For months after confirming his intention to run for retiring state Sen. Doug Henry's seat in District 21, Jeff Yarbro attempted to defuse talk of the much-anticipated Democratic primary with variations of a single refrain.
"We don't even know who all's going to be on the ballot," he said back in August, suggesting that another Democrat could get in the primary, which most observers assume will decide the winner of the general election.
Two months later, Mary Mancini arrives on a bicycle for an interview at Eighth and Roast coffeehouse on Eighth Avenue. Last week she announced her candidacy, joining Yarbro and Metro Councilman Jason Holleman in a race that many local liberals are already bemoaning as a choice between darlings.
Yarbro has enjoyed Future of the Party status since he very nearly defeated Henry in 2010. While Holleman has certainly made enemies during his time on the council, he has also been seen for some time as a bright spot in dark times for Tennessee Democrats.
Enter Mancini, a prominent progressive activist, longtime fixture on Capitol Hill and a past winner of Best Local Liberal in this very publication. Unlike Holleman and Yarbro, she does not live in Sylvan Park. But wouldn't you know it: As if it were meant as a special poke in the eye to frustrated Democrats, District 21 reaches south of downtown to pick up the Woodland-in-Waverly neighborhood where she does live.
But Mancini says "whatever else was going on in the race" before she got in was not a part of her decision about whether to run. What put her over the edge, she says, was the chance to offer a perspective that she says is missing from the legislature.
"I've spent a really long time up at the state legislature," she says. "And I realized that there's a perspective that's missing from the state legislature right now. When I looked at what was missing from the legislature and I looked at my skill set, I realized that I have a unique and different perspective that I can bring up there."
She summarizes a résumé of what she says is "community based" experience. She was a small business owner, having opened the Church Street record store and all-ages music club Lucy's Record Shop after moving to Nashville from New York in 1991. She later worked for two tech startups, and eventually turned her attention to voting rights activism.
Mancini was also a co-host of the celebrated alternative news-radio broadcast Liberadio(!) for six years, until she and co-host Freddie O'Connell decided to call it quits in 2010. Since then she has been the executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a role which has had her on the Hill and around town advocating and agitating for consumer rights and voter rights, among other things.
Of course, there is the other unique perspective she brings to the race. Asked if that matters, or if it should — questions, it's worth acknowledging, that are not often lobbed at men — her answer is, essentially, yes and no.
"Let's put it this way," Mancini says. "Do I think there needs to be more women representation at all levels of government? Absolutely, yes. I do. But the women that run need to have the qualifications. I think my past lends itself to me being a qualified candidate, as well as a qualified woman candidate."
Each of the three candidates in the race — so far — is decidedly left of the state legislature, and particularly blue in a state that's as electorally red as it's ever been. But perhaps because of her public activism, the word "liberal" seems to have been cast like a stone at Mancini more often. She says several people have pondered out loud to her about whether she is "too liberal" to run successfully, but she turns the question back around.
"My question for them is always, what's too liberal?" she says. "What's too far left? Is wanting everyone in Tennessee to have accessible and affordable health care too far left or too liberal? Is wanting the governor to accept Medicaid funds too liberal? Is wanting there to be common-sense regulations on coal companies or mountaintop removal processes, is that too far left?
"When you look at every issue that we can look at, and you look at what my values are, I have to then turn the question back and say, what's too far left? What's too liberal? To me this is common sense."
In any case, her sense doesn't seem to be rare. Since her announcement, she says she has received $50,000 in commitments. She'll certainly need more if she is going to catch up to her opponents — particularly Yarbro, who posted a monster disclosure of more than $100,000 in July.
But as he's been saying all along, the race has hardly begun.
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