When considering the premier state legislative primary of the year — make that, next year — there’s no use denying it: We started this.
The moment longtime Democratic state Sen. Douglas Henry confirmed in May that he would not be seeking re-election to his District 21 seat in 2014, reporters from this outlet and others started filling up the voicemail inboxes of Jason Holleman and Jeff Yarbro, eager to line up the horses for a race that suddenly had a date.
Yarbro, an attorney, had challenged and very nearly defeated the forever-incumbent Henry in 2010, causing most to assume he would make another run at the seat. Holleman, a Metro Council member (and also an attorney) with an outsized profile due largely to several public political fights with Mayor Karl Dean, is term-limited as a district council member, and his political ambitions are a secret no one bothered to keep. As tends to be the case in these situations, unanswered phone calls said a lot.
Within 24 hours, each had given a reluctant confirmation of his plans to run, with talk of formal announcements to come in due time. Those still haven’t arrived, but the two young Turks nevertheless find themselves in the middle of the most buzzed-about soft opening in recent memory, a pre-primary between men who each get mentioned by local Democrats during optimistic — or is it desperate? — conversations about the future of a beat-down party in a state as red as it’s ever been.
Holleman and Yarbro live half a mile from each other, but the distance between them is even less than that.
Both are young white attorneys from the up-and-coming political hotbed that is the Sylvan Park neighborhood. They are both married to attorneys, with whom they have cute kids. And they are both far to the left of about 90 percent of the state legislature they’re seeking to join.
Political insiders who know them both — and there are many who fit that description — suggested the race would have to go rather far into some deep policy weeds if substantive distinctions were to be made between the two progressives.
Invited toward that thicket, both candidates responded similarly, each avoiding commentary about the other and frequently returning to a common refrain: Isn’t it a little early?
“We don’t even know who all’s going to be on the ballot,” said Yarbro, alluding to the possibility of more Democratic candidates, and the prospect of a Republican challenger in the general election. “I think it’s a little early to be talking about distinctions in some ways. I think we’re both — I think all the candidates will lay out their vision for the legislature and what it means to be an effective member up there.”
Now is the time, both said, to become better acquainted with a district that was dramatically altered when Republicans redrew the state lines in 2011, both geographically and ideologically. Now, it’s a gerrymandered sprawl, stretching from Holleman and Yarbro’s homes in Sylvan Park southeast toward the Rutherford line and then sweeping back north to pick up parts of East Nashville and Madison.
“I have a good sense of what my message will be in this race, because it comes from spending the last six years on the Metro Council, not just in my district, but with my colleagues who represent people all across the county,” Holleman said. “And that’s helped me, I think, understand what’s important to everyday people in the county. But obviously I want to get out and spend time with those people directly and get a sense of where they see us going as a city and how it fits in with the larger direction of the state.”
But while they may advocate mostly parallel policy positions, tracing their political paths to this point reveals two lines that have repeatedly criss-crossed, even if only by happenstance.
In 2010, when Yarbro rose to challenge Henry — and came up just 17 votes short of knocking him off — Holleman was on the other side, working to support the incumbent.
Less than a year later, Holleman found himself on the wrong end of the mayor and a long list of mayoral allies who supported an unsuccessful effort to unseat the councilman after he refused to get in line behind the biggest items on Dean’s agenda. The mayor’s candidate was Sarah Lodge Tally, an attorney whose father is an attorney at Bass, Berry & Sims — the firm where Yarbro works, and one that has been largely supportive of Dean’s political efforts.
The collision course may well be one that sets itself only by way of hindsight. At the same time, there’s no doubt that such skirmishes revealed, and perhaps established, allegiances that remain today.
For his part, the man they’re racing to replace said he plans to stay out of it. Henry told The City Paper that he has “high regard” for both Holleman and Yarbro, and that he has no plans to pick a side.
But though discussion of the race remains a game of inside baseball — how else could it be in a primary that is a year away? — there are certainly those who fear things could get nasty within the party, if not within the candidates’ shared neighborhood. Multiple people in the political and social circles that connect Holleman and Yarbro declined to speak on the record about the race, and described widespread consternation amongst the city’s young Democrats about being forced to choose between the two.
Nashville remains a smaller town than it tends to think. And if all politics is local, does local politics have anywhere to go but personal?
Both, in their own way, — and without knowledge of the other’s comments — expressed a desire and an expectation that things won’t go there, if only due to the doctrine of mutually assured social awkwardness.
“Generally speaking, primaries are supposed to be largely positive campaigns,” Yarbro said, “and I think the fact that Jack Yarbro and Walter Holleman will probably be in the same kindergarten class hopefully contributes to a positive campaign.”
Citing his experience with intra-neighborhood campaigns, Holleman concurred.
“This will be the third time that I’ve run for election, and each time my opponent has been someone that lived in my neighborhood,” he said. “I think the lesson to be learned from that is that when this campaign is over, we still have to go to the same grocery store and go to the same greenway and get out in the same neighborhood. So I think what’s important is to run the race on our ideas and not make personal attacks.”
They may avoid personal attacks, but the first round of financial disclosures filed last month was seen by many as a full-on assault by Yarbro, who revealed a war chest worth just more than $100,000 giving him an almost 5-to-1 lead on Holleman, who brought in $22,200. (Subtracting contributions earmarked for the general election lessens the blow to Holleman, but only slightly.) The six-figure disclosure from Yarbro — before anything that could be considered a true fundraising effort — confirmed conventional wisdom marking him as the presumptive favorite.
The financial punch might have made for an early knockout in some races, but Holleman hasn’t been one to back down from a fight. The underdog’s role would be familiar to the guy who survived his own bout with Goliath in 2011, and as it happens, backed Metro school board member Amy Frogge in her now famous victory over Margaret Dolan and the latter’s massive financial advantage.
It might be best not to set up two characters that haven’t yet developed, in a cast that may not be set. Holleman and Yarbro fit nicely on the marquee, but more names could indeed emerge. And though there’s no noise from the right yet, there’s little reason to think that a Republican supermajority, with deep pockets and nothing better to do, won’t try to keep the Democrats honest.
And anyway, isn’t it a little early?