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Tennessee Democrats are accustomed to humiliation. The 1994 Republican Revolution swept them out of major statewide office. In the year 2000, Democrats failed to carry Tennessee for Al Gore, robbing their beloved favorite son of the presidency. Then, in their coup de grâce, Democrats lost a whopping 14 state House seats in 2010 and marched away into the political wilderness, possibly for all time.
But the Mark Clayton debacle might have been even harder for Democrats to take, being such a self-inflicted wound.
On Aug. 2, Clayton won 48,126 votes — 30 percent — to wallop a seven-candidate field. That's because no one of any stature whatsoever — say, Nashville's Karl Dean or Chattanooga's Andy Berke — had enough gumption to challenge Corker and his gazillion-dollar campaign war chest. The most likely explanation for Clayton's victory is that mystified voters went into default mode and picked Clayton only because his name was at the top of the alphabetically ordered ballot.
All it takes is 25 signatures on a petition to put any name on a ballot in Tennessee. But it's just about as easy to erase that name. To avoid becoming the butt of jokes around the country, all the party had to do was a little vetting on the front end right after the April candidate qualifying deadline.
Under the law, the party had a week. After taking a quick glance at all the weirdness on Clayton's website and Facebook page, they could have disowned him right then, and his name would have been removed. Poof! Problem solved. Instead, all Forrester could do was disavow Clayton after his nomination.
"He is a candidate who is associated with hate groups affiliated out of Washington, D.C.," Forrester told reporters the day after the election. "Those groups are bigoted, and that kind of hatred is not something that will be tolerated at the Tennessee Democratic Party, and therefore we are clearly disavowing any support."
These days, Democrats are keeping their heads down and trying not to think about the nutjob at the top of their ticket.
Will Cheek, a longtime party Executive Committee member, suggested mass suicide as an exit strategy for Democrats in despair. If Democrats are so inept that they can't even manage to nominate legitimate candidates for statewide offices—an exact description of their current predicament—"something's horribly wrong, and we might as well just slit our wrists sideways," he said.
Numerous Democrats understandably wouldn't agree to be interviewed for this article. Others agreed to talk only if they wouldn't be named. Forrester himself has clammed up, apparently assuming that by not talking he can stop the coverage, make it all go away.
"Let me tell you the comment that I'm going to make and that's all I'm going to say on the matter," Forrester said when reached by the Scene. "Are you ready? We have disavowed his candidacy and we are moving on to elect real Democrats on Nov. 6. That's our position on the issue."
"That's all you're going to say?"
"Why is that?"
"We're done. We're moving on."
To Forrester's critics — and there are many — the Clayton nomination is just one more reason Forrester never should have been elected the party's chairman in the first place in 2009.
At that time, virtually all the state's senior elected Democrats, including then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, opposed Forrester. The staid party establishment saw him as a hopeless, head-in-the-air moonbeam. He won anyway because of his close ties to the party's more liberal Executive Committee, which elects the chairman. (He did have to agree to stop wearing his signature bowties as a concession to rural Democrats, who think only pussbags wear bowties.)
Somehow, Forrester survived when his foes came after him again after the 2010 elections, a defeat of historic proportions. They called him the captain of the Titanic — and those were fellow Democrats talking.
When he still was talking to reporters immediately after the primary, Forrester couldn't give much of an excuse for what happened. He said he had been too busy to vet the Senate candidates. So it's probably just as well that he's stopped giving interviews.
"I'm on the Executive Committee and I was against Chip," said David Briley, the former at-large Metro Council member. "To a certain degree, I think people got what they asked for."
According to Democrats, Forrester naively thought his handpicked candidate — an actress and environmental activist named Park Overall — would win the Senate primary, so he saw no need to vet Clayton and the other candidates on the ballot. But Overall didn't campaign much, partly due to illness, and Forrester was blindsided. One critic told the Scene Forrester was meddling in the nonpartisan Nashville school-board races rather than paying attention to the U.S. Senate primary.
Anyone with common sense could have anticipated what might happen, and Forrester should have taken precautions to prevent it, these Democrats said.
