With few surviving office-holders to blame for their shellacking at the polls, some Tennessee Democrats are trying to place party chairman Chip Forrester on the altar to the electoral gods.
Forrester's critics are demanding his ouster in an Anybody-But-Chip campaign. Their problem is that no one but Chip is publicly running for the job, and it's beginning to look as if no one of any real stature will step up.
The fight threatens to further fracture the party just when unity would seem most needed.
Forrester is refusing to quit and insists he deserves another two-year term, even though he presided over an election defeat of historic proportions in November. Democrats surrendered an astonishing 14 state House seats to descend into irrelevancy in state politics for years to come, barring a rejuvenation on the order of Lazarus.
The party's 66-member executive committee will elect the new chairman in January, and Forrester is busily lobbying this group of activists and insiders. He tells the Scene he's "very confident" he'll win. Forrester says "at least 20 names have been floated" as potential challengers, but none has yet done more than put out feelers.
His most vocal critics within the executive committee are former Metro Councilman David Briley and another well-known Nashvillian, Will Cheek, a former party chairman.
In one newspaper interview, Cheek went so far as to compare Forrester to the captain of the Titanic. The man at the helm went down with the ship, Cheek said, and so should Forrester.
"When you have a defeat like this, you really need to go back and start from scratch and build yourself back up as a party," Cheek tells the Scene. "When you start from scratch, you start from scratch. You don't start with the old leadership and rebuild from that. You go back and you start over."
On his blog and in a letter to executive committee members, Briley has ridiculed his party's Republican Lite campaign message — which he described as "pathetic" — and blamed Forrester for failing to craft a more appealing one.
Forrester didn't help tamp down this criticism when he announced his reelection candidacy in a letter to the executive committee. He accepted none of the blame for the election debacle and declared: "We made a difference."
Addressing "our way forward," Forrester saw continuity in party leadership as one key to success and mentioned the "message challenge" merely as something for the party to discuss.
"We have Chip Forrester, who in response to a monumental defeat doesn't even talk about ideas," Briley complains to the Scene. "You know what his message was the past two years? We can't afford to lose the House.
"Why would people think it made a difference? If you can't articulate what the difference between Republicans and Democrats is, it doesn't matter if Democrats lose the House except in the sense that they lose power, and people are tired of hearing it's all about power. That's not going to move anybody.
"There's a great opportunity for there to be a reinvigorated debate about what the Democratic Party means in Tennessee."
Briley's outspokenness inevitably prompted insider talk that he might run for chairman. He was coy about it at first, declining to rule it out and seemingly asking to be asked. But lately, he has been more adamant in saying he doesn't want the job.
"I'm not going to say flat-out I won't do it," Briley says. "I'm going to say flat-out that there are other more qualified people out there who should do it, and I want to help them build a consensus that brings together all those constituencies that got broken apart when Chip got elected. Now if a thousand people showed up at my doorstep and said, 'You gotta do it,' and my wife was there and she said 'OK,' then maybe I would do it.
"Maybe. Maybe. Maybe."
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