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VOL. 40 | NO. 31 | Friday, July 29, 2016

Statewide office a tough road for Tennessee Democrats

By Sam Stockard

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Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, a Republican and a former state legislator, holds a good working relationship with Mayor Madeline Rogero. Rogero tweeted on March 28, “Ever wonder what it looks like behind the scenes of a @timburchett shameless self? #utsmw16 #behindtheselfie”

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Democratic mayors Megan Barry of Nashville and Madeline Rogero of Knoxville, are surrounded by GOP-supporting suburban and rural voters. It’s reflected by solid majorities in the Tennessee Senate and House.

And while neither will say they aspire to the governor’s mansion or a U.S Senate post, they’re making their bones by learning how to function in a state run by Republicans.

For most of the 20th century, mayors were rarely gubernatorial material in Tennessee. The trend reversed when former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen won two terms, followed by Gov. Bill Haslam, a former Knoxville mayor.

With a few more years behind them, Rogero and Barry could garner enough experience and clout to win over Tennesseans from Memphis to Mountain City – though that could depend on the political landscape after this year’s presidential election. They’re both delegates for Hillary Clinton at this week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Neither is likely to enter the gubernatorial race in the next cycle. Barry is not yet a year into her first term and says her goal is to be Nashville’s best mayor ever.

Rogero, early in a second term, isn’t looking for a bigger seat at this point, saying she “loves” being Knoxville’s mayor and is “committed to realizing her redevelopment, sustainability, neighborhood quality-of-life and social equity initiatives.”

Instead, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is considered the Democrats’ leading contender for governor in 2020. He’s running the rubber chicken circuit across Tennessee after all but announcing his candidacy last year.

Nashville businessman Bill Freeman also is mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, though he’s probably more interested in the mayoral post, depending on how well he perceives Megan Barry is doing.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a former Democratic state senator, may have been in the running as well until being linked to a potential sex scandal in his home city.

Republican candidates, meanwhile, are popping up like varmints in a Whack-A-Mole game. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, U.S. Reps. Diane Black and Marsha Blackburn and state Sens. Mark Green, Mark Norris and Bo Watson are potential candidates, as are Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd and his predecessor, Bill Hagerty.

Training days

Barry, who was elected in 2015 after winning a runoff over Nashville businessman David Fox, is learning to navigate shark-infested waters in the General Assembly where Davidson County legislation and amendments are being gobbled up since Republicans took control six years ago.

Facing legislation designed to turn back affordable housing and Nashville job requirements for Metro-funded construction projects, Barry compromised on both issues. As a result, developers are being offered incentives for affordable housing construction, and Nashville will emphasize job training rather than employment mandates.

“I would imagine that’s been one of her bigger political challenges, and frankly I think she’s done it brilliantly so far. … She hasn’t approached it as if it were rocket science,” says political consultant David Cooley, who backed Charles Robert Bone in 2015 before shifting support to Barry in the runoff.

Cooley says Barry has taken “pettiness and personalities” out of her dealings with the Capitol Hill and spent more time listening to work in a bipartisan fashion.

He points toward Barry’s work with state Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican, in trying to find common-sense approaches toward a regional mass transit system.

“The cake isn’t baked there, though. That’s kind of a work in progress,” Cooley says. “She’s going to have to continue sort of dealing with or managing to work with a Legislature that’s both dominated by rural interests as well as sort of ultra-conservative interests.”

Barry is also taking a crash course in dealing with civil unrest in the wake of the shootings involving police and black men across the nation. Rather than pretend Nashville is exempt because it hasn’t suffered any disasters, Barry sent a criminal justice team to study restorative justice in California and scheduled local events to bring people together to talk about solutions.

During the initial gathering at Lipscomb University last Saturday, reports show Black Lives Matter members protested the event and demanded change in several police policies. Still, Barry’s administration reached out to provide security at protests held by Black Lives Matter, and those young people probably won’t find a person in local government more open to the plight of minorities, immigrants and members of the LGBT community.

Rogero, meanwhile, consults daily with Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, either by text or conversation, on methods for avoiding unrest and making sure protests come off peacefully.

“She gives me the authority to do what’s necessary,” Rausch says. “But she also understands that I understand the challenge and having to weigh the importance of allowing people to express themselves but also maintaining the safety and security of the city as well as those individuals who participate in these gatherings.”

