Update: State GOP chair Robin Smith slaps Forrester for "cock of the walk attitude."
And it wasn't even close. Forrester, the party treasurer, won by a vote of 42-25 and--surprise!--he immediately called for unity. "There's much more than unites us today as Democrats than separates us," he said, hopefully.
Insiders say the establishment now might wash its hands of the party, refusing to raise money or helping only half-heartedly. As Forrester was elected Saturday, aides to Davis and Gordon hustled out of the House chamber without talking to reporters. Party leaders favored Bone for his fund-raising prowess. They see Forrester as a flaky troublemaker. He wears bow ties and wire-rim spectacles, for chrissakes, and he had the audacity in 1992 to challenge Democratic incumbent Rep. Bob Clement in a primary.
Forrester won because of his long association with the executive committee--he has belonged himself since 1988--but also because of something else: He's the new champion of the party's liberal activists. He filled the House gallery with sign-waving supporters. Barack Obama's victory stirred them up. Over the years, they have watched in frustration as Democrats have put conservatives on the ballot election after election. Bredesen, Davis, Gordon, Cooper and Tanner all act like Republicans most of the time. The elected leaders say that's what it takes to win in Tennessee, although the Republican Lite strategy hasn't been working out so well for the party lately. Liberals have this crazy idea that Democrats can excite a mass following in this state, just like Obama did nationally, if they will only stay true to their core beliefs and stop pretending to be Republicans.
One of their biggest grievances has been the failure of the Tennessee party and its leaders to vigorously counter Republican attacks. In last year's losing campaigns in particular, state Democratic leaders outraged liberals by keeping a conspicuous silence as the Tennessee GOP smeared Obama and some Democratic legislative candidates. In his acceptance speech, Forrester brought the House chamber cheering to its feet by vowing to fight back against "racist smear tactics."
"I want to put the Republican Party on notice. The Democratic Party will no longer sit quietly while the Republicans run racist, demagogic falsehoods against our values, our principles and our candidates as they did this year against President Barack Obama, Representative Nathan Vaughn and other legislative candidates. When you lie about our candidates, our office holders, we're going to call you out as liars. There is no place in politics for such conduct. Robin Smith, Jason Mumpower, Bill Hobbs and Chip Saltsman, I tell you now you are put on notice. As chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, I will not stand by and see this happen without a full-frontal attack on the racist smear tactics that you have used in this past campaign. Decent men and women in Tennessee are demeaned by your racist, bigoted attacks, and I will not stand for it and neither will the Tennessee Democratic Party. Be ready, I'm putting you on notice now, Republicans in Tennessee and those of you who support those tactics."
Also in his speech, Forrester pledged to run "95-county campaign" for governor in 2010. "We're going to make this thing happen," he said. "We're going to make the changes we know we need to make."
"First and Foremost I want to renew my pledge to you that I made to you during my campaign that we're going to open this party up to everyone, everyone who believes in the ideals of the Democratic Party, the party of hope and change. We're going to make this the most inclusive political party in the state of Tennessee which will enable us to build the grassroots organization necessary to elect a new Democratic governor, regain the majority in the House and Senate seats in 2010."
The new chairman said he would hold a summit of Democratic leaders "to look at what we did wrong and what we did right [in the 2008 campaign] and begin to incorporate what we learn into a comprehensive strategy for 2009 and 2010. From this summit, we will emerge with a program of fundraising, new technologies, grassroots organizing to truly build this party from the precinct level up. We need to stop talking about organizing and actually begin doing it."
With the party's leaders sulking on the sidelines, it's not clear at this point who might join Forrester at his meetin