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VOL. 129 | NO. 14 | Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tennessee Democrats Struggle With New, Old Factions

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron realizes the party faithful in Memphis see some challenges in keeping the faith these days.

“Are you glad to be here with Democrats or not?” he began his remarks Saturday, Jan. 18, to a group of 300 at the annual Kennedy Day Dinner, the local party’s largest annual fundraiser.

As it turns out, at least one of the Democrats in the audience comprised of allies and rivals in the upcoming party primaries had a bone to pick publicly with other Democrats.


Former state representative and Memphis City Council member Carol Chumney complained at the end of a forum on “The Year of the Woman” in politics that the party had not rallied around her candidacy for district attorney general in the 2012 special election after she claimed the party’s nomination. And she singled out U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who was at the head table.

Chumney has run twice for Memphis mayor, once for district attorney general and once for Shelby County mayor in 12 years, and the race she won in those 12 years was another race for Memphis City Council.

When she ran for district attorney general in 2012, it was a campaign she waged on her own ideological terms, as before, but also on her own in terms of support. Some prominent Democrats backed Republican incumbent Amy Weirich.

Cohen didn’t. But he also did not endorse Chumney.

President Barack Obama’s national re-election effort and state Democrats depended heavily on Cohen’s ability to deliver the city’s Democratic base, even though Tennessee was expected to remain a red state and went in the column of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Chumney wasn’t part of the panel discussion at the end of the Kennedy Day dinner. She spoke at the very end of the forum from the floor.

The fundraiser is the second major fundraiser local Democrats have held. The first was a roast of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton in September at Colonial Country Club that ran long and included some cringe-inducing remarks from the emcee, former Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown, that caused a few of the Democrats in the audience to leave the ballroom.

Herron compared the position of Democrats in the state to where they were in 1970 before the Watergate crisis and the resulting resignation of Republican President Richard Nixon.

“When they say we cannot, we can,” he told the audience. “When they say we won’t, we will.”

Before the dinner, Herron focused on what he sees as “fissures” in Republican ranks statewide despite GOP supermajorities in both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature, a Republican governor and Republicans in the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.

“The extremism that has taken over in Nashville – they call themselves conservative, but they are radical or reactionary,” Herron said. “The Republican Party today consists of two groups – the hateful and the fearful. The reasonable Republicans, and there are many, are fearful of the hateful. I think as people have seen more and more of the extremism, I think they are readier and readier for change.”

Herron believes “common-sense Democrats” running for office can have crossover appeal to those Republicans.

But there are some holes in the statewide Democratic lineup for 2014. Herron still doesn’t know if the party will have a challenger to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. And some Democrats have approached John Jay Hooker, the 1970 and 1998 Democratic nominee for governor, about running, according to Hooker. Hooker has said he has no interest, also citing his age at 83.

Shelby County Democrats still believe the majority of voters countywide identify as Democrats politically. That was the case in 2010 when party leaders relied on the demographics and put all of the party’s nominees in a low-turnout primary on a party ballot to sink or swim as a team in the general election. The Republican Party took every countywide office in 2010.

Four years later, the defeat has produced a set of new contenders who have pulled petitions for the primaries, and some debate within the local party about how to make room for new contenders in an environment where name recognition can easily win a low-turnout primary several times over for the same office.

The tension is that some of the familiar names who have tried, lost and tried again in the general elections feel as Chumney does – that some in the local party aren’t following through in the name of party unity once the primaries are decided.

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