This summer's primary elections should have been one of those infrequent causes for celebration that almost make life worth living for that subjugated population of Tennesseans known as Democrats. To their delight, the Republican Party seemed about to implode under the weight of its own success. Climaxing cutthroat campaigns all over Tennessee, Republican voters veered even more sharply to the right and threw seven of their own state House representatives out of office as traitors to the conservative cause.
Viva la dingbats! Imagine the revelry at Democratic Party headquarters on election night, beer bottles clinking and fists bumping as Republican incumbents fell one after another. Good times — that is, until someone heard the startling news from the Democrats' primary for U.S. Senate.
As the suddenly deflated party faithful watched in horror, a strange and previously unknown life form named Mark Clayton rose out of the primordial ooze of far-right conspiracy theories and stepped proudly into the spotlight. Democrats of Tennessee, meet your new Senate nominee and de facto leader!
Talk about a buzz kill.
To say that Clayton came with certain deficiencies as a major-party nominee is a vast understatement, as Democrats quickly learned by clicking on the so-called issues page of his campaign website (which hadn't been updated, by the way, since 2008, when he finished fourth in another Democratic U.S. Senate primary).
The encroaching "godless new world order" and the four-football-field wide superhighway that he claimed the federal government was secretly building from Mexico to Canada — those topped Clayton's list of concerns, along with the "Orwellian superstate" and that "bone-crushing prison camp similar to the one Alexander Solzhenitsyn was sent," which he thinks FEMA will operate for those unfortunate Americans who make the mistake of speaking out.
On his website, Clayton also writes that former California Gov. Arnold "Schwarzenegger, born in Austria, wants to amend the Constitution so that he can become president and fulfill Hitler's superman scenario." And he believes the Transportation Security Administration is mandating that its screeners grope children inside airport "stranger-danger zones."
As the volunteer vice president of a truly creepy organization named the Public Advocate of the United States, Clayton is an anti-gay, anti-abortion crusader. Public Advocate's socially conservative agenda is so extreme that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it a hate group. Clayton calls it a pro-family "love group."
Public Advocate has asked contributors in a fundraising letter to "imagine a world where the police allow homosexual adults to rape young boys in the streets" and compared marriage equality to bestiality through production of a "Man-Donkey Mock Wedding Ceremony." Public Advocate believes the Boy Scouts are under siege from militant gays. Permitting gay men to be Boy Scout leaders, Public Advocate has said, is "the same as being an accessory to the rape of hundreds of boys."
Right about now, you might have Clayton sized up as possibly a bit paranoid, and he did seem a little suspicious during our first conversation, on the phone. Between blasts of manic laughter, he politely suggested a few ground rules for our relationship — all necessary, he said, to avoid his assassination.
"I believe in freedom of the press," he said right off the bat. "I'm not planning to haul journalists into court for libel and slander, but saying things that can get me shot while I'm filling up my gas tank on Dickerson Pike is going too far. That may be dangerous to my mortal health. I'm not asking for sympathy. But I'm not trying to get you killed, so don't try to get me killed.
"I'm not afraid of the press. This is not Sarah Palin talking to Katie Couric," he added a minute later, making certain we were clear on that one last point.
I saw Clayton in action at a meeting of the Humphreys County Tea Party. Disavowed by Democrats, he campaigns wherever he's welcome, which isn't many places. This event was at the fairgrounds outside Waverly on Loretta Lynn Parkway. As the meeting hall filled up, it soon became clear this was Clayton's kind of crowd.
"You've heard about the hollow-point bullets?" one tea partier, a friendly white-haired fellow with a winning smile and twinkling eyes named Preston Gwin, asked me by way of introduction.
He explained that President Obama is distributing 750 million of these bullets to various federal agencies, even the weather service. He read about it on the Internet.
"Why do you think he's doing that?" Gwin asked. When I told him I didn't know, he said he didn't either but he could speculate.
"Hollow-point bullets are only designed to kill people," Gwin said, then sighed and shrugged fatalistically. "It's nerve-racking. But I know this. God's in charge. And God allowed Obama to win the White House. Why? Because God's people turned their backs on God."
