Ask challenger Jeff Yarbro (pictured right) if he plans to go on the attack in his bid to dethrone state Sen. Douglas Henry (below) in August's Democratic primary, and he shrugs it off.
"I don't see this as a race against Sen. Henry, but one for the state Senate," Yarbro says. Pressed whether the electorate is even dissatisfied or unhappy with Henry, Yarbro doesn't go there either.
"I think people in the district, like me, have great respect for Sen. Henry, and appreciate the service he's provided," Yarbro says. "I think all elections are about the future. When voters go to the polls in August, they're going to be thinking about who's going to be the best senator from 2011 to 2015."
The 33-year-old Yarbro received plenty of headlines in September when he announced his candidacy to take on the 83-year-old Henry, a fixture in Tennessee state politics for decades. Henry served the state House for a brief stint beginning in 1955, before taking over his current District 21 Senate seat –– representing a massive swatch of west and south Davidson County — in 1971. Age gap, combined with Henry's near-iconic status in Nashville's political world, generated natural intrigue.
"This is what I want to do," Henry says of his enduring run in state politics. "I've done my federal service. I served in World War II, got honorable discharge, so I have no further obligation to serve in the federal government. But my obligation in state government is a running obligation because I'm a Tennessean, and I'm proud to be a Tennessean."
Henry, a lifelong Nashvillian, has survived opposition from within the Democratic Party before, but Yarbro presents a real threat. He's put up solid numbers on the fundraising end, generating more than $140,000 as of February. With an undergrad degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Virginia, Yarbro is a successful, well-connected attorney from the powerful Bass, Berry and Sims law firm. He's fresh-faced, smart and articulate — a husband and a father.
But instead of putting on the boxing gloves — the traditional tactic employed to unseat another within one's own political party — Yarbro so far seems intent on not directly confronting Henry at all, relying on voters to flock toward his candidacy on his own merit alone.
"We'll have a chance to appear in front of neighborhood and community groups to talk about the issues and debate the future of the district," he says. "There will be some differences that emerge."
That strategy could present a problem. Henry, who calls Yarbro a "nice fellow," isn't willing to commit when asked if he would go in front of voters to debate his opponent. (Henry also declined to have his photograph taken alongside Yarbro. Yarbro accepted an invitation for a photo shoot with Henry.)
"No," says Henry. "I think we'd better let him run his campaign and let me run mine."
Meanwhile, Henry raked in around $320,000 before the last reporting period, which included a $200,000 loan from SunTrust Bank guaranteed by Henry. Yarbro is staying on pace, but with funds at his disposal, Henry won't ever lose the money game.
To win, Yarbro must find a way — perhaps without the help of debates — to give Democratic voters a reason to select him over someone they've nominated term after term. And he must make that case to a relatively large electoral universe — this isn't some Metro Council race.
And Henry has more on his side than just money. People generally view him as approachable and hard working, and despite his age, he's still a presence at civic functions across the city. Henry also holds the support of the likes of Gov. Phil Bredesen, every serving Democratic state senator throughout Tennessee, and 16 of the 18 Metro Council members who serve within his district.
"I couldn't tell you," says Henry, explaining why voters continue to elect him. "I do the best that I can to stand for responsible government. That's what I try to do. Maybe I have, maybe I haven't. That's not for me to say."
In the end, Yarbro hopes to make the case that he's the candidate to fill what he calls "a big appetite for new energy and new ideas, and a focus on new ideas in the legislature." From the voters he's met, "People universally recognize that our state legislature needs to find new direction."
Accordingly, he'll have to decide whether he wants to portray Henry as just the opposite. —JOEY GARRISON
Photographed by Eric England, assisted by Sinclar Kelly. Jeff Yarbro (above) at the Pinnacle building downtown and Douglas Henry (left) at the Legislative Plaza.