franktalk (2007-46)

Circular Firing Squads

Frank Talk

Factions muddy the water of party purity

by Frank Cagle

The Knox County Republican Party is split into factions. The forces of Sheriff Tim Hutchison and County Mayor Mike Ragsdale are locked into a circular firing squad. While there are a few Democrats on the Knox County Commission, the power struggle on Commission and for the fee offices is a pitched battle largely between the Republicans.

Phil Bredesen, Al Gore, and Harold Ford Jr. have demonstrated that city precincts can deliver majorities for a Democratic candidate in the middle of Republican East Tennessee. Republicans tend to flee to the suburbs. The urban pioneers moving into Knoxville neighborhoods and downtown tend to be Democrats. The numbers have trended toward eventual Democratic control of the mayorâ’s office and City Council. The city population is roughly half the county voting total.

It would seem that local Democrats would have a golden opportunity in the next county election to pick up seats and local offices. But while the Republicans may be split into factions, they ainâ’t got nothinâ’ on the Democrats.

For the past few years, the Democratic Party has been led by Jim Gray and a cadre of energetic and committed people who would describe themselves as â“progressive.â” Others prefer liberal. Their critics within the party call them â“Deaniacsâ” after the current national chairman Howard Dean, who came into national prominence claiming to be from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

This group also tends to include local labor leaders, a declining but still important faction of the Democratic coalition.

The progressives are not happy with business-oriented middle-of-the-road office holders like Bredesen. Bredesen has yet to attend a Knox County Truman Day Dinner, the annual party fundraiser.

This past year there has been an effort by traditional conservative East Tennessee Democrats to take back control of the local party. The traditional Democrats have had success electing people like District Attorney Randy Nichols and County Clerk Mike Padgett and they have been the base for longtime Commissioner Billy Tindell and his son, Harry, a state legislator. Don Daugherty, who considers Nichols his mentor, was elected party chair in a contentious county convention earlier this year.

The Nichols-Padgett-Tindell wing of the party believes it is necessary to garner the support of independents and moderate Republicans in order to win elections. The Gray-Progressives believe it necessary to hold to Democratic principles and not be â“Republican lite.â”

In the early going, it appears that some of most vigorous fights in the coming election season may be among the Democrats. In 2nd Commission District, for example, progressive Amy Broyles, who ran against incumbent Democrat Tindell last year, is running with the support of Gray and the other district commissioner, Mark Harmon. She is opposed by Cortney Piper, who has support from Tindell and some traditional big-contributor local Democrats. The winner will most likely face Chuck Bolus, the Republican appointed to the seat last January and then removed as a result of the sunshine lawsuit. Both Bolus and Broyles are expected to seek an appointment to fill the seat should Commission get around to making the appointment. Piper has announced she has no intention of seeking the appointment.

It appears there will be other races in the Democratic primary where the progressives will field candidates against the candidates recruited by the party. Daugherty has studiously tried to avoid taking sides in the primary, attending all candidate fund-raisers. But he has inevitability been accused of helping one candidate over the other.

The key for the Democrats is whether, after hard fought primaries, they will unite to help elect Democrats in the general election or whether in-fighting will sabotage the effort.

Itâ’s going to be an interesting year.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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