Yarbro v. Henry: Upset in the making?

Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 11:45pm

It’s barely an hour into the first day of early voting outside the Metro office building on Second Avenue, and there’s challenger Jeff Yarbro standing in the sweltering sun, shaking hands with voters, and making one final pitch.

“We’ve got the momentum,” Yarbro tells a reporter, before rattling off his campaign’s tally of “voter contacts” through door-knocking and phone calls. It’s classic campaign-speak, usually the type that comes from an underdog.

With time ticking until Election Day on Aug. 5, there’s split thinking on whether Yarbro, 33, can pull off a colossal upset in the Democratic primary and dethrone 83-year-old District 21 state Sen. Douglas Henry, a fixture in Tennessee politics for decades, having first served in the state House in 1955. For the last 39 years, he’s held his current Senate seat, representing a massive electorate that extends from Bellevue through west Nashville, Green Hills and the generally progressive neighborhood around Vanderbilt, all the way to parts of Antioch.

In casual conversation, some Henry supporters boast about the certainty of an impending blowout. Henry, after all, has staved off competition from within the party ranks before, the most recent serious challenge coming in 2002, when the elder statesman knocked off Jeff Wilson by 22 percentage points.

Supporters also point out that Henry has the endorsement of Gov. Phil Bredesen — featured in a Henry campaign ad — as well as backing from the entire Davidson County Democratic delegation to the General Assembly, a who’s-who list of area educators, and all but one of the Metro Council members (Kristine Lalonde, a Yarbro supporter, is the holdout) who represent constituents inside Henry’s district.

Could an incumbent with so much backing really lose to a young upstart like Yarbro?

“I feel encouraged,” said Henry on the first afternoon of early voting. “My only real disappointment I’ve had was that the AFL-CIO endorsed the other man, but I have some union friends.”

Despite Yarbro’s uphill battle, many impartial politicos — not just Yarbro die-hards — believe the race is far from decided. Aside from outdoing Henry on the fundraising end, Yarbro, if nothing else, has in many ways controlled the campaign discourse. With Henry declining Yarbro’s invitation to join him in a public debate, Yarbro has been able to make his case — a call for “new energy and ideas” to the Senate — without much of a counter from Henry at all. Yarbro, an attorney from the powerful Bass Berry & Sims law firm, has assembled an impressive list of supporters in his own right and has energized a horde of young progressive voters behind his candidacy.

In a recent interview with The City Paper, even Henry himself tipped his cap to his challenger, calling Yarbro’s campaign “well-organized” and “more thorough” than those run by primary opponents in past years.

‘Progressive or not’

Yarbro’s attack has been on two fronts. First, he’s tried to appeal to Democratic frustration over consecutive legislative sessions in which right-wing issues like guns in bars and the attempted nullification of President Obama’s health care reform law have dominated the political scene. Yarbro doesn’t explicitly point the finger at Henry, but he doesn’t exclude him either.

“By no means is he the worst offender, but sure, he’s been part of that problem at times,” Yarbro said. “He was one of the only people that supported the so-called Health Freedom Act, and he was one of the only Democrats on [state Rep.] Susan Lynn’s states’ rights committee.”

It’s those sorts of positions that have powered Yarbro’s related strategy — casting himself as a progressive alternative to Henry’s centrist, often conservative, style. Besides hitting Henry for supporting the health reform nullification attempt, Yarbro has called Henry out for his pro-life views and for being one
of two Democrats to oppose bringing a bill to ban mountaintop removal coal mining to the Senate floor.

“It’s no great acrobatic feat to be to the left of Sen. Henry,” Yarbro said. “Pretty much every middle-of-the-road Democrat in the district is. So I don’t think that we’re running a particularly right-left campaign. We’re running on places where there are differences.”

Henry backs up each vote. On opposing what he calls “federal-mandated” health care, Henry said the new federal law could cost the state $200 million. He later voted against the nullification bill after the state attorney general said a lawsuit wouldn’t pass muster. Henry said he actually opposes mountaintop removal, but argued allowing the recent bill to go before the Senate would have set a new precedent of voting on bills before they’ve been thoroughly discussed in committee.

“I don’t know much about what progressive Democrats think,” Henry said, laughing. “I’ve been a Democrat all my life. Whether I’m progressive or not, that’s for voters to judge. I think I’ve been fairly progressive.”

Henry, in fact, enjoys praise from progressives on several positions, including his environmental stances. He’s largely credited with the preservation of Radnor Lake. And earlier this year, Henry supported the protection of the real estate transfer tax, which the state uses to protect wetlands and open space from development.

