When Mike Kernell first took his seat in the House chamber in Nashville he had just turned and he was a political newcomer inspired to run for office in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. just six years earlier.
Kernell won’t be going back to Nashville with the new year as he has for the last 38 Januarys.
He was defeated in last week’s Democratic primary in State House District 93 by fellow Democratic incumbent G.A. Hardaway.
“We just flat ran out of money. … G.A. spent a lot of effort on election day. By the time we got to election day we were just nearly broke,” Kernell said the day after the election.
“We just financially flat lined. A lot of people who said they would help didn’t. I’m not blaming anyone. We just couldn’t raise the money and we were just limping along. We would hit zero once or twice a week and we would raise a little money and put something out.”
The District 93 race was where local election officials first acknowledged problems with voters getting the wrong district races on their early voting ballots. And by some estimates several hundred votes were affected in the Kernell-Hardaway primary. But Kernell said with a margin of more than 1,000 votes in the unofficial returns, he is unlikely to challenge Hardaway’s victory.
Kernell said he has no regrets.
“Thank you for 38 years of a dream job. If you get hired in 19 primaries and 19 generals, then if they want to pick another member of the Democratic family how do you complain?” he said. “I raised my kids. I got my retirement. I got insurance. I paid for surgeries and I got to do what I like to do and have an impact. Thanks. What else can you say?”
Kernell wasn’t an incumbent whose political skills had atrophied with incumbency.
In recent years, Republican challengers over several general elections had mounted serious and credible efforts with party backing to unseat him.
But incumbent legislators of either party are never more vulnerable politically than they are in the primaries, which have less lead time between the end of the legislative session and the start of early voting than the general election campaign in November.
“It’s easier to knock on doors over six months than six weeks. I can put sweat equity in my campaign and campaign out in the district for six months,” Kernell said. “But when you’ve got six weeks and you have an even bigger district and most of it is new – that’s the problem.”
The challenge came not only from within his party but from another Democratic incumbent in the wake of redistricting earlier this year.
Hardaway and Kernell weren’t drawn into the same district. Hardaway was drawn into District 86 with Democratic incumbent Barbara Cooper. But rather than challenge Cooper, Hardaway moved to Kernell’s district and challenged him.
Hardaway, a six-year veteran of the House, unseated the second-longest serving member of the Shelby County delegation to Nashville.
Kernell won his first two-year term in the year of Watergate and President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Democrats were ascendant – Republicans were on the ropes and Kernell remembers the Democrats getting elected knew it.
“People walked around like we’ve got the power. But it still broke into factions. That’s human,” he said. “What the Republicans did was, they made friends with the Democrats and actually became very influential.”
Kernell added there are some lessons there for the Democratic minorities who will return to Nashville next year without him. Democratic leaders have had real problems adjusting to life as the minority party in both chambers over the last four years.
“I’ve been trying to tell them to make friends and just withhold judgment. When two people become friends, then they start trusting each other,” he said. “When another person stands up on the floor and you eat out with them every once in a while, they are going to listen to you and they are not going to vote to cut you off. That kind of relationship is needed.”
And Kernell said there are already signs that Republicans on Capital Hill are beginning to do what Democrats did after they got used to being in the majority.
“It’s going to factionalize. That stuff happens. The honeymoon is over,” Kernell said.
But that doesn’t mean life will be easier for Democratic legislators, especially those from the most Democratic city in the state.