Is it unprecedented? Knox County Democratic Party Vice-Chair Cameron Brooks isn't quite sure.
"Yeah, this is possibly the earliest one we've done," Brooks says, standing in the sweltering Fourth and Gill backyard of Lisa Sorenson and Scott Schimmel last Wednesday night.
What "it" is, is a fund-raiser for state Rep. Gloria Johnson, over 14 months in advance of her election. Given the state of disarray of the Democratic Party in Tennessee, having a fund-raiser for a candidate before her opponent has even been announced really does seem unprecedented—even more so because this isn't any old fund-raiser. The $25 suggested donation to get in the door didn't just provide drinks and food from Holly Hambright and access to Johnson herself, it also included a guest appearance by legendary Vols coach Johnny Majors.
"I just don't like what's happening in the so-called Tea Party. It's made up of racists," Majors tells the crowd, before then going on to criticize the recently enacted voting limitations in North Carolina. "We are reaching very close to not being a democratic country."
It's this political climate, Majors says, that makes Johnson such an asset to the Tennessee Legislature. And the next speaker, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, echoes him.
"We need more like her down in Nashville," Rogero says.
Between redistricting and the number of high-profile Democrats who have announced they're leaving the Legislature, there aren't likely to be too many Johnson wannabe's running next year. But Johnson says she believes that will change.
"I think Democrats have a great opportunity to make something happen. Republicans are overreaching. Moderates have no one to vote for," Johnson says. "I think on the majority of issues, Tennesseans are with us."
But the majority—well, the supermajority—of legislators are Republicans, and they're expected to run someone high-profile against Johnson in District 13. Johnson says she's anticipating a protracted battle, and a well-funded one. Thus, the fund-raiser.
"Well, when everyone starts telling you it's going to be big, but we want you back, you know, you've got to be proactive," Johnson says. "And I'll be limited during session from raising money, so we're starting now."
Given the attendance at the fund-raiser—it was packed, despite the heat, and packed with high-profile Knoxvillians like Knox County School Board member Indya Kincannon, Knoxville City Council member Finbarr Saunders, former Tennessee Democratic Party chair Chip Forrester, and former Knoxville mayors Randy Tyree and Daniel Brown—Johnson's off to a good start. Even Chattanooga City Council member Chris Anderson drove up for the event.
"[Johnson] is what every Democratic elected official should aspire to be," Anderson says. "She's a star."
Whether Johnson's star power can hold off another 14 months of the Tennessee GOP's often malicious and farcical press releases and mailings remains to be seen, of course, but for now, Democrats are hopeful. Unprecedented, indeed.