On the brighter side, Gwin added as a historical note, his church's prayers shifted Hurricane Katrina east a little bit, "sparing many lives."
Clayton walked through the door a few minutes after the meeting started. Skinny with slicked-down black hair and hillbilly sideburns, he's 35 and single, lives in Whites Creek and lifts furniture for a moving-van line for a job. After shaking hands all around, he gave an animated, forceful little speech, eliciting his most enthusiastic response when he sounded alarms against the homosexual menace.
"Why won't they leave our children alone?" he demanded to know.
When it came time for the audience to ask questions, one of the first ones was the obvious head-scratcher: Why are you a Democrat? He hears that a lot. It's the cue for Clayton, a nonstop talker, to go on his rant against the "far left" policies of state Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester and his allies, who Clayton says are throwing "a playground hissy fit" for gay rights and "abortion on demand" and making a large mistake by not embracing their charismatic Senate nominee.
"We've had a lot of success with Democrat voters who think like we do," Clayton said. "Democrats across Tennessee have spoken. Tennessee Democrats came out to the polls. They knew who they were voting for.
"We literally campaigned like Davy Crockett. We went out and shook voters' hands. We looked them in the eye and said, 'This is what we believe. Would you please join us and vote for us and tell your friends?' And here we are."
In that night's straw poll in Waverly, Clayton won seven of 68 votes. He lost badly to an independent candidate, a firebrand named Shaun Crowell, but did better than the Republican incumbent Sen. Bob Corker, who has been reviled by the tea party ever since he voted for the bank bailout. Only one tea partier voted for Corker.
Analyzing the results, Humphreys County Tea Party chairman Jerry Pangle said Clayton might have been just a tad too weird for his group.
"He's not standard," Pangle said.
Clayton, who has no campaign money, insists he will beat Corker in November. He's even developed a mathematical formula that makes his victory inevitable, or so he reasons. If you add up the number of anticipated total votes and subtract the number of people who hate Corker and make allowances for the tea party and die-hard Democrats, plus a few other things, "it's automatically a 15-point spread even if I'm the underdog with no exposure," Clayton told me.
That's the funny part, he said. He's getting plenty of exposure — and every bit of it thanks to the Democratic Party's disavowal of him.
"I've probably had a million dollars' worth of press coverage," Clayton said.
"Why wouldn't we have a good chance to win?" he continued. "Everybody knows who we are. People are not stupid. People who live in that little Chip Forrester world are the stupid ones. Of course we have the ability to win the election. We've been all over the news every day since the primary."
Clayton is unfazed by claims that he's a lunatic. Defending his fears of imprisonment at the hands of despots, for instance, he asked, "Is it so far-fetched that as a Democrat I'd be concerned about indefinite detention?
"It's safe to say we have people who want to take us down that road where there are a few people in charge and everybody else is losing their freedom."
Clayton demanded to take what he sees as his rightful place leading the Tennessee delegation at the Democratic National Convention this week in Charlotte, N.C. But was he cleared like any other party VIP to enter the convention hall? Of course not. So he asked President Obama to invite him to the convention and give him a speaking slot to address delegates.
Clayton's still waiting to hear back on that one.
"You have to understand who you're talking to," he said. "I drive a truck and move furniture. I come home at night and work until 4 in the morning on this campaign. I've spent the past two weeks putting out fires.
"They're the ones downtown at the party headquarters who should be taking care of all that, getting me credentials for the convention. Instead they're fighting me, spending money pumping out misinformation about me."
Clayton will relish his revenge, oh yes, he will: "This whole thing with Chip Forrester and his crazy talk and all that — it's a joke. He's not going to be in power for very long. We'll take over the counties and then we'll kick him out," he said, with another short burst of that strange laughter.
Tennessee Democrats are accustomed to humiliation. The 1994 Republican Revolution swept them out of major statewide office. In the year 2000, Democrats failed to carry Tennessee for Al Gore, robbing their beloved favorite son of the presidency. Then, in their coup de grâce, Democrats lost a whopping 14 state House seats in 2010 and marched away into the political wilderness, possibly for all time.
