State Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, the longest-serving member of the General Assembly that recently convened, looks ahead with a simple, focused determination.
Beginning his 43rd year in the Senate, Henry says he has little interest in “hot-button” issues such as the expansion of gun-owners’ rights, school vouchers or allowing wine sales in grocery stores.
“What I’m interested in is the financial condition of the state,” he says.
What he would like to see – and what he will work toward – is regaining Tennessee’s AAA credit rating with all bond-rating agencies.
Standard & Poor’s currently rates the state AA+ after dropping its AAA rating several years ago when the state budgeted money based on rosier-than-expected revenue projections – over his objections, Henry says.
“If we continue to keep an honest set of books and build up our reserves, I think we can do it,” Henry says. “We’re in pretty good shape now, and I believe Gov. (Bill) Haslam has a sound approach.”
Key will be maintaining full funding for the state’s pension fund and ensuring expenditures don’t exceed realistic estimates of revenues, he says.
State Sen. Douglas Henry (D)
Represents: District 21, which includes portions of eastern and southern Davidson County
Personal: Born in 1926, Henry is married and has six children. He has a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University and his L.L.B. from Vanderbilt.
Henry’s focus on state finances is not new. He served for years as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and now serves as its chairman-emeritus. He also is a long-time member of the Fiscal Review Committee, a joint House-Senate committee that monitors state revenues and expenditures year round.
What is new is the diminished influence that members of his party have in the current Legislature. He is one of only seven Democrats remaining in the 33-member Senate.
Henry downplays the disparity.
“I don’t feel at all like I’m excluded,” he says. “I feel like I have a personal connection with these fellows.”
He and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, for instance, served together on the Finance Committee. Now that Ramsey is in charge of the Senate, Henry says, “Ron has been awfully good to me.”
Ramsey voices nothing but admiration for Henry, saying he is “one of the most honest, hardworking, genuine people I’ve ever met. He always votes his convictions.”
Henry also sees his abiding interest in state finance closely aligned with that of the governor and the GOP legislative leadership.
“Gov. Haslam, to me, is a really good governor,” Henry says. “With his leadership, we can focus on what we need to and spend as little time as possible on these hot-button issues.”
Henry also takes a long view of his minority status, recalling when Democrats were in charge on Capitol Hill by a large majority.
When he entered politics almost six decades ago, “there weren’t anything around here but Democrats,” he recalls.
The son, grandson and great-grandson of lifelong Democrats, Henry says there was no doubt which party he would join when he ran for office.
Henry spent one term in the House in 1955-1956 after earning his law degree from Vanderbilt University, then left the Legislature to pursue his professional career. He returned in 1971 as a senator from Nashville’s affluent West Side.
And he became an uncommon legislator. Saying his father left him comfortably well-off, Henry devoted himself year-round to the interests of the state.
“I made a full-time job out of a part-time position,” he says.
His contributions through the years have been legion, including charter schools, a statewide trail system, the state’s Foreign Language Institute and a law that requires the reporting of child abuse, among many others.
One of his proudest, though, stems from his concern for state finances. In 1987, Henry spearheaded the creation of the “revenue fluctuation reserve,” commonly known as the state’s “rainy day fund,” to help ensure Tennessee had money to maintain programs and to pay all its bills during economic downturns.