With less than one month remaining before early voting, Democratic candidates running for local House and Senate seats will meet to discuss education issues tonight at a roundtable event held at the Fine Arts Building of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga at 7 p.m.
The event will feature at least 10 local candidates, each seeking to represent areas spanning across Southeast Tennessee. And although education promises to be the primary topic of discussion, members of the group will likely point to other areas where they seek to have an impact—economic development, health care, housing and others.
But perhaps the biggest issue facing Democrats in Tennessee this election cycle is the election itself. With a mix of new GOP-drawn district lines, an increasingly red state and the departure of a few Democratic representatives (including District 10 Sen. Andy Berke), the prospect of Republican super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly next year is becoming more realistic to political observers across the state.
In a recent article focusing on the Democratic Party, the Nashville City Paper described the group as "a fighter on the mat, just beginning to see straight after a near-knockout punch. If the arena stops spinning, they can start thinking about standing up again."
Another statewide publication was less generous.
"Tennessee Democrats are experiencing in the 2012 elections a reality that used to befall Republicans in redistricting years: Their campaigns are only getting started, and they've already lost," reads the opening sentence of the lead article in a recent issue of Tennessee Journal, a weekly newsletter covering nuts and bolts of state government.
But candidates for local seats aren't buying into the narrative.
Chattanooga City Councilman Andraé McGary, who launched a campaign for Berke's Senate seat in March, said he had faith that voters across the district would look to a candidate's positions on important issues rather than party affiliations when voting. And when it comes to the current state of power held between Republicans and Democrats, McGary said GOP members would be well-advised to learn from his party's shortcomings.
"Essentially, the Republican Party is becoming a carbon copy of what the Democrats were in the 1990s, and that's the major point here," McGary said. "They'll say they don't need Democrats to make legislation. And if they do that, they haven't learned any of the lessons from what happened to the Democrats in the '90s … the only way to govern is across the aisle; the best legislation is created when both sides engage."
McGary pointed to issues that drew attention to the state House during the most recent legislative session, such as the Don't Say Gay bill, as well as focusing on issues such as teaching evolution versus creationism in schools and guns in bars.
"The Republican party continually wants to ignore common sense bills and resolutions in favor of making party points," he said. "It that continues, they will lose power."
Along with McGary, school board member David Testerman and Quenston Coleman are running as Democrats to represent District 10, which now includes portions of Hamilton and Bradley counties. Attempts by Nooga.com to reach both were unsuccessful.
In the House, seven Democrats are running for four local seats.
In District 26, Lawrence Miller is the lone Democrat seeking to unseat Rep. Gerald McCormick, who is also House majority leader. Miller, who is running his first race and has no prior political experience, said that along with party loyalists, he would be looking to Independent voters for support in the months leading up to election day.
"I've been a Democrat my whole life, but I'm not wrapping myself in the party mode," Miller said. "I'm really hoping the people of District 26 will respond to my campaign to represent their interests. That being said, the way governance works in Tennessee is with a two-party system, so if I get there, which I hope I will, I will be with the Democratic Party. But I'm very aware that to make progress, we must reach across the aisle."
Miller offered a similar take on recent GOP-backed legislation as McGary, with a special emphasis on the role his opponent played in crafting the bills.
"Pretty much everything that went through the lower House in the past two years has [McCormick's] fingerprints all over it," he said. "He's been the engineer of the legislation that went through … all the time that was wasted on baggy pants, guns in parking lots."
Other candidates want voters to know that despite their Democratic affiliation, they don't consider themselves part of a group of committed, left-leaning members. Brian White, who is running against Democrats Brock Bennington and Sandy Smith in the primary for House District 30, currently represented by Republican Rep. Vince Dean, described himself as a "moderate" Democrat, willing to sign on to a no-new-taxes pledge.
"I'm somewhat more of a conservative Democrat, and although I don't appreciate some of the Republican positions on things, I do have conservative leanings," White said. "I will sign a no-new-tax pledge. Brock wouldn't sign it; Vince probably wouldn't sign it."
Attempts by Nooga.com to reach Bennington and Smith were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach all other Democratic candidates for local state-level seats.
Other local Democrats running include once-neighboring Reps. Tommie Brown and JoAnne Favors, who now find themselves running against each other in the newly formed District 28. Frank Eaton is seeking to unseat Rep. Richard Floyd in District 27.
Primary elections are Aug. 2.
Updated @ 8:40 a.m. on 06/14/12 to correct a typographical error.