Henry has also received high marks for his votes on early childhood development issues, including his efforts this year to protect state dollars used to try to reduce Tennessee’s infant mortality rate. And when it comes to education, many have applauded Henry for writing the state’s original charter school legislation.

“Sen. Henry has a unique ability to be effective,” said Metro Councilman Jason Holleman, who supports Henry. “With the possibility of a continued Republican majority, he’s somebody that demonstrated this last legislative session the ability to accomplish important, progressive agenda items that I’m not sure someone else could accomplish.”

Some Yarbro supporters don’t necessarily take stabs at Henry’s legislative record. Rather, they insist their guy would perform better in the office. Take Katy Varney, for instance, a partner in the well-connected McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations firm. Varney has voted for Henry for years, but she’ll be casting a ballot for Yarbro, who teaches her son’s Sunday school class, this time around.

“It’s a vote for Jeff and not a vote against Doug Henry,” Varney said.

An important education

On the issues, Henry said he hopes to “maintain the good framework for education” that’s been established with the state’s recent federal Race to the Top victory. Each legislative session, he said, the budget is his top priority.

“That’s what I’m really focused on,” Henry said. “I suppose that’s not very progressive either, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. For Tennessee to make progress in education, conservation or anything else, you’ve got to have a firm financial foundation.”

Yarbro also said education is his top priority, calling it his “driving passion” for entering the race.

“There’s a great deal of energy involved in education reform in Nashville, in Memphis, and at the local level,” Yarbro said. “I think Gov. Bredesen has set up some good work on Race to the Top, but it’s going to take a level of engagement that you don’t see right now.”

In the end, all that’s required of the victor is to finish on the better end of what could be a turnout of only 15,000 or so Democratic voters. Presumably, Yarbro would need massive advantages in staple liberal neighborhoods such as Sylvan Park, Richland and the Belmont-Hillsboro areas to win. He’d likely need to finish even in Bellevue and hold his own in other parts of the district. Belle Meade and Green Hills are considered Henry locks.

One factor that could play to Yarbro’s advantage is the competitive Republican gubernatorial primary, with three candidates vying for the GOP nomination. Some have suggested that Republicans who have traditionally voted for Henry in the Democratic primary may opt to vote in the Republican primary instead.

“I’ll leave it for others to do the speculation,” Yarbro said.

16 Comments on this post:

By: Kosh III on 7/26/10 at 6:51

I've seen the tv ad with Bredesen.
Radnor Lake is a big plus, but Henry looked befuddled at best.

By: mariebarbara on 7/26/10 at 7:09

Senator Henry has never been befuddled. Anyone who watches him during session would dispute that. His historical knowledge and integrity is some Mr. Yarbro could learn from. Mr. Yarbro is a puppet of the well fund groups who put him out there as the front guy. I thought is was very telling that he works for a lobbying firm and intends if he wins to continue to work there. He would not be an independent thinker considering the representation of his district but would do as the back room guys tell him.

By: bfra on 7/26/10 at 7:46

Henry even looks befuddled in the picture here. I would love to see the total of what he is spending on mail solicitations for votes

By: govskeptic on 7/26/10 at 7:54

Mr. Yarbro's first TV ad has jumped on the ever popular "Education", I'm a guy for improving it. "It's for the kids" is not a bad thing, but it sure is getting a little tiring in many different ways. Given the other Senators serving in Davidson County, Sen. Henry has long been the champ by a long margin!

By: morpheus120 on 7/26/10 at 8:22

First, I want to challenge the logic that people like Jason Holleman use in supporting Doug Henry. His theory is that since the state is going to the Republicans, that we need Doug Henry up there since they know him and like him.


The Republicans - as we've already seen this past session - are going to run a ridiculous right-wing agenda that is anti-choice, anti-worker, anti-public education, anti-healthcare, and anti-gun control. None of this helps regular Tennesseans and it poisons the public discourse.

The only choices Democrats have are to go along with them or to stand up and say NO.

Doug Henry has decided to go along. The GOP didn't even know where the bathrooms were in the General Assembly and from day one, Doug Henry was showing them where to go and how to flush the toilets. You only have to see how he's reacted to healthcare and "states rights" to know that this is just the beginning of another four years of Republican appeasement from a man who has no business doing so.

The 21st District deserves better and it deserves someone who is going to say NO to these closet fascists who have no idea how to govern. I for one am not satisfied to sit there with my hand out and hope that the TN Republicans decide to play nice and spend the next four years cajoling, flattering, and appeasing them. That is not a reason to vote for someone and frankly, shame on people like Holleman (who should know better) for saying something so mealy-mouthed. That Blue Dog Democrat strategy of Republican appeasement is the reason why President Obama and the health care reform bill are unpopular and it's why the Democrats are at risk for losing seats in November.

