It felt odd for Roy Herron to be away from the Capitol on the opening day of the legislative session. For 26 years, he had made the trek from the town of Dresden in West Tennessee to Nashville to be there every first Tuesday of January to ring in a new year of trying to pass what he thought were good laws and fight bad ones.
But he wasn’t there when the speakers gaveled in the session last week. He was out asking for votes for a new job — one as the chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Last month, the recently retired state senator jumped into an already bustling race for party chairman to replace outgoing Chip Forrester, who oversaw the party as it lost 27 legislative seats in the last two elections.
The influence of the state’s Democratic Party may be shrinking in Tennessee, but competition to rule over it has become something of a crowded field.
From all appearances, his strongest rival for the job is Dave Garrison, who has worked closely with the party’s board for three years as treasurer. Following him are former party communications director Wade Munday and vice president and political liaison for the Chattanooga Area Labor Council Jane Hampton Bowen.
The next chairman will have to pick up the pieces and rebuild a party that has virtually no sway left on Capitol Hill and only a small bullpen of candidates ready for the party faithful to rally behind.
The Democratic Party’s 72-member executive committee plans to vote Saturday, Jan. 26, for their next chairperson.
Herron officially committed to joining the race during the holiday break, a decision he said he had put off after dealing with deaths and illnesses in his family. But the late start isn’t the only factor that sets him apart from his opponents.
Herron is a life member of the National Rifle Association with a legislative record that includes favorable votes for contentious bills the party fought strongly against, such as allowing guns in bars and parks. He has also positioned himself as anti-abortion, although like his Democratic counterparts he voted repeatedly against movements to insert anti-abortion language into the state Constitution.
The winner of the race will take over for Chip Forrester, four-year chairman of the party who led during what were arguably the worst four years in the party’s history. Republicans snatched up commanding majorities on Capitol Hill in 2010 and again in 2012, when the GOP picked up enough seats to render Democrats irrelevant to passing most legislation.
Herron is the only candidate who spent serious time on Capitol Hill, after having won five terms in the House and four in the Senate. He also attempted to run in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor, but ducked out to pursue an open seat in Congress, though he was later walloped in the general election.
Herron’s fans say his experience on the campaign trail set him apart from the competition. And although Herron insists he’s not thinking about a bid for higher office, some think he could revisit his abandoned try for governor in the long term and that ultimately, it would be a win-win for the party.
“To even have a shot at statewide office, the party needs to be in better shape. So maybe that would be a good thing, because the party needs to be better off for him to swing that,” said Ben Smith, a former hopeful for the chairman’s seat who exited the race last week in favor of Herron.
A Nashville attorney, Garrison is in his first race with his own name on a ballot.
“I don’t take it as a criticism that I haven’t been running elections for 20 years,” said Garrison. “I think it’s an asset that I bring a fresh perspective, but the know-how and the ability to build coalitions and get things done at the party.”
“I don’t believe that the chair of the party necessarily needs to be a political candidate,” he added. “It needs to be somebody’s who’s raised money for others, and the party; it needs to be somebody that can build coalitions; it needs to be somebody that can run and manage an organization, and it needs to be somebody who can bring people that are not at the table back to the table or new people to the table of the Democratic Party,” he said.
That candidates have to run in a challenging race to earn the top party spot is healthy, said Sylvia Wood, a member of the executive committee who spent more than 30 years with the AFL-CIO labor council before her retirement. She doesn’t hold Garrison’s lack of political ambition at the state or local level against him, but rather gives him credit in the old-school mentality that people should climb ranks within the party to reach the top.
“He was here in good times and bad times,” she said of Garrison, who she and her AFL-CIO peers want to win. “I don’t think it’s bad to have competition out there, to have to ask people to vote for you, to know how that feels.”
Garrison also enjoys the support of many of Tennessee’s big-city mayors, including Karl Dean in Nashville, A.C. Wharton in Memphis and Madeline Rogero in Knoxville, who collectively wrote in a statement that Garrison “represents a new generation of leadership for our Party and is committed to shaping a new vision for how we grow as a Party.”
When the vote goes down later this month, members of the committee will vote in rounds. After each vote, the candidate with the fewest votes will be knocked off the ballot, forcing supporters to re-evaluate who they will vote for if their favorite is kicked off the list.
Democrats in the House of Representatives ran their own mock election last week to determine how their lone representative on the party’s executive committee, Rep. Mike Turner, would vote come the chairman’s election.
Moments before the vote, Herron told his legislative brotherhood he would make his leadership about them — not the party headquarters, and not himself.
“If you were quitters, you would have already quit and done something else,” he told them, shortly before nudging out Garrison 14-12 for Turner’s lone vote. “If folks are getting pressed up against the wall, knocked down a story and stomped on, that’s gotta change.”