But the Mark Clayton debacle might have been even harder for Democrats to take, being such a self-inflicted wound.
On Aug. 2, Clayton won 48,126 votes — 30 percent — to wallop a seven-candidate field. That's because no one of any stature whatsoever — say, Nashville's Karl Dean or Chattanooga's Andy Berke — had enough gumption to challenge Corker and his gazillion-dollar campaign war chest. The most likely explanation for Clayton's victory is that mystified voters went into default mode and picked Clayton only because his name was at the top of the alphabetically ordered ballot.
All it takes is 25 signatures on a petition to put any name on a ballot in Tennessee. But it's just about as easy to erase that name. To avoid becoming the butt of jokes around the country, all the party had to do was a little vetting on the front end right after the April candidate qualifying deadline.
Under the law, the party had a week. After taking a quick glance at all the weirdness on Clayton's website and Facebook page, they could have disowned him right then, and his name would have been removed. Poof! Problem solved. Instead, all Forrester could do was disavow Clayton after his nomination.
"He is a candidate who is associated with hate groups affiliated out of Washington, D.C.," Forrester told reporters the day after the election. "Those groups are bigoted, and that kind of hatred is not something that will be tolerated at the Tennessee Democratic Party, and therefore we are clearly disavowing any support."
These days, Democrats are keeping their heads down and trying not to think about the nutjob at the top of their ticket.
Will Cheek, a longtime party Executive Committee member, suggested mass suicide as an exit strategy for Democrats in despair. If Democrats are so inept that they can't even manage to nominate legitimate candidates for statewide offices—an exact description of their current predicament—"something's horribly wrong, and we might as well just slit our wrists sideways," he said.
Numerous Democrats understandably wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this article. Others agreed to talk only if they wouldn't be named. Forrester himself has clammed up, apparently assuming that by not talking he can stop the coverage, make it all go away.
"Let me tell you the comment that I'm going to make and that's all I'm going to say on the matter," Forrester said when reached by the Scene. "Are you ready? We have disavowed his candidacy and we are moving on to elect real Democrats on Nov. 6. That's our position on the issue."
"That's all you're going to say?"
"Why is that?"
"We're done. We're moving on."
To Forrester's critics — and there are many — the Clayton nomination is just one more reason Forrester never should have been elected the party's chairman in the first place in 2009.
At that time, virtually all the state's senior elected Democrats, including then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, opposed Forrester. The staid party establishment saw him as a hopeless, head-in-the-air moonbeam. He won anyway because of his close ties to the party's more liberal Executive Committee, which elects the chairman. (He did have to agree to stop wearing his signature bowties as a concession to rural Democrats, who think only pussbags wear bowties.)
Somehow, Forrester survived when his foes came after him again after the 2010 elections, a defeat of historic proportions. They called him the captain of the Titanic — and those were fellow Democrats talking.
When he still was talking to reporters immediately after the primary, Forrester couldn't give much of an excuse for what happened. He said he had been too busy to vet the Senate candidates. So it's probably just as well that he's stopped giving interviews.
"I'm on the Executive Committee and I was against Chip," said David Briley, the former at-large Metro Council member. "To a certain degree, I think people got what they asked for."
According to Democrats, Forrester naively thought his handpicked candidate — an actress and environmental activist named Park Overall — would win the Senate primary, so he saw no need to vet Clayton and the other candidates on the ballot. But Overall didn't campaign much, partly due to illness, and Forrester was blindsided. One critic told the Scene Forrester was meddling in the nonpartisan Nashville school-board races rather than paying attention to the U.S. Senate primary.
Anyone with common sense could have anticipated what might happen, and Forrester should have taken precautions to prevent it, these Democrats said.
"Yes, it was Chip's fault," said one insider who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Park Overall was the party's candidate. Those idiots didn't consider the fact that no one remembers whatever B-list 1980s television show Overall was on."
