In Senate District 19, a party faithful challenges longtime North Nashville incumbent Thelma Harper 

Hats in the Ring

Hats in the Ring

Behind an old set of wooden French doors, deep inside Harper's Restaurant, is Sen. Thelma Harper's campaign headquarters. This is the first time the Jefferson Street diner she and her husband own has served as an official political gathering place, although it's been the unofficial one for years.

She sits at a table, which wobbles a little. She gets someone to fix it, and to fetch her some water. Harper is a proper Southern lady. She won't say her age, although it's 73. And she won't speak her opponent's name, although she'll refer to him. She's dressed in a royal-blue suit, her blazer lined with black-and-white trim. Her hat is shiny and black with white along the edge.

The hat — any hat — is her signature. It's also the inspiration for her campaign logo: a wide-brimmed sun hat.

It's been eight years since Harper last had to wage a contested re-election campaign. She's faced competition twice since she first reached the state Senate in 1990, and neither challenger came close. Upstart politicians have long whispered about wanting to run for her coveted seat, but she refuses to give it up. Most up-and-comers are too polite to run against her.

Except Brandon Puttbrese. The 32-year-old from East Nashville looks at the state Senate, and he sees the genteel Harper as a lost opportunity for Democrats to make their voices heard on a statewide platform.

"There's a lot of frustration in Nashville amongst Democrats that they're hungry for progress, they're hungry for fighters, they're hungry for someone to really call the Republicans out on these terrible laws," Puttbrese tells the Scene. "And they want that kind of fighting leadership. That's the kind of mold that I want to be."

Bright-eyed behind his dark-rimmed glasses, Puttbrese knows he's facing an uphill battle. As a spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, he watched the state's political theater for years from a front-row seat. Then Republicans took supermajority power in the legislature — and after three years, Puttbrese left the TNDP to work in communications for a marketing firm. Now he's running his own campaign.

The state Senate wasn't his first choice. He initially toyed with running for the House seat left empty by retiring state Rep. Mike Turner, a vocal critic of Republicans who is mulling a run for mayor. But when other candidates swarmed that open East Nashville seat like hipsters mobbing a craft brewery, Puttbrese decided instead to give Harper a run for her money.

He has yet to file paperwork showing how much he's raised to support his campaign, but says he will have gathered close to $10,000 by month's end. Harper has more than double that in the bank as of March, much of it raised last fall.

Among that cash is a $1,000 contribution she received from Corrections Corporation of America, a private Nashville-based company that operates six prison facilities in Tennessee and others across the country. Her war chest also includes $500 from Cash America, a payday lender.

Harper refused to respond to questions about why she accepted contributions from the two companies, which tend to profit from struggles among black and low-income communities. Those constituencies make up much of her North Nashville district, which spreads south along I-24 to Antioch.

Puttbrese takes issue with Harper accepting those contributions. What's more, he contends Democrats need a stronger voice in general for their values. The number of Democrats in the Senate is so small they could all sit inside one minivan.

"That's not my fault, I hate to tell you that," Harper says when asked about the party's decline in the legislature. "I believe there is someone who is involved who has been at the Democratic Party."

Her job is to carry water for all of Nashville, she says, not just the party. She doesn't carry very much legislation, either. Instead, she uses her influence to further city issues like helping pave the way for the Music City Center, or pushing for development along Charlotte Avenue.

"Are you just talking and fighting just for the heck of it, or are you really doing something that's worthwhile?" she asks rhetorically. "Screaming and hollering doesn't get you anywhere."

The 19th District is the largest black district in the state outside of Memphis. But it's been redrawn since Harper last ran eight years ago. And new people have moved to the city since then — giving Puttbrese what he believes is an opportunity to reach voters who expect their state senator to get riled up on their behalf.

But when Harper officially kicked off her campaign inside the restaurant this warm June day, the establishment support behind her was clear. Up until more than an hour into the gathering, the event drew more politicians — various councilmen and political activists, judicial candidates, a state rep and a possible mayoral hopeful — than voters.  

She walked in exactly 30 minutes after the event started and mingled with the group, then addressed them almost an hour later.

"Whatever you need in Nashville," she told the group, "that's my responsibility."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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