The Fighting 26 Democrats Work to Stay Relevant


The Ledger, Sam Stockard, July 17, 2015 - Sometimes Tennessee Democrats must feel like a tree that falls in the forest: Does anyone hear them?

When Democratic legislative leaders called for a special session this summer on Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s market-based plan to use federal dollars to catch 280,000 working people in a coverage gap, they found themselves alone.

While polls show a majority of Tennesseans back Insure Tennessee, no support came from Republicans in the state Legislature, and even the governor remained largely quiet, saying little other than he saw no reason to call a special session without evidence it would pass.

Still, Democrats on Capitol Hill and in leadership positions across the state say they will persist in spreading a stronger message and building numbers until they regain relevance.

“We call ourselves the Fighting 26, and that’s just what we do. We try and be a voice for the needs of the few,” says state Rep. Raumesh Akbari, a second-term Democrat from Memphis.

House Democrats are focused on health care, economic development, education and public safety, and since the end of the legislation session in April have been “doing a lot of listening,” talking to people in their districts, statewide and in each grand division, to find out what they want.

“I know our numbers are small, but we are maximizing what we can do as a small caucus,” says Akbari, an attorney.

Democrats held power in the House for more than a hundred years, and even when Republicans forged ahead in the Senate, former Speaker John Wilder managed to cobble together enough support to keep his position as lieutenant governor.

Today, however, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey commands the Senate, which is made up of 28 Republicans and only five Democrats.

Short of a special session this summer, Insure Tennessee is almost certain to be one of the primary topics when the Legislature convenes in 2016, and Akbari believes it can help the party gain traction.

“I’m hoping our commitment to continuing to fight for expanding Medicaid for Insure Tennessee will resonate with voters,” she says, along with strong support for “education in really trying to fortify the traditional public model,” in addition to economic development.

Ask state Rep. John Ray Clemmons about Tennessee Democrats, and he points out the only ones left in the House caucus are “young scrappers like myself who worked their tail off to get in there to turn things around and get the party back on track and get the state back on the rails.

“And then you have a few of the survivors who have done such a great job that they survived the past decade. What we’re doing is set about with a really solid game plan to work our way back into prominence, because we’re talking about issues that actually matter to Tennesseans across the state of Tennessee.”

Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat and attorney by trade, says he is focused on maintaining a pro-business climate, which largely includes Insure Tennessee because of the positive impact it would have on hospitals, jobs and the working poor.

He’s also pushing mass transit.

“For some reason, public investment in infrastructure has almost become a negative phrase,” Clemmons says. “I don’t believe that should be the case. If we’re going to continue to grow as an economy locally and statewide we’ve got to invest in ways to effectively move people around.”

Gov. Haslam broached the idea of raising Tennessee’s 20-cent gas tax earlier this year.

State Sen. Jim Tracy, a Bedford County Republican, is planning a fall tour of the state to measure whether Tennesseans could stomach higher fees to fund transportation projects.

But Clemmons isn’t buying it. Asked is Republicans are afraid of a gas-tax increase, and he says, “I feel like they’re afraid of their own shadow most of the time.” He defines that “shadow” as tea party conservatives.

“The governor seems to be unwilling to lead on the issue, and they seem to be unwilling to move on the issue before the next election,” Clemmons says.

“We can’t afford to waste any more time to prepare for and facilitate continued growth.

“Nashville’s a prime example. Every day we wait before doing something in the direction of mass transit is another six months lost. Every month is a year lost because what we’re talking about is a long-term problem that requires immediate solutions.”

Clemmons backs the governor’s moves on Tennessee Promise to provide free community college education and Reconnect, which he maintains can help the state grow economically.

But if people can’t get to work in less than two hours or gain access to affordable health care, “that’s simply not acceptable.”

Battling back

Involved in state politics since 1999, Clemmons says he witnessed the Democrats’ demise on Capitol Hill.

The Democratic Party was doing its own thing, he says, while Democrats who controlled the state Legislature felt they could go off in their own direction because they would always be in power.

The result was lack of a unified message or effort to building a “strong party with a strong message,” Clemmons says, and a “wakeup call” forcing Democrats to regroup.

Though some Democratic Party leaders might not like to admit it, Clemmons also says President Barack Obama’s placement on the ballot in 2008 and 2012 had a negative trickle-down effect.

“It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think there’s any way to deny the political realities of impact he had on Tennessee politics,” Clemmons says.

Obama’s ascendance coincided with a tea party movement statewide and the influx of out-of-state dollars, making it more difficult for Democrats to win elections, he says.

But while Democrats such as Karl Dean, former state Sen. Andy Berke, AC Wharton and Madeline Rogero have won election to nonpartisan mayoral posts in Tennessee’s biggest cities, legislative and congressional Democrats have lost ground in a big way.

In Knoxville, for instance, incumbent Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson lost to Republican Eddie Smith in 2014 after pro-voucher groups from outside Tennessee poured more than a half-million dollars into a negative campaign against her, according to Cameron Brooks, Knox County Democratic Party chairman.

