The Democrats were riding high at the Jackson Day Dinner last weekend, reliving the days when guests President Bill Clinton and his vice president Al Gore were the last Democrats to carry Tennessee in a presidential election. They raised $600,000 and reminded state Democrats of happier times.
There remains a Democrat in the governor’s office, though Phil Bredesen isn’t the kind of Democrat many of them prefer. They still hold an advantage in House seats, five Democratic Congressmen as opposed to four Republicans.
Here in Knox County, the Republican chair tried to rally his party to fire election administrator Greg Mackay and replace him with a Republican, but the majority Republican election commission kept him. Ray Jenkins tried to rally Republicans to elect a Republican County Commission chair, where the GOP has a 14-5 majority. But they were planning this week to reelect Democrat Tank Strickland instead.
But the victories by Democrats in Tennessee these days are usually the result of the splits and factions within the Republican Party, not because of any groundswell of Democratic sentiment.
You may remember when Democrat Bill Owen held one of Knox County’s state senate seats, but Democrats are having a hard time recruiting a strong candidate to try and re-take the seat and replace the retiring state Sen. Tim Burchett. (More Republicans have been added to the district since Owens’ tenure, but the district still contains virtually all the Democratic precincts in Knox County.)
There was a time when Democrat Tommy Schumpert was the county trustee and Democrat Mike Padgett was county clerk. Schumpert went on to be county executive. None of the countywide offices are now held by a Democrat, though the Democrats still retain some judgeships and the district attorney’s office.
The biggest blow to state Democrats, however, has been the Republican capture of both Houses of the General Assembly in recent years. If they retain control in next year’s election, they get to reapportion their seats and the Congressional seats and may attain Republican hegemony for some years to come.
But statewide and locally, where are the strong Democratic candidates? Where is the popular Democrat that can win independents and Republicans to capture a state senate seat or a county fee office? The voter revolt against incumbents last year, fueled by scandal and term limits, resulted in another Republican sweep of courthouse offices.
It is evident from fund-raising totals thus far that Democrats are going to have a hard time retaining the governor’s office next year. Their little-known candidates, coupled with a lack of money to establish name-recognition, spell trouble. It is significant that their perceived front-runner, Mike McWherter, holds the position because his father’s name is known statewide from his days as governor.
In Knox County, where is the Democrat that might contend for county mayor next year? Where is the Democrat like Mark Cawood, who could get elected in a Northwest Knox County district? Where is the new Schumpert or Padgett? Or even Sheriff Joe Fowler, the last Democratic sheriff and now a name dim in the memory of most voters.
Democrats in Knox County seem to be limited to certain Democratic districts in east Knoxville and inner city-north Knoxville on County Commission and in the Legislature.
One exception of late has been Finbarr Saunders, a Democrat elected to County Commission from the Republican Bearden area. His personal popularity was such that he won support from Republicans and independents. He may be the kind of Democratic candidate who could win county wide.
It is against this backdrop that we approach the race for the next Knoxville mayor. Democrat Madeline Rogero is considered the candidate to beat in the race. She ran a strong and close race against Mayor Bill Haslam, despite being outspent by a wide margin. The city of Knoxville has been trending Democratic in recent years. Mayor Victor Ashe wondered at one point if he might not be the last Republican mayor of Knoxville. Haslam once joked to me that his mayoral legacy might be, given the success of downtown redevelopment, creating more Democratic precincts.
But if the Democrats are to have success, locally and statewide, they are going to have to find good candidates with appeal for independents and Republicans. They don’t have the numbers to win otherwise.