by Steven Hale
Tucked in the front of this week's monster Best of Nashville issue is my piece on the House District 60 race between Metro councilman Darren Jernigan and incumbent Republican, and former Metro councilman, state Rep. Jim Gotto.
The piece looks at the race as a test case of sorts — a chance to see if Mayor Karl Dean will take an opportunity to aid a campaign against Gotto, who has repeatedly opposed him on issues related to local autonomy (save Great Hearts), and whether Dean will step into a more prominent role as a leader in the Tennessee Democratic Party.
The question is whether it'd be worth the risk of another political loss for the mayor.
The question of his ambitions isn't a parlor game. With their elected numbers thinned to a historic low, Tennessee Democrats have been lamenting the fact that they lack a true statewide standard-bearer, particularly after the debacle that resulted in Mark Clayton's disavowed U.S. Senate candidacy. Party insiders point to urban areas as perhaps their last remaining source of strength.
Tennessee's five largest cities — Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Clarksville — all have Democratic mayors. In that way, the TNDP mirrors the image projected by the national party, which spotlighted various progressive mayors at their national convention last month — as opposed to the GOP, which paraded a phalanx of governors in Tampa.
In a somewhat rare step from behind the nonpartisan facade of Metro Nashville politics, Dean was at the convention in Charlotte with fellow Democrats. Now the state party is clamoring for Dean to fill the void and more prominently take up the party's mantle.
"Mayor Dean is one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party," says the state House Democratic Caucus chair, Rep. Mike Turner of Nashville. "I think he's got a gubernatorial run in his future. So I would definitely like to see him more involved. And he has been involved. Anything more he can do to help, I would of course appreciate it."
Turner says he hasn't spoken to Dean about the District 60 race in particular. But he acknowledges that the mayor has had warmer relations with Jernigan than Gotto, with whom he has been at odds on several occasions.
That Dean would support Jernigan, a Democrat, over the Republican incumbent is not in question. What remains to be seen is the degree to which he will get publicly involved on behalf of Jernigan and the party — if he gets involved at all. Dean's recent forays into local campaigns — an attempt to unseat West Nashville Councilman Jason Holleman last year, and an effort in support of (very) well-funded school board candidate Margaret Dolan in August — have failed. A Gotto win, against visible involvement from the mayor, would further unravel Dean's already dubious coattails.
Dean declined to comment on the race, or his possible role in it, through a spokesperson.
But during my interview with Jernigan, the councilman cited another reason that race could have rather high stakes.
“Whoever wins this race is going to be in there the next 10 years or however long they want to," he said. "Because at this point, there’s not another Democrat that can challenge him. And if I win, there’s no Republican stronger than him that could challenge me. So, this is it. The folks in this district need to decide what kind of vision they want.”
As far as I can tell, Jernigan may well be right. It's hard to imagine a Republican candidate cropping up anytime soon who'd be stronger than Gotto, in a redrawn District 60 that includes all of his former council district. As for the Democrats, they've named Jernigan as one of their top-tier candidates from the get-go — if he loses, it'll just be more bad news for them on Nov. 6.