by Steven Hale
Former state Sen. Roy Herron is the new chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. The party's executive committee chose Herron over outgoing party treasurer Dave Garrison, by a vote of 39-27.
After his victory, Herron recalled the days when Democrats controlled the state, and said the legislature had gone "from common sense to nonsense" since then.
"We've gone from looking for a way that people could work together in a bipartisan way, and move Tennessee forward," he said, "to trying to drive Tennessee off into the right ditch so far that we're about to go underground."
Herron, who has drawn criticism from some in the party for being too conservative, attempted to highlight common ground, telling the committee that "those things that unite us as Democrats are far more important than those things that divide us." Among the uniting elements he cited support for public schools, expanding Medicaid, and a woman's right to an abortion when her life is in danger. (The latter being a particularly contentious issue between Herron and some in the party, since Herron describes himself as pro-life.)
The final vote turned out to be somewhat anti-climactic, having been foreshadowed twice before the roll call began.
Just over a week ago, Herron sent an email to executive committee members, with a list of 42 among them whom he said had committed to voting for him. Then, at Saturday's meeting, a motion from executive committee member David Briley — a Garrison supporter — turned out to be a test vote. Briley called for a suspension of the rules, to allow the candidates to address the members for five minutes each. Given Briley's loyalties, and talk earlier in the day that Herron had been hesitant to participate in a morning candidates forum with committee members, the theory among observers was that the vote would give away the ending, with votes for the motion would come from Garrison's supporter and votes against it coming form Herron's.
And as it turned out, the motion failed by a vote of 29 to 39.
Herron lost at least one vote late Friday afternoon when the House Democratic caucus, which had endorsed him earlier in the month, shifted its support and directed Caucus Chairman Mike Turner to vote for Garrison. Additionally, two members passed during the roll call.
But in the end Herron held on to enough of his support to secure the win, despite some concern amongst liberals in the party about some of his more conservative positions (on abortion, guns, and unions) and questions that emerged earlier this week about his leadership of a nonprofit.
The City Paper reported on Wednesday that, under Herron's leadership, the Ned McWherter Center for Rural Development had done relatively little since receiving a $900,000 grant from the state in 2008. Last year, Herron filed three separate amendments to the state budget which would have sent $2 million to the center, months after announcing that he would not seek re-election and instead devote his energies to the McWherter Center. House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh and former Democratic Rep. Mark Maddox are also officers with the center.
Speaking to reporters after the election Saturday, Herron was asked if his attempts to insert more funding for the center where he was going to work presented a conflict of interest.
"I haven't been paid one dollar, one penny by the McWherter Center and neither have the others — Rep. Fitzhugh and Rep. Maddox — none of us have been paid a penny by the McWherter Center. All of us have donated a huge amount of time and work, [and] we have done scholarships."
Herron said he would be willing share more details about how much money the center has spent on scholarships, and how many students have received them, later in the week when he had the center's records in front of him. He said that state dollars have only gone to scholarships, that donations from private sources were being used for overhead costs, and that he was donating the building space personally.
Asked about a year-old letter from Mike McWherter asking that his father's name be removed from the center, Herron said he had "enormous respect for Mike McWherter" and that he, Fitzhugh, and Maddox would "do whatever the right thing is."
"We hope to sit down with Mike and figure out the best way to go forward that both honors Gov. McWherter and meets any concerns that Mike has," he said. "There's nothing that Rep. Fitzhugh, Rep. Maddox, and I want more than to honor Ned McWherter's name and to serve the people he served so well. And I know Mike wants those things too. It'll work out. We'll figure it out."
Look for more on Herron as chair, and what it means for the party in this week's Scene.