Just days before the Nov. 6 election, a contest within the Tennessee Democratic Party appeared to begin in earnest. And it’s one that could be just as crucial to the party’s future in the state.
Given the slide the state’s once-ruling party has been on in recent years, chatter about a change at the top has persisted for some time. After current party chairman Chip Forrester revealed just over a week ago that he would not be seeking re-election to the post, the names of Democrats with an eye on the job have begun to emerge.
Multiple party insiders, including members of the executive committee that will elect Forrester’s successor, have confirmed meeting with several people interested in the job. The two foremost names are David Garrison, the current party treasurer, and Wade Munday, the party’s former communications director, who ran for the chairman seat two years ago.
Garrison and Munday both confirmed their intentions to The City Paper.
“I’m focused most importantly in what’s happening Nov. 6, which is a critical Election Day for our country, but also for our state and for our party,” Garrison said. “I’ve been intimately involved in helping candidates in their races across the state, especially here in Davidson County, where we have a number of competitive legislative seats, and I think the party has to hold its own now and be in a position to do so in the future. But I am interested in serving as chair, and after Tuesday intend to focus a lot of my time and energy on building support from the executive committee and elected officials and key Democratic stakeholders from around the state.”
Munday sounded a similar note.
“For now I’m having more conversations with voters about how to move Tennessee forward with our great roster of candidates than I am about my own race,” Munday said in an emailed statement. “I intend to run, and I look forward to the debates we are going to have about moving our party forward, but I agree with Chairman Forrester that my primary focus in these remaining days must be on electing and re-electing Democrats in Tennessee and re-electing the president.”
Holly McCall, who is currently the spokeswoman for the Convention Center Authority of Nashville and Davidson County, has also been among the names mentioned as possible candidates for the position. She confirmed to The City Paper that she has had “a number of Democratic donors and activists” contact her about running, but indicated she might well stay out of the race.
“I have seriously considered a run for chair, although at present, I am leaning against it,” she said.
Although Forrester will serve through the end of the year, until the next chair is elected in January, his announcement seems to have removed whatever barrier, if any, was left preventing public criticism of him from within the party.
David Briley, a Nashville attorney who sits on the party’s executive committee, confirmed having met with Garrison about his interest and said he thought either Garrison or Munday would “probably do a good job.” His comments, though, were less directed at who the next chairman should be than whom the next chairman should not emulate.
“The only thing I would say, about either one of them, is that they have to make a commitment to be focused on the party and not on themselves,” said Briley. “I think that’s been the biggest weakness of the current chairman, is that it seems like he’s more interested in getting his name in the paper than he is getting elected officials’ name in the paper. That’s been a big distraction, I think, for the party over the last four years.”
Although he currently serves on the nonpartisan Metro school board, Will Pinkston, a former senior adviser to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, did not shy away from commenting on the party’s troubles either. Pinkston, who was among 105 Democrats who supported Gov. Bill Haslam in the 2010 gubernatorial race, said he had trouble gaining access to the party’s voter database during his school board campaign.
“They were wasting their time questioning the bona fides of established Democrats running for local nonpartisan races, and at the same time they were failing to keep a xenophobic, conspiracy theorist off the ballot as our nominee for U.S. Senate,” he said, referencing Mark Clayton’s capture of the Democratic nomination. “That’s Exhibit Z in the failure of the Forrester regime.”
House Democratic Caucus chairman Mike Turner also confirmed having spoken with both Garrison and Munday, Above all, he said, the party needs a chairman who will bring together various factions within the party that have been at odds under Forrester.
At least one executive committee member has his mind mostly made up. Will Cheek, who is also a former state party chairman, supported Munday last time around, and said he will support him again. Of Forrester’s decision not to seek re-election, Cheek — who famously compared Forrester to the captain of the Titanic after Democrats suffered brutal losses in the 2010 midterm elections — said it was the right move.
“It was a good decision,” he said. “We didn’t need another contentious situation, like was sure to develop if he ran again.”