Tennessee since Al Gore Jr. in the early 1990s.

“I think, for the Democratic Party as a whole, we thought that our message would get the job done,” Santee says. “And we haven’t put the man hours behind why that message is the right one, whereas the Republicans have mobilized, let’s call it what it is, basically an army into their campaigns.”

Statistics suggest the Republican voter base is a minority of the population, Santee points out, but the GOP’s “engagement and coordination” at every political level is more “concentrated and much more focused” than that of Democrats, “because we were just resting on the idea that we had the better message.”

Republican review

Liles, a Murfreesboro businessman who vaulted from the Rutherford County Commission to the state Legislature as the first Republican from Rutherford, says it’s no secret how he got there: hard work and listening.

“I hope they maintain the reason they got there and continue to represent the people, listen to the people and do the will of the people and not feel like they’re arrogant enough to know better than the people,” Liles explains.

“So, I think it’s an awesome responsibility. The pendulum has swung in favor of Republicans. But that doesn’t mean the pendulum can’t swing in the other direction if they drop their guard or lose the values that got them there.”

Efforts by former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist to institute an income tax helped the Republican effort to gain legislative seats. But there were other issues then, such as traffic congestion and building development affecting people’s lifestyles, Liles says. He points out Christians within the Republican Party continue to maintain their values and vote from that perspective.

Democrats’ outlook

In the rebuilding process, Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Mary Mancini says she believes the party’s recruitment and training strategy is working across the state.

“We’ve already seen a large influx of new candidates stepping forward, two great candidates for governor, and five of seven congressional districts held by Republicans already have Democrats running,” she says.

Former Nashville Mayor and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a political moderate popular with independents and mainstream Republicans, also is considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated in 2018 by Republican Bob Corker.

The Democratic message, she says, is simple: “People in Tennessee are struggling.”

She says the cost of living continues to rise, and wages aren’t keeping pace, making it harder for people to reach the middle class than it was a generation ago.

“The reason is that Republican economic policies are leaving millions of people behind,” she says. “Democrats believe that every Tennessean, no matter who you are, where you live or what you look like, should have a shot at success and be able reach their full potential. Everyone from a local farmer to a city bus driver understands that.”

Yet while Democrats shocked by Trump’s election and his policies on health care and immigration are starting to get involved again, it isn’t that easy to revive the party that once controlled Tennessee politics.

Rutherford County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Ferry acknowledges the difficulty of fielding candidates willing to enter the political world.

“A lot of people don’t want to get involved because it’s so nasty. And also, it’s really hard just to be a Democrat in our area,” Ferry notes.

For instance, business people and others who have to interact with the public in this overwhelmingly red county are likely to keep their Democratic voter leanings to themselves, he says.

“And I understand that,” Ferry adds. “When you’re messing with someone’s livelihood, it’s very hard to make a stand like that.”

As political races heat up toward the end of 2017 and early 2018, he expects to see more people coming around. But he says potential candidates are often too ambitious or not ambitious enough. Either they want to run for the state Legislature or Congress with little to no preparation or they want to run for the county road board.

“So, we’re trying to train them up and teach them different things and get them ready for a bigger race because we really need some people on the County Commission, and we really need some people for some state House seats. It’s very important,” Ferry says.

Rural-urban divide?

Only three Tennessee counties went for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016: urban Davidson and Shelby and rural Lauderdale in West Tennessee.

Likewise, Democrats in the Legislature hail largely from those two urban areas. Longtime Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones of Davidson County says she’s been encouraging the party to take its case statewide.

“Let’s go out to the rural areas and say, ‘Hey, look, here we are, this is who we are. We’re not everything that you’ve heard we are,’” she adds. “And just show them what we’ve tried to do and what has been done to them from the other side. And I still believe that. I still believe you have to go out and talk to people in their counties. And I hope that at some point we do that.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic leader from rural Ripley in West Tennessee, is focusing on meat-and-potato issues as he campaigns for the 2018 vote.

Fitzhugh contends Tennessee is in “pretty good, basic shape” because Democrats were the controlling party for decades. Still he recognizes the party has taken it on the chin because of national and social issues such as gay marriage, transgender restroom usage in public schools and guns in parks and cars, and he wants to stay away from those while campaigning.

“Some of these issues really get people fired up, but in the scheme of things, I think they pale in comparison with health, education and jobs,” Fitzhugh points out.

With Republican gubernatorial candidates positioning themselves as conservative and ultra-conservative, Fitzhugh’s opponent in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, is taking a similar strategy as Fitzhugh, saying his race is not about “ideology.”

“I’ve traveled around the state, I’ve been to 68 counties and, really everywhere I go, I hear that people … want us to move beyond sort of the polar extremes, want to move beyond ideological extremes and be about accomplishing and focusing on things that improve the lives of Tennesseans,” Dean says.

“That’s what I’m comfortable with, that’s what I’ve done in the past, and that’s the direction I want to take in this campaign and during my time as governor.”

The line of thought for most Democrats is to target areas where they say they believe they can make an impact and stay away from issues such as gay marriage, a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. They also contend Tennesseans, whether they live in rural, suburban or urban areas, have the same concerns.

In fact, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons says he doesn’t believe Democrats are coming up short on social issues such as gay marriage and gun control. Rather, he says, Republicans often shift the focus to social matters and avoid dealing with important matters such as health care.

“I think all too often, you have a lot of people chase Republicans down a rabbit hole when they try to deflect from what really matters to people, and we need to stay focused on the key issues,” says Clemmons, a Nashville attorney.

Clemmons also says he believes Democrats have struggled in recent years because “vast amounts” of money are needed to win a statewide election, especially with the U.S. Supreme Court allowing outside money to affect elections without accountability. As a result, both parties have been limited to independently wealthy people running for office.

One of the richest politicians in the country, Gov. Bill Haslam, and his administration tout his efforts on education, ranging from establishment of the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee ReConnect scholarship programs to reach the Drive to 55, putting diplomas and certificates in the hands of 55 percent of Tennesseans within 20 years.

Republicans also point toward tax-cutting initiatives such as elimination of inheritance and gift taxes and the phasing out of the Hall income tax on interest and dividends as efforts to cut taxes and attract companies and better-paying jobs, Republican leaders say.

Democrats, in contrast, say too many Tennesseans are living marginal lives.

Clemmons also argues the rural-urban divide is a mind-set “fanned” by Republicans to strengthen their hold on legislative seats across the state.

“Poverty in Nashville is poverty in Lawrenceburg. Public education needs resources in Nashville the same as it needs them in Waynesboro. The issues are the same. Now, each county has its own unique challenges with respect to those issues. But we have more in common than we have differences,” he says.

In traveling the state over the last two years to combat the Haslam Administration’s efforts on outsourcing public jobs at universities, Clemmons says he’s seen disconnection between people and state government.

“What I have found firsthand is a tremendous amount of frustration among Tennesseans who feel left out or forgotten, and that’s not by one party or another. That’s just a general sentiment across the board,” Clemmons explains.

That frustration probably played a “key role” in the election of Trump, a move to vote against the establishment candidate, he notes. But while Clemmons says he believes that trust in Trump was “misplaced,” it was also a “wakeup call” for all election officials and people serving their communities, he says.

It certainly awakened Murfreesboro’s Santee to the idea that few people aside from some “very fringe elements” are happy with what they see taking place in the nation politically.

“The odds are we’re not all going to agree with each other. But I think we can agree that we need to get something positive happening again, because right now all we see day in and day out is negative,” Santee says.

“And it’s gonna take fresh people and fresh ideas, I think, to make that happen.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.