For nearly 40 years, since Richard Nixon was president and Flip Wilson boasted the top-rated television show, Douglas Henry has been unbeatable in the state Senate. A political dinosaur from the era of the one-party South, the conservative Democrat has won all his elections handily to the constant frustration of Nashville’s liberals.
However, last week, a baby-faced activist named Jeff Yarbro announced he would take on Henry in the Democratic primary in 2010, and a group of the party’s powerbrokers surprised the senator by lining up behind this challenger.
It was all the more improbable since, at the age of 83, Henry is preparing to make what’s likely his final run for the office.
Sen. Henry represents a broad swath of southern Davidson County, including Belle Meade, Green Hills, Berry Hill and parts of Antioch. Despite his differences with liberals — he’s a fiscal tightwad and staunchly pro-life — Henry is venerated as a statesman at the Capitol, one of the Legislature’s last old bulls, and many observers doubted anyone in his party would try to deny him this one last hurrah.
With his long institutional memory, Henry’s knowledge of state government is unmatched. (He chaired the Senate Finance Committee for almost 30 years.) He has worked tirelessly to improve children’s services.
A quintessential Southern gentleman, the courtly Henry is so beloved by his colleagues that last year, over his objections, they named the state museum commission after him.
“I wish he wasn’t going to do it,” Henry says of Yarbro, sounding slightly put out by the inconvenience of this last campaign. “It’s easier to spend the summer without campaigning. But since he’s going to do it, I’ll do what I need to do and hope for the best.”
Of his advanced age — certain to be the central, if unspoken, issue of Yarbro’s campaign — Henry says: “I would say my health is adequate. My mind is as clear as it was when I was younger. And I now have enough background in Tennessee state government to know, when we start down a path, whether we’ve been down that path before and with what result. I would say that’s an advantage to the state.”
Henry had been in the Senate seven years before Yarbro was born. As if to emphasize the age chasm, Yarbro, 32, an attorney for the prominent Bass Berry & Sims firm, popped up on YouTube to announce his candidacy.
Trying hard not to appear like an opportunistic upstart, he talked about Henry almost as if he were giving the senator’s eulogy. He made vague references to “the dire need for a new direction” but gave no reasons for voters to kick out Henry after all these years.
“Senator Douglas Henry, Jr. has served the 21st district with dignity and distinction since 1970,” Yarbro said. “I honor his commitment to the state.
“That same desire to serve Tennessee compels me to commence this campaign at such a critical time. As the senator for the 21st district, I would work to continue Sen. Henry’s legacy of safeguarding the financial stability of our state and fighting for Tennessee’s children.”
Politics 101 says a challenger must go on the attack to convince voters to fire the incumbent. But that’s risky against a political institution like Henry, and Yarbro is taking pains not to upset the senator’s many admirers.
Asked about his unusual respectful treatment of his foe, Yarbro says, “I don’t think of this race as running against Douglas Henry. I’m running for the state Senate. If you’re waiting on me to say something negative about Sen. Henry, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”
The list of hosts for Yarbro’s first fund-raiser is impressive. Among them: Harold Ford Jr.’s ’06 Senate campaign treasurer Charles Robert Bone, Barack Obama's ’08 state director Jerry Martin, Karl Dean’s ’07 campaign treasurer Leigh Walton, and former Al Gore chief of staff Roy Neel. The event is slated for Oct. 12 at the home of Townes Duncan, a major investor in SouthComm Communications, which owns The City Paper.
“This isn't just a bunch of progressive kids but a broad base of people with deep, deep, deep and long, long ties to this community,” says one major Democratic donor, who predicts Yarbro can raise up to $350,000 for this primary.
“If Henry were 15 years younger and didn't have such a terrible rap with Democratic women, he would be untouchable, but neither of those is true,” this source says. “I do not know a single knowledgeable Democratic woman who will vote for him — none, zero.”
In fact, on his first day of fund raising last week, Yarbro collected $50,000 online.
This antipathy toward Henry stems from his opposition to abortion rights, and it was aggravated last year by remarks he made on the Senate floor. During the debate on a resolution stripping abortion rights from the state constitution, Henry outraged pro-choice constituents when he explained why he’s against adding rape as an exception to an abortion ban.
“Because rape, ladies and gentleman is not today what rape was,” Henry said then. “Rape, when I was learning these things, was the violation of a chaste woman against her will by some party not her spouse. Today it’s simply, ‘let’s don’t go forward with this act.’”
Henry now says he was merely trying to state the evolution of state law against rape.
“That’s what I tried to point out, but I don’t think I did it very articulately,” he admits, seeming not to understand why anyone might have taken offense. The YouTube video of Henry speaking on the Senate floor drew a barrage of criticism in the blogosphere.
Even so, dislodging Henry remains a long shot. Voters are like Pavlov's dog, conditioned after all these years to pull the Henry lever.
He doesn’t lack for defenders, including some Democrats who are known to covet his seat but are afraid to run against Henry. They aren’t happy that Yarbro might beat them to the punch. Metro Council members Emily Evans and Jason Holleman are counted in that number.
And Henry will enjoy a financial advantage in any campaign. His grandfather was C.A. Craig, one of the founders of the National Life insurance company, and Henry was born into wealth. He can outspend any challenger merely by writing a check.
Jeff Wilson was Henry’s last serious challenger, and Henry walloped Wilson with better than 60 percent of the vote in the ’02 Democratic primary. He says Henry dumped $150,000 of his own money into his race in the last week. Wilson’s advice to Yarbro?
“Raise lots of money. That’s how he blew us out. I got 40 percent of the vote, but he spent 90 percent of the money.”