In his final remarks as chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, Chip Forrester apologized for one thing.
His mistake, he said, had been running for the post in 2008 without the support of the state's elected Democrats. For that, he said, he was sorry. He told the party's executive committee — which had gathered in the chambers of the state House to elect his successor — to vote for the candidate who would unite the party.
But Saturday's vote in the election for state party chairman revealed that Tennessee Democrats are far from united. And the election brought to the fore long-simmering issues that threaten to polarize Democratic factions — rural vs. urban, insider vs. outlier, the rest of the state vs. Nashville — and sap what strength the weakened party still has.
Forrester's words seemed almost an implied endorsement for Dave Garrison, the party's outgoing treasurer. Since confirming his candidacy for party chair in November, Garrison had secured support from the state's foremost elected Democrats. These included Congressman Jim Cooper and the mayors of Tennessee's three biggest cities: Nashville's Karl Dean, Knoxville's Madeline Rogero, and Memphis' A C Wharton. By the morning of the vote, he also had the backing of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses.
But a little more than an hour later, the executive committee overrode those high-profile endorsements. Instead, they elected Garrison's opponent, former state Sen. Roy Herron, as the party's new chairman. Supporters cited his many years of campaign experience and impressive electoral wins — a helpful arsenal in restoring the Democrats to fighting strength.
Speaking to reporters after the vote, Herron dismissed the seeming split as a consequence of bad timing, the result of getting into the race as late as he had.
"I just think I got in late and they had already made commitments, and they honored those commitments and I respect that," he said. "I consider everyone that endorsed Mr. Garrison, I consider every one of those elected officials a friend."
But the actual timeline suggests that explanation may be wishfully simple. It's true that Cooper and the Senate Democratic Caucus endorsed Garrison before Herron confirmed his candidacy to The Tennessean on Dec. 28.
It wasn't until 11 days later, though, in a Jan. 8 letter to the executive committee, that the three big-city mayors announced their support of Garrison. They stated that he represented a "new generation of leadership" that was "committed to shaping a new vision for how we grow as a Party."
Then on the eve of the vote, Garrison confirmed to committee members that he had the support of the House Democratic Caucus and would receive the vote of caucus chairman Mike Turner. That in itself was rather telling. Earlier in the month, the caucus had voted 14 to 12 to support Herron.
Party insiders involved with the process tell the Scene that discussions between the mayors and Garrison had indeed begun before Herron entered the race. There are conflicting characterizations about the nature of their commitment to Garrison at that point. But seeing as their leanings were private — and therefore unofficial — they would have had some leeway to support Herron if they'd so desired. Moreover, sources say Cooper and his fellow congressional Democrat, Memphis Rep. Steve Cohen, were making calls on Garrison's behalf well after Herron's entry into the race.
After the vote, Herron called all three mayors good friends whom he would have no trouble working with, and noted that Wharton campaigned with him during his eventually unsuccessful 2010 congressional run. As for Democrats in the legislature, he described them similarly, adding that he had worked with some of them for a "long, long time."
But some on the committee — and in the state's lefty blogosphere — wondered why that longevity didn't translate into more backing from elected Democrats. After all, Herron served in the legislature for 26 years; what does it mean that his former colleagues supported his opponent?
Insider gossip suggests that old grudges and personality conflicts played a role in some of the opposition to the famously prickly Herron. His record of conservative positions on abortion, guns and labor also raised eyebrows in more liberal quarters. But after his election, the concern amongst his opponents mostly centered on one thing: the possibility that the party learned all the wrong lessons from the past four years, and has just elected a Forrester redux.
Rightly or wrongly, the much-maligned Forrester received a lot of the blame for the Democrats' historic defeats. Detractors say he fussed over databases and the party's inner workings when he should have been mobilizing the party base, and that his loose-cannon pronouncements drew unwanted media attention.
From the outside, it was easy to see a potential Garrison administration as a continuation of the Forrester years. Garrison, after all, served under him, which put him in an awkward campaigning position.
But as it turns out, Herron is the one whose support base bears the more striking resemblance to Forrester's. Garrison's broad coalition included not only the elected officials cited in Forrester's mea culpa but a swath of his old boss's opponents. Along with support from all of the state's prominent elected Democrats, Garrison had the support of the Tennessee Young Democrats and the Tennessee Federation of College Democrats, two groups that had opposed Forrester in the past. He was also endorsed by the AFL-CIO, which had supported Forrester, and the Tennessee Democratic County Chairs Association. On the executive committee, he received strong support from members like David Briley, one of Forrester's most consistent and vocal critics.
By contrast, the way Herron won — without the support of many seemingly important party factions — recalls Forrester's knack for maintaining a loyal majority of executive committee members despite growing frustration outside the group.
That it's possible to win the party's top job in this divisive fashion illustrates a major predicament Democrats face as a newly drubbed superminority. While the executive committee consists of two members — one man and one woman — from each state Senate district (plus four ex-officio members, and the chairmen of the House and Senate caucuses), there are currently only seven Democratic state senators. At the moment, a majority of the committee resides in areas where it's tough for a Democrat to get elected.
Statewide representation on the committee may look like a plus to those (and there are many) who feel the party has become too Nashville-centric in recent years. But others worry that it has resulted in a disconnect between the will of the executive committee and the party's bases of financial and voter support — which are increasingly isolated, along with the party's political power, in metropolitan areas such as Shelby and Davidson County.
In the days after Herron's victory, some have suggested that groups will begin working to find and support Democratic candidates outside the party apparatus. And if those efforts are successful, it will be all the better for the new chairman, even if he hasn't the slightest involvement.
That's because, as Forrester has undoubtedly learned, when things are bad, people care very much who's at the top of the organizational chart. When the map is shaded more favorably, on the other hand, most are willing to assume someone's running a tight ship.
During interviews for a May 2012 cover story on the party in The City Paper, Democratic officials cast doubt on the correlation between a strong party organization and positive electoral outcomes. They suggested that many observers remember past iterations of the TNDP as being much better than they actually were. The implication is that a party chairman, and the party organization, cannot singlehandedly bring about political victory — but they can fumble the ball all on their own.
Is Tennessee Republican Party chairman Chris Devaney a political and organizational mastermind? Is the TNGOP an operational force of nature, able to summon political momentum and convert it to electoral dominance? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
When you're a supermajority, does it really matter?
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