"Yes, it was Chip's fault," said one insider who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Park Overall was the party's candidate. Those idiots didn't consider the fact that no one remembers whatever B-list 1980s television show Overall was on."
(For the record, Overall's best-known role was as nurse Laverne Higby Todd Kane in the sitcom Empty Nest.)
On Sept. 29, the Executive Committee meets for the first time since Clayton won the primary. "The real fireworks are going to happen then," the party's communications director Brandon Puttbrese predicted. But no one really expects much more than the usual windbaggery.
Apparently in an attempt to show Democrats are moving forward, as Forrester claims, one Executive Committee member, Cleveland lawyer Jim Bilbo, has been asked to develop proposals to change the party's bylaws to prevent a nutty fringe candidate from ever again topping the ticket.
Under this plan, the party would try to strike wack jobs from the ballot ahead of time. The difficulty lies in trying to distinguish lunatics from ordinary Democrats. Even Bilbo concedes it's basically an impossible task.
"We're in the process of trying to come up with a way to vet candidates and see if they are bona fide Democrats," Bilbo said. "Part of that process is coming up with a definition of what is a bona fide Democrat and, you know, it's not that easy to do.
"Frankly, we have members of the Democratic Party who are members for just a wide variety of reasons. I count myself as an example of that. I'm an evangelical Christian, belong to a Pentecostal church and have been actively involved in my church virtually all of my life. I'm very much pro-life, believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. I own guns and nobody's going to take them away from me, and I believe we pay too much in taxes, and I believe that government is too big and too intrusive in our lives. But there are other reasons that I'm a Democrat. So our task will be to try to come up with some kind of objectivity."
There is a current standard for bona fide Democrats in the party's bylaws. A candidate needs to have voted in at least three of the past five party primaries. Under that rule, the party could have disqualified Clayton.
Bilbo thinks even that's too restrictive, however. He believes the party should "expand it a little bit more and perhaps make it a little more inclusive of everybody's right to run as long as they adhere to the basic core principles of the Democratic Party."
"There are some folks who vote one way — say, they have been a Republican all their lives — and then they have an epiphany and realize they are a Democrat," Bilbo said. "We want to be able to make exceptions for those kinds of things."
Party treasurer Dave Garrison sounded bold and definitive in a TV interview after Clayton's victory. "It can't happen again. It shouldn't happen again, and as a party officer I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen again," he declared.
But Garrison told me last week he doesn't have a clue how it won't happen again. Does the party really plan to set up a series of litmus tests to determine who's bona fide and who's not? Garrison said he doesn't think that's practical.
To avoid the morass of a vetting process, the obvious solution is to recruit credible candidates who can actually beat all the chuckleheads who are so fond of hopping on the ballot just for laughs. That's easier said than done, of course. Given the Democrats' impotence in what's become a virtual one-party state, good candidates are hard to come by. Statewide offices, more often than not these days, are surrendered to the Republicans without a fight. Unless candidates are vetted, that leaves Democrats vulnerable to more embarrassments like Clayton's nomination.
Be that as it may, Cheek thinks it's foolish even to try to define a bona fide Democrat. He points out there have been many crazy Democrats in Tennessee history — notably the late John Wilder, the state's (ahem) somewhat unorthodox lieutenant governor for nearly 40 years. Wilder held power in a cabal with Republicans, and there were constant calls for Democrats to kick him out of the party for his various betrayals of so-called principle. But they never did.
"He was batshit, but he was a Democrat," Cheek said. "If you don't have a candidate, you don't have a candidate. You could pitch one guy off the ballot and then you might just wind up with another fruit loop. Who knows? You can't figure it out. It's a total exercise in futility. It's not even a slippery slope. It's a cliff."
Doing nothing is fine with the disgruntled Briley, who said he's "not big on tinkering with elections" anyway. In his view, Democrats should suffer with Clayton as their nominee and accept their punishment stoically.
"I think we ought to just learn a lesson from this, frankly," Briley said. "I think we ought to be punished a little bit for having let it happen."
CORRECTION: This article originally incorrectly stated that Will Cheek was state Democratic Party chairman in 1994. Cheek actually didn't become chairman until the next election cycle.