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.