Can Local Democrats Line Up Blue Votes in a Red State?

Recent meetings reach out to business owners and young voters

East Tennessee is a Republican stronghold. We all know it. But that's not stopping local Democrats from gearing up for their campaigns this year. On Monday a small group of business owners and politicians met at the Time Warp Tea Room to have a chat about what small business owners need and want from their government.

Surrounded by dark wood-paneled walls and copious amounts of classic motorcycle memorabilia (including plastic replicas featured as centerpieces on the large round table), the meeting was a gambit for support from people who've already backed the four Democratic leaders seated amongst the businesspeople. In fact, Jim Jennings, CEO of the Quality Label and Tag Corporation, said Gloria Johnson, chair of the Knox County Democratic Party, asked him to attend the roundtable discussion. Lisa Sorensen, co-owner of Bliss with her husband Scott Schimmel, is the treasurer of the Friends of Gloria Johnson. And Courtney Piper is a well-known local Democratic pundit.

Schimmel said he and his wife decided to attend the discussion to hear the candidate's position on some key issues concerning local businesses. Republicans are largely thought to be the party of business, but the local Democratic party is attempting to make inroads with the demographic by spreading the message that Democrats will fight for the little guys, while Republicans champion the big corporations.

"I see precious little small-business legislation being pushed through [the Republican-controlled state House]," Johnson said. Her goal is simply to get people back to work, and she, along with her fellow Knoxville Democrats, is targeting small businesses as the way to do it.

"If [small businesses] get a tax cut, they hire someone tomorrow," she said.

Joe Armstrong, who represents the 15th district, explained that the Legislature had recently passed a bill that would provide grants to employers who need to train new employees on the job.

"This bill you're talking about is a good bill no one knows about," Jennings said to Armstrong.

"Perhaps we need to do a better job of getting the word out," Johnson said.

Getting the word out, it seems, is this year's theme for Knoxville-area Democrats, and part of their plan to defeat Republicans. Despite Democratic surges across the country in 2006 and 2008, it's been a struggle to get Democrats into elected positions around Knoxville, save for Mayor Madeline Rogero.

So can local Democrats ride on Rogero's coattails at the polls this fall? The mayor seems to think so.

"Democrats can run and win if you get involved," Rogero said Saturday at a lunch with Johnson and 16 members of the Tennessee Young Democrats at the Cumberland House Hotel.

The group, which welcomes members who live or go to school in Tennessee and are under the age of 36, was almost uniformly dressed in their best business-casual getups, and mingled boisterously with each other over sandwiches and iced tea.

Sean Braisted, 29, is the president of the TNYD. Though his features look like those of a younger man, his neatly combed hair and navy blue blazer could have belonged to one of Washington's seasoned politicians. The Nashville resident runs a blog called Nashville for the 21st Century, where he promotes progressive leaders and theories, and sometimes bashes the unfair treatment of liberals. Despite his serious exterior, he's got a cheeky streak. His Twitter bio reads: "Trying to cheapen the public discourse since 2006."

His message to the Democratic Party members who joined the young folks for lunch was pretty straightforward: get involved in community happenings because young voters are more likely to get out and do something than sit around at Shoney's and listen to old guys talk about themselves. That, and leave the campaign tricks to the young guns.

"We're very targeted in what we do," Braisted said that morning before the training sessions began for the attendees.

He explained that young party members are focusing on compiling data collected by local election commissions on individual voter preferences to maximize efficiency in focusing their energy on the voters most likely to listen.

Johnson, for her part, seems to be taking advantage of the young members' support. When she first got seriously involved in the 2008 campaign for Barack Obama, she met young intern Tyler Yount, who is now her campaign coordinator.

One aspect of Johnson's campaign is effectively using social media to connect and communicate with potential voters. Yount, she said, helped to set up her various accounts in ways that would best reach people—stuff she wasn't too knowledgeable about beforehand.

"The knowledge they have is amazing!" she said cheerfully.

But young party members' proficiency in technology isn't the only quality Democrats must capitalize on.

"When they get involved, they're very energized," Johnson said.

And after 2010's rise of the highly energetic Tea Party, energy in any form would be a boon to Democrats in this red state.

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