Johnson hasn’t announced her candidacy for 2016, but Brooks says he’s “100 percent certain” she will run for the seat and whoever wins the Democratic nomination in that district will have major financial backing locally and from the state party.

“It’s not just us. It’s the entire South where the Democratic Party has faced an uphill challenge the last 20 years, and we just have to work hard and look at what’s working and throw out what’s not working and just be there for people. In time this ship will be righted,” Brooks adds.

“The worst thing is just to write it off, get frustrated and say, well, Democrats can’t do this, they can’t do that. They’re not a viable option. We’re not gonna be like that. We’re going to continue to work hard and look for openings to regain some footing in the South.”

Former Murfreesboro Mayor Tommy Bragg, who was elected in 2014 to the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee, says the party needs to “replenish” its bench with candidates who believe in equal pay and equality in race relations and citizenship.

The party has failed to send a strong message to people across the state, he notes.

“In many ways we’ve been worried more about messages that really don’t have anything to do with governance,” says Bragg, a three-term mayor whose father, John Bragg, served for nearly three decades in the state House.

Business leaders and groups across Tennessee are recognizing many Republican initiatives as “false issues that don’t really enhance the ability to govern or make good decisions,” Bragg says.

Operating at low cost while encouraging everyone to participate – without stumbling over “emotional issues” – leads to good government, Bragg says.

Outnumbered in Williamson

Republicans hold about a 2-to-1 edge on Democrats in Williamson County, one of the state’s most affluent areas. Representing that area, state Sen. Jack Johnson chairs the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee that defeated Insure Tennessee in the 2015 regular session. and Glen Casada, chairman of the House Republican Caucus, are outspoken opponents of Haslam’s plan as well.

Faced with those odds, Williamson County Democratic Party Chairman Chris Polk says the group’s strategy is to remain active – it holds a coffee klatch every Sunday morning and potluck dinners – and to counter what he calls the “echo chamber” in WTN radio 99.7 FM.

“There are no progressive talk stations, so when you have the echo chamber, you have a 24-hour news cycle and your channel spewing propaganda and a lot of misinformation, it’s very difficult,” he says.

Polk contends Casada and Rep. Jeremy Durham have presided over “some pretty offensive legislation” to Tennesseans with Durham sponsoring a bill two years ago “handcuffing” the governor’s ability to pass Insure Tennessee.

“That in itself is causing Tennesseans to die, to choose between paying rent and getting medical care, to choose between eating and getting medicine and that just shouldn’t happen in the United States of America,” says Polk, a firefighter/paramedic.

In light of a recent Supreme Court ruling affirming the federal insurance exchange, it’s time for the state Legislature to support Insure Tennessee, which is a way to deliver more affordable health insurance rather than a government takeover, Polk says.

On this issue and several others, though, “old-school” Republicans are being led by tea party-type conservatives.

“This is something that in my opinion the Republican Party, the conservatives in Tennessee, have got to get a handle on,” he says.

“This is an animal they’ve created that they have now lost control of, and now, as the old saying goes, the nuts are running the insane asylum.”

Durham was prime sponsor in the House of the Stop Obamacare Act in 2014, a law forcing the governor to obtain General Assembly approval of Medicaid expansion through use of funds from the Affordable Care Act.

He contends Tennessee nearly went bankrupt in 2005 because of TennCare expenses, which forced former Gov. Phil Bredesen to trim 172,000 people from the program’s rolls, and Haslam’s proposal would return even more than were removed then.

“Many people in my district view this as simply an expansion of entitlements, and reality suggests that removing people from the rolls again would be extremely difficult – both politically and legally,” Durham says.

Although Democrats say funds for Insure Tennessee would come from taxes paid already from the state, Durham says the Legislature must do its part to control the national debt and reject short-term federal funds that come with “strings attached” and force the state to rely on the “overly-intrusive” federal government.

Durham points out people can obtain emergency health care in emergency rooms, though that’s not a long-term solution, and he says the nation needs to elect a president who will give states the flexibility to design programs without expanding entitlements or putting taxpayers at risk.

New direction

Redistricting made life harder for Democrats, Akbari says, noting it could take a few election cycles for the party to regain prominence statewide.

“I am encouraged by what we are finding out as we go out in communities. I think a lot of things are happening a lot of people aren’t necessarily pleased with,” she says.

Clemmons contends mainstream Republicans are being held hostage by tea party types on issues such as Insure Tennessee, worried someone will swoop in with out-of-town money and beat them at the ballot box.

Democrats, meanwhile, can bank on gaining the support of Tennessee voters who support programs such as Insure Tennessee.

“It’s not going to be an overnight turnaround, but I do think the momentum is swaying in our direction just because the people are starting to see the effects of Republican leadership. They’re tired of it,” he says.

“They’re seeing what the real problems are inherent in Republican policies, and they’re just fed up with it.”