(For the record, Overall's best-known role was as nurse Laverne Higby Todd Kane in the sitcom Empty Nest.)
On Sept. 29, the Executive Committee meets for the first time since Clayton won the primary. "The real fireworks are going to happen then," the party's communications director Brandon Puttbrese predicted. But no one really expects much more than the usual windbaggery.
Apparently in an attempt to show Democrats are moving forward, as Forrester claims, one Executive Committee member, Cleveland lawyer Jim Bilbo, has been asked to develop proposals to change the party's bylaws to prevent a nutty fringe candidate from ever again topping the ticket.
Under this plan, the party would try to strike wack jobs from the ballot ahead of time. The difficulty lies in trying to distinguish lunatics from ordinary Democrats. Even Bilbo concedes it's basically an impossible task.
"We're in the process of trying to come up with a way to vet candidates and see if they are bona fide Democrats," Bilbo said. "Part of that process is coming up with a definition of what is a bona fide Democrat and, you know, it's not that easy to do.
"Frankly, we have members of the Democratic Party who are members for just a wide variety of reasons. I count myself as an example of that. I'm an evangelical Christian, belong to a Pentecostal church and have been actively involved in my church virtually all of my life. I'm very much pro-life, believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. I own guns and nobody's going to take them away from me, and I believe we pay too much in taxes, and I believe that government is too big and too intrusive in our lives. But there are other reasons that I'm a Democrat. So our task will be to try to come up with some kind of objectivity."
There is a current standard for bona fide Democrats in the party's bylaws. A candidate needs to have voted in at least three of the past five party primaries. Under that rule, the party could have disqualified Clayton.
Bilbo thinks even that's too restrictive, however. He believes the party should "expand it a little bit more and perhaps make it a little more inclusive of everybody's right to run as long as they adhere to the basic core principles of the Democratic Party."
"There are some folks who vote one way — say, they have been a Republican all their lives — and then they have an epiphany and realize they are a Democrat," Bilbo said. "We want to be able to make exceptions for those kinds of things."
Party treasurer Dave Garrison sounded bold and definitive in a TV interview after Clayton's victory. "It can't happen again. It shouldn't happen again, and as a party officer I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen again," he declared.
But Garrison told me last week he doesn't have a clue how it won't happen again. Does the party really plan to set up a series of litmus tests to determine who's bona fide and who's not? Garrison said he doesn't think that's practical.
To avoid the morass of a vetting process, the obvious solution is to recruit credible candidates who can actually beat all the chuckleheads who are so fond of hopping on the ballot just for laughs. That's easier said than done, of course. Given the Democrats' impotence in what's become a virtual one-party state, good candidates are hard to come by. Statewide offices, more often than not these days, are surrendered to the Republicans without a fight. Unless candidates are vetted, that leaves Democrats vulnerable to more embarrassments like Clayton's nomination.
Be that as it may, Cheek thinks it's foolish even to try to define a bona fide Democrat. He points out there have been many crazy Democrats in Tennessee history — notably the late John Wilder, the state's (ahem) somewhat unorthodox lieutenant governor for nearly 40 years. Wilder held power in a cabal with Republicans, and there were constant calls for Democrats to kick him out of the party for his various betrayals of so-called principle. But they never did.
"He was batshit, but he was a Democrat," Cheek said. "If you don't have a candidate, you don't have a candidate. You could pitch one guy off the ballot and then you might just wind up with another fruit loop. Who knows? You can't figure it out. It's a total exercise in futility. It's not even a slippery slope. It's a cliff."
Doing nothing is fine with the disgruntled Briley, who said he's "not big on tinkering with elections" anyway. In his view, Democrats should suffer with Clayton as their nominee and accept their punishment stoically.
"I think we ought to just learn a lesson from this, frankly," Briley said. "I think we ought to be punished a little bit for having let it happen."
CORRECTION: This article originally incorrectly stated that Will Cheek was state Democratic Party chairman in 1994. Cheek actually didn't become chairman until the next election cycle.
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