by Steven Hale
Stop us when this sounds familiar: Members of the Tennessee Democratic Party are at odds about their leader, how he's leading and where he's leading them.
For this week's Scene, I sat down with TNDP chairman Roy Herron for a view from the eye of the storm, where all appears to be well. Nevertheless, there are some serious squalls out there.
Ever since a reportedly contentious executive committee meeting earlier this month — the first Herron has presided over as chair — was followed by three staff departures, an anti-Herron sentiment that appeared in the run-up to party elections in January has resurfaced. Albeit largely in private, executive committee members and party insiders have criticized his management style, his approach to the party's investment in crucial political data and his relationship or lack thereof with the executive committee. In our chat, the chairman defended himself against all of these charges, with seeming ease.
There has even been talk in some quarters of an effort to force him out. The takeaway for now: Herron's not having it.
But the party chair is still wobbly as ever, with signs that even Herron's supporters are not quite as confident as they were when they cast their votes in January.
"You always have to support your chair," says committee member and former party chairman Will Cheek, who voted for Herron. "I support Roy. I've got my issues, but I don't know what the alternatives are or would be at this point. I'm just kind of going to wait and see what happens."
Multiple executive committee members and party insiders confirm that there have been discussions about an attempt to force Herron out at the committee's November meeting. Both [Sylvia] Woods and [David] Briley say they've heard such talk but have discouraged it.
Asked directly if he has been asked to resign, Herron says no. And if he were asked?
"I'd tell them no," he says.
Briley, who supported Heron's opponent Dave Garrison during the chairmanship race, says he also doesn't believe such an effort would be successful. Several other Democratic sources say Herron — recognized as a gifted politician, even by harsh critics — would likely be able to survive it.
During the party's elections, some criticized Herron for working the executive committee in small groups, as opposed to addressing the body as a whole. This, they said, allowed him to tell different committee members what they wanted to hear, even if it contradicted his message to another faction.
One claim, whispered then and repeated angrily by some executive committee members and other insiders now, is that Herron told some members he wouldn't take a salary — which is around $125,000 — if elected chairman.
I asked him about this. He says he had proposed working less hours for free, and using the rest of the week to make his living as a lawyer (and he has made a good living as a lawyer).
"I told people my preference was that I'd work for free 50 or 60 hours a week, if they'd let me have the rest of my week," he says. "And then as I kept talking to people they said, we don't want to do that, we want you to be full time. So, most weeks they're getting somewhere between 90 and 110 hours a week. Not every week, but most weeks."
Going forward, it looks like Herron may face more questions about his management style — which some former staffers of his describe as difficult, to say the least — in the wake of the recent departures. As this week's issue was halfway to the printer, the following email chain was playing out:
Because of my many years experience with organizations that employ staff and the recent departures of so many of our staff, I would like for TNDP to contract with an independent person, perhaps our legal counsel, to conduct exit interviews with all the staff that have departed over these last several months to determine their reasons for leaving and to ensure that we are following all applicable rules of employment. Gerard Stranch would be the natural choice, as he does so much work for the Party and has experience in employment law. If Gerard is unavailable, an independent interviewer should be found, preferably an attorney well versed in employment law. This is a customary practice done in many organizations and companies when staff leave. Conducting these interviews would provide protection to the committee and TNDP against any post-employment claim or cause of action. It also will give us a picture of what we can do to retain good staff, especially as we head toward another election cycle.
Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
As Barbara Wagner suggested, I have asked our lawyer, Gerard Stranch, and EC member Dwayne Thompson (who has volunteered and who heads up H.R. for a company) to talk with current and former employees and to report back before or at the November 2d meeting.
In response to this plan comes the following exchange:
Roy and members,
I recently had a one on one conversation with a departed female employee of the TNDP and my feeling is that we must have a female on the exit interview board.Mary Patterson is more than qualified and she has the experience too.My strong sense is that members of the ExCom should be choosing members of this ad hock group. I hope that you all agree with me in this matter and by the way she lives near Nashville.
[Note: Mary Patterson is an executive committee member who resigned from her position on the party's Finance Committee at the meeting earlier this month.]
Roy, since Dwayne is in Shelby County and I am nearby, I would be glad to assist. As an executive at IBM, I was assigned several investigations from the Chairman’s office. In addition, as a corporate officer in two startups, I handled exit interviews, sexual harassments, other issues. As an executive at Turner Broadcasting, I had to handle a difficult downsizing.
To which Herron says, thanks but no thanks, Mary:
With your resignation from the Finance Committee 10 days ago, and the negative publicity that some helped generate, I'm sure you understand one reason why others and I believe it's not in the best interest of the Party to accept your offer.
I have full confidence in Gerard and Dwayne, as I hope you and others also do, and they are moving forward as previously announced.
Of course if you'd like to talk about this or anything else, I will be happy to meet with you at your earliest convenience.
The executive committee is scheduled to meet again on Nov. 2. What remains to be seen is whether the intervening time will allow the situation to die down, or flare up further.