State legislative primaries in Nashville Thursday defied an easy narrative.
What should we make of a night that saw one vulnerable Democratic incumbent lose by 329 votes and another crush her challenger by just shy of 9,000? What to draw from the choices Democratic voters made in one open race to replace a popular party stalwart and in another to replace a legend?
Take the attempted overthrow of two longtime legislators first.
Neither Rep. Gary Odom nor Sen. Thelma Harper have been particularly inspiring to local Democrats in recent years. Odom largely ran an absentee campaign in House District 55, avoiding interviews with the Scene and Tennessean, and allowing his opponent, attorney John Ray Clemmons, an unusual opportunity for a challenger — the chance to define the incumbent. With a particular focus on Odom’s vote for a recent compromise that gave the legislature more authority over a proposed bus rapid transit project in Nashville, Clemmons tagged him as a “good old boy” whose partisan and ideological loyalties had been dulled by too many years at the statehouse.
Harper has deep roots in North Nashville and a loyal base that has twice disposed of her challengers since she took office in 1990. In recent years though she has come to be seen — by insiders, at least — as more familiar than effective. The chattering classes routinely chat about either easing her out or ousting her, but she has resisted both. This time around, Brandon Puttbrese, the former Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman who is 40 years her junior, decided to do what others have declined to do — he went ahead and ran against her.
But as the returns came in Thursday night two different pictures emerged. Clemmons went on to claim 53 percent of the vote, unseating Odom after is 28 years in the legislature. Harper, on the other hand, was the clear victor as soon as early vote totals came in from Senate District 19. In the end, she pulled in 10,483 votes leaving Puttbrese with few enough to fit in one of her trademark hats.
In the open races, Democrats were presented with a slate of mostly young candidates to choose from — the would be faces of the Tennessee Democratic Party’s future, whatever that will be.
In Senate District 21, attorney Jeff Yarbro faced longtime activist and former record shop owner Mary Mancini. Both we already well-known in political circles — Yarbro for his nearly-successful primary challenge of Sen. Doug Henry four years ago, and Mancini for her lefty political activism. A sizable fundraising advantage and the four-year head start made Yarbro the favorite and as expected he pulled away to win, with 56 percent of the vote. The district is gerrymandered to a dark blue, so Yarbro’s primary victory assures him election to the legislature.
Across town, in House District 51, three candidates were vying to replace retiring Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner — Jennifer Buck Wallace, the former executive director of the Tennessee Democratic Party; Bill Beck, an attorney; and Stephen Fotopulos, the former executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
Beck’s family roots run deep in the northern part of the district, through Inglewood, Madison, and Old Hickory, and seemed content to let Wallace and Fotopulos fight over the rest of the district, which includes East Nashville and downtown. It worked. While Beck finished the night with 1,879 votes and Wallace with 1,565, Fotopulos peeled off 1,097 in a performance widely seen as one that spoiled the race for Wallace.
To the extent that voters made their choice based on the candidates respective messages, their may be something to draw from the victories of Yarbro and Beck. Both attorneys espoused the virtues of finding Republicans they could work with to change the dynamic of the legislature, arguing that building coalitions didn’t have to mean compromising Democratic values. Yarbro, for instance, spoke with much more optimism than Mancini about the possibility of achieving Medicaid expansion. And Beck’s campaign slogan was “It’s About People, Not Politics,” and idea he contrasted with Wallace’s history of partisan political work.
In another race that received much less attention, attorney Larry Hagar won the race to finish out state Rep. Darren Jernigan’s Metro Council term in District 11. Voters in the Old Hickory district will vote again next year to elect a representative for a full four year term.