I want Jeff Yarbro up there in their faces every day calling bulls**t on every stupid lie the wingnuts tell and every handout they try to give their corporate masters. The only way a bully learns his lesson is if you stand up to him and hit back. Yarbro will do that, Doug Henry will not (and has not).

The choice is clear on Aug. 5. Vote for a fighter or vote for a collaborator. To me, it's no choice at all.

By: eehuth on 7/26/10 at 8:54

The attacks on Jeff Yarbro are wholly unwarranted. He is Democrat
who acts like a Democrat--that's the distinction!

By: chenowethp on 7/26/10 at 8:56

I sincerely appreciate Senator Henry's many years of service. The Bredesen commercial convinced me, however, that it is time for someone else to take a shot at that job.

By: OPENmindedONE on 7/26/10 at 9:13

Did Henry NOT looke befuddled in session because he was asleep?

He's been in the Tennessee General Assembly longer than most of our citizenry have been alive knowledgeable maybe, truly effective, never more. When is enough enough? Henry should have bowed out years ago

There's a new ad for Henry on television talking about the BP oil spill, what an utterly ridiculous and pitiful attempt to grasp at straws.

It's time for him to leave. Welcome Yarbro!!!

By: Loretta Bridge on 7/26/10 at 10:13

Has Henry done anything else other ran "save" Radnor Lake. I am sure he
did that all by himself.

By: Writeman on 7/26/10 at 10:17

Henry has been there TOO long, period. Doesn't matter if he's the greatest guy in the world. It's time for new blood. There should be term limits on these guys.

By: Nashvillian50 on 7/26/10 at 11:22

Henry Goes negitive...He is toast.

See: http://blogs.tennessean.com/politics/2010/yarbro-attacks-henry-over-misleading-attack-ad/

By: Nashvillian50 on 7/26/10 at 11:33

I have a problem with campaigns that can't win on message and resort to attacking folks for no other reason that the place where they work. Lawyers represent people, sometimes so called bad people. Law firms represent clients, sometimes bad clients. So what? That's our system. If you don't like it, move to China. They don't bother with lawyers over there.

Sadly, candidate Yarbro is now getting this treatment from the so called "southern gentleman" Henry.

I will note however that Senator Henry calling anyone a "pawn of big business" and not "progressive" enough is a fairly dangerous game for someone who votes more Republican than a lot of Republicans and who has a load of business PAC money in his bank account (including some from the "bad" place where Yarbro works that is the subject of the ad according the Tennessean---opps) but I digress. We have a big tent in the Democrat party and a really really conservative, pro-life, anti national healthcare bill, pro states rights, pro guns in bars and pro mountain top removal "Democrat" like Doug Henry is just as welcome as anyone else..............................................................right?

By: budlight on 7/26/10 at 11:48

OPENmindedONE on 7/26/10 at 10:13
Did Henry NOT looke befuddled in session because he was asleep?

He's been in the Tennessee General Assembly longer than most of our citizenry have been alive knowledgeable maybe, truly effective, never more. When is enough enough? Henry should have bowed out years ago

I agree with you open! Maybe the old geezer(s) in politics should start some kind of mentoring program and then help the young upstarts know the rules and ropes.

Oh yeah! That's already being done with lobbyists and good old boys! I forgot for a moment!

By: lionelhutz on 7/26/10 at 12:15

Hey mariebarbara, what's your basis for the comment "Mr. Yarbro is a puppet of the well fund groups who put him out there as the front guy"? Since he doesn't work for a lobbying firm (it's a law firm of 214 attorneys with 2 lobbyists), what's the basis?

Which well-funded groups are putting him out there? How is he a front-guy? What agenda do those groups have? Who are the back-room guys? What will they be telling him?

By: Puhleeze on 7/26/10 at 1:58

Hey Nashvillian50, I think Henry has demonstrated over the years (decades) that his votes aren't motivated by appeasement; they're motivated by him-not-being-a-crazy-Liberal-Democrat.

By: CMartel2 on 8/4/10 at 1:36

"The attacks on Jeff Yarbro are wholly unwarranted. He is Democrat
who acts like a Democrat--that's the distinction!"

Well, actually, that's the problem. Last I checked those policies have taken us nowher but backwards. One need only look at more liberal cities like Memphis or New Orleans to begin to see the failures of the leftist, "progressive" agenda.

It's time to move forward by moving to the right. There's a reason why test scores in surrounding counties annhilate those in Davidson County.

Good for Henry for at least considering sane alternatives.