His willingness to challenge the establishment has set Clemmons apart from the pack

Andrea Zelinski, The Nashville Scene

April 30, 2015 - After eons ruling state government with an iron fist, Democrats in the state legislature have now gone half a decade as merely pests to Republicans who control both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor's office.

Republicans swat down their bills with ease. And if not booted by Republicans from their long-held seats, many Democrats from the old guard have left of their own accord. Trying to pass laws, many said, was just no fun any more.

But for the people who have replaced some of the storied figures from General Assemblies past, the main difference is this: They just don't know what it was like when the Democrats had political control.

"If I hear how it was under Speaker [Jimmy] Naifeh one more time, I'm just about to go crazy, because he's not here anymore because we're in the minority," says Rep. Bill Beck, a freshman Democrat serving in the House where Republicans hold a 72-26 majority.

The barrel-chested personal injury lawyer who represents parts of East Nashville and Old Hickory replaced outgoing Democratic firebrand Mike Turner, who decided against running for re-election after a 14-year tenure that included a bout as caucus chairman. Turner left mulling a run for Nashville mayor, a move he ultimately opted against.

"There's a lot of similarities there," says Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley). "Beck's got a big laugh and is a very gregarious-type person. Turner was a bull in a china shop that is a very unique individual, that has a big heart and a strong exterior. Beck doesn't slip into a room, and neither did Turner."

But in some cases, the two couldn't be more different. Turner's political emotions were known to run high on the floor of the House, often leaving him one straw away from picking a fight with the equally hot-headed Republican majority leader. But while Turner was itching to take on Republicans, Beck's been known as a regular at Republican hangouts, shooting the breeze and establishing relationships.

"They don't have to put on their partisan hats. They don't have the play the roles they have to play on the floor and in public, and you just get to know the person," Beck says.

One of his most noteworthy contributions this session was teaming up with Republicans in committee to shoot down a barrage of gun bills — one allowing people to carry guns openly without a permit, another allowing gun dealers to sell to permit holders without running a background check. But his latest claim to fame was getting picked up on a DUI charge.

While Beck was battling gun legislation, Rep. John Ray Clemmons was preparing his case against legislation meant to tighten abortion restrictions.

His colleagues note the no-nonsense West Nashville Dem was so green he called people testifying before committees "witnesses" and approached hearings like interrogations, much as he does in his day job as a civil litigation attorney.

But that kind of willingness to challenge the establishment has set Clemmons apart from the pack, says Rep. Mike Stewart, the chamber's caucus leader.

"When you do your homework and you stick to the message and you're not just going off half-cocked, you can be more aggressive, because everybody recognizes behind your questioning are actual facts, that you're not just wandering in or participating. You are essentially creating your own credentials," says Stewart, an East Nashville Democrat.

If that sounds like a lot of Democrats from Nashville, that is indeed the case. In the 26-member House Democratic Caucus, a third hail from Davidson County, many of them casting themselves as vocal opponents to the Republican majority's ideals.

"In a party with low numbers, you need that. You need all the strings: You need persons who are very vocal in multiple parts, you need those who are going to be the compromisers and the dealmakers to critical degree," says Rep. Harold Love, a dealmaker whose Nashville district swirls just outside downtown.

Clemmons landed in the legislature after a hard-fought ground game against Gary Odom, who began serving during the party's heyday in 1987. Odom climbed to the position of majority leader just before the party crashed and burned, then settled in as a background character.

"I came in in a primary, took out someone. The big reason for that is I just saw people up here doing the same old things the same old way. That's unacceptable," Clemmons says. "We really symbolize this resurgence in a really progressive, energetic voice of the Democratic Party. We're not doing things the same old way."

In a state that has swung pretty far into red, Democrats don't just wander into the legislature, Stewart says. He predicts new members of the minority party will sound much like Clemmons.

But the freshman's sharp tongue has made him an ineffective legislator, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick argues. He lashed out at Clemmons for mouthing off to Republicans in a committee during debate on a school voucher bill.

The idea that this class of Democrats is a changing of the guard is wishful thinking, McCormick says, given how far the caucus as a whole has skewed from center.

"The fact that they've lost so many of the rural districts means their caucus has leaned even more to the far left, rather than the old caucus which they used to have, which was really rather centrist and pro-business," the majority leader explains. "Now it's really far left and anti-business, and I think it's going to make it very difficult for them to gain seats against us."

Along with Beck and Clemmons are two other House freshmen, including Rep. Kevin Dunlap, a teacher who barely won an open seat after Republicans sought to steal away the rural Democratic district held by conservative Democrat Rep. Charles Curtiss since the mid-'90s. While the caucus heralds him as another rising star — the brand of rural Democrat the party needs — he's not brandishing all the bona fides the minority might hope. He was one of two Democrats, for example, who voted against a bill that would allow certain undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges, a bill that failed by one vote this year.

Another House freshman is Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat who replaced the highly respected, combative and influential Lois DeBerry — the first female speaker pro tempore during Democratic rein, who died in office after losing a battle with pancreatic cancer. Akbari won her seat in a special election in 2013, and she lacks some of the political sizzle of her fellow freshmen. But she was able to carry and pass legislation that would curtail how the state Achievement School District approaches turnovers at schools moving the needle on improvement.

As Democrats hope to find themselves in the 99-member House, the fresh-faced minority party has much more weight to carry in the Senate. Two Democrats walked into the chamber on their first day as leaders of their caucus — a five-member band small enough to fit comfortably in a sedan.  

The pair has become something of a tag team. One is Minority Leader Lee Harris from Memphis, who beat out the often ineffectual Ophelia Ford. The other is Nashville's Jeff Yarbro, the Democratic Caucus chairman who succeeded the retiring Douglas Henry, a highly respected conservative Democrat who often voted with Republicans.

Baptized by fire in a special session called by Gov. Haslam — who was unsuccessfully trying to expand Medicaid with the approval of a disinterested GOP legislature — the two have had little time to enjoy a learning curve. Both have largely served as the Democratic voice in the Senate, alongside Sen. Sarah Kyle, who replaces her husband Jim Kyle, the previous minority leader, who left office to seek a seat on the court bench.

"I feel like we've tried to create a strong working relationship where we can fight over something in the morning, then work together on something in the afternoon," Yarbro says. "For Democrats right now, that's what you have to do."

But he can take credit for making the biggest splash this year: proposing that if the state wants to allow guns in city parks, the legislature should — on principle — allow guns at the state Capitol and all its surrounding state buildings.

The Senate agreed with him, throwing both chambers and the governor's office into a panic. The resulting flap delayed passage and forced fixes to problems in the bill before it was ultimately sent to the governor — though without the Yarbro plan for packing heat in the Capitol.

Yarbro and Harris are clever, says Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, arguably the state's most powerful Republican. He's found himself multiple times agreeing with their arguments against GOP legislation on the floor — and seeing fellow Republicans nod their heads in agreement.

"They're smart enough to know: Only speak when you have something to say, not only to be heard," Ramsey says. "And so when they stand up and speak, people listen to them."