When Democratic state Rep. Mike Turner announced in February that would not be seeking re-election this fall, it was as if he'd tossed bread to a flock of seagulls.
His District 51, which now includes downtown and most of East Nashville, represents a Democratic breeding ground that may contain the city's highest per-capita population of left-leaning political strivers. No fewer than a dozen white men publicly considered running to replace Turner, a boisterous firefighter who was perhaps the strongest remaining vestige of Democratic confidence on the Hill.
In the end, three Democrats got in the race: Jennifer Buck Wallace, a veteran political operative who spent four years fishing for candidates as executive director of the Tennessee Democratic Party and the past two at Organizing for Action; Bill Beck, an attorney with deep family roots in the city and a lengthy resume of old-school civic engagement; and Stephen Fotopulos, the former executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, an increasingly visible organization advocating for an ever-growing community.
Two Republicans — Brian Mason and Joshua Rawlings — are running as well, but they're likely to fare about as well on the East Side as an amendment to ban lattes. The winner of the Democratic primary will almost certainly take Turner's place at the statehouse.
Speaking to the Scene at an office off Main Street, Wallace says the Democrats she was pushing to run for office started turning the question around on her. The Germantown neighborhood where she lives was drawn into District 51 in 2010, but even when Turner's somewhat surprising announcement came earlier this year, she says she hesitated to jump at the opportunity. She was still entrenched in her work for OFA, and on the homefront she and her husband are expecting their first child in late August. But the long list of men lining up to replace a man in a largely male chamber helped push her toward a run.
"I don't think I initially, the first moment I heard it, thought, 'Well, this is the ideal time and race to do this,' " she says, laughing. "One of the things that was really hard for me when I was at the party was finding well-qualified women to run for office. It was always a challenge and sort of a priority — you know, 17 percent of the legislature, I believe, is women. And as a part of that process, as names started being rolled out, there just weren't any women being mentioned in the mix."
Since getting in the race, Wallace has secured endorsements from the Women for Tennessee's Future PAC — which has also endorsed Megan Barry for mayor and Mary Mancini in state Senate District 21 — and a number of elected officials including House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh. She's also received financial contributions from Barry and the only other current 2015 mayoral candidate, Charles Robert Bone. Her campaign has hosted several targeted outreach events, such as a recent LGBT fundraiser and an upcoming women's event.
Hinting at her political background, Wallace suggests that safe Democratic districts like the 51st need to be jumping-off points for pulling the party out of the superminority, with representatives who "actually have a vision and a plan for helping to get other Democrats on the team over there in the legislature."
Wallace's party allegiance appears to be a distinction between her and Beck, and it's one he doesn't avoid mentioning. His signs — which, like the others, have been popping up around the district, particularly along Gallatin Road where his family has long-running business ties — bear the slogan, "It's About People, Not Politics." Asked to explain the mantra, in an interview at the Beck and Beck Realtors office in Inglewood, he notes, "One of my opponents comes from a party background, I come from a people background."
His pitch is essentially this: Democrats can't pass or stop a bill on their own. But the right person — e.g., him — can still be effective in that environment.
"I think there are Republicans and Democrats who want the best for this state and not just the best for their party, and those are the people I'm going to be reaching out to," says the jovial attorney, who touts notable supporters such as former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell and Jo Ann North, the first woman to win countywide election in Nashville.
Compared to Wallace, a party insider, and Beck, a civic insider (as former board president of the Madison-Rivergate Area Chamber of Commerce and the Kiwanis Club of Madison), Fotopulos might play the outsider. At the same time, his work with TIRRC — and a decade as a District 51 resident — means he's no stranger.
"For the last 10 years, I've been an advocate for justice," he told supporters at a recent fundraiser on the back deck of Rosepepper Cantina. "And what that means to me is that I have worked to connect grassroots communities to power. Sometimes that means when the structures of powers have completely failed, that we stand on the steps of War Memorial Plaza and we raise the visibility of injustice. And sometimes, when it's possible to engage the system, and when it's strategic, we actually sit down, we talk to lawmakers. I've testified in committees, and I've built consensus around good policies and moved forward."
A Navy veteran, Fotopulos cites his perspective as a parent with a child in Nashville's public school system and his experience "working for a progressive vision" for a city that "creates opportunities for everyone, regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnic background, gender expression."
There are few districts in the state that could produce such a slate of candidates, and a vigorous primary is often a sign of life in a party's ranks. But for Tennessee Democrats, sequestered as they are, it's also a reminder of something else: When early voting begins July 18, they can choose only one.