One of Rogero’s key attributes is the ability to listen to and understand all sides of an issues to make an informed decision, Rausch says.

The chief says he’s learned from Rogero that people don’t always have to agree but that, “responsible people can respectfully disagree.” Still, the best thing she does is create a “sense of unity, of bringing people together and helping people communicate and understand each other,” Rausch says, adding she is ultimately the boss and once a decision is made, they move forward.

Rausch says he has no doubt Rogero possesses the ability to make a statewide run for office as a Democrat. He points out Victor Ashe and Haslam, both Republicans, held the mayor’s seat for four and two terms in Knoxville, a Republican stronghold. In an earlier run against Haslam, Rogero reportedly called him a puppet of oil companies but then served as his director of community development.

“And then she was able to step in and get that position. So, clearly, she has the ability to reach those on both sides of the aisle,” Rausch says.

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, a former Republican state legislator, holds a good working relationship with Rogero, even though they’re polar opposites politically. Burchett, who leans conservative/libertarian, says he won’t be voting for Clinton this fall.

Nevertheless, they talk and text daily, Burchett says, “And as I tell her often, when we differ on issues I always forgive her for being wrong.”

Another example: Burchett recalls Rogero preparing to give a key speech dealing with the city’s budget, a time filled with tension and political tug-of-war.

“And I texted her, and I said if you get into a bind, just say something negative about me, it seems to work with the press,” Burchett says. “And she talked about it in her speech right then.”

For Rogero to advance on a bigger stage in Tennessee, though, a “complete flipping of the parties” would have to occur, Burchett says, and he doesn’t see that happening any time soon, even though people want their politics about like their pizza, “in 30 minutes or less.”

Redrawing of Tennessee’s districts by Republicans could make it more difficult for Democrats to regain any semblance of power, as well.

“When you’re in power, you call that redistricting. When you’re in the minority, you call that gerrymandering,” Burchett says.

Burchett also points out too many state Republicans are patting themselves on the back for gaining control of the House and Senate when they should be “sending flowers” to President Obama.

Depends on politics

Whether a Democrat can win the governor’s seat in a state where Republicans hold supermajorities in the state House and Senate, six of eight congressional seats and the governor’s office could hinge on the 2016 presidential election.

Republicans on a national level are split between those in the Donald Trump camp, GOP presidential nominee, and moderates who still don’t support Trump.

If the Republican National Committee opts to punish Republicans in states with open primaries at the next election, such a move to exclude Democrats and independents could cause an even bigger gap for the GOP, Nashville political analyst Pat Nolan says.

“Right now it’s the Donald Trump show, period, (end of) paragraph. So what’s the future of the party going to be?” Nolan asks. “The more conservative part of the party in this state thinks they have the majority of the voters, yet they almost never win these statewide primaries. Some moderate comes in and wins it. So they’ve been wanting to close primaries if they could.”

A more conservative Republican Party could alienate the establishment and force out cross-over voters, ultimately weakening Republican numbers – all in an effort for total control.

MTSU political science professor Kent Syler says the 2018 election in Tennessee depends on the presidential race’s outcome and how the winner fares over the next two years.

“If you look at the way the last 20 years of history has gone, the party of the president has gotten punished pretty badly in the mid-term elections. If Donald Trump wins the election, Democrats have a shot at maybe winning, based on his popularity in two years. … If Hillary Clinton wins, you’ve got to assume the Republicans will keep control.”

Tennessee’s governor runs at the mid-term of the president. And going back even further, 1970 was the last time a person of the same party as the president was elected governor of Tennessee for the first time, according to Syler.

Does that mean Tennessee Democrats should hope for a Trump win and then disaster in order to make gains in legislative and statewide races?

“That would be a very cynical thing to do,” Syler says.

But if you’re playing the numbers, Syler notes, consider what happened at mid-term elections during the first presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama when the opposing party made major gains in state legislatures and Congress.

Thus, a “consolation prize” goes to whoever loses the presidential election, and in Tennessee it could be an even bigger consolation for Democrats because they’ve taken such a pounding.

“They’ve lost so many seats that there’s not a lot they have left to lose,” Syler says.

Oddly enough, and depending on how well they perform, Rogero or Barry could be ready for prime time by the time Republicans offer an opening for them to win.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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