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Tennessee Democrats Turn on Party Leadership, Elect Activist Forrester as Chair

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NASHVILLE -- The state Republican establishment took a hit week before last when House Democratic leader Gary Odom of Nashville orchestrated a parliamentary sleight of hand which not only installed maverick Republican Kent Williams as Speaker but forced the majority Republicans into sharing committee power and hobbled their best-laid policy plans in advance.

The state Democratic establishment took a hit of its own this past weekend when members of the state Democratic executive committee not only ignored the arm-twisting of Tennessee's ranking Democratic office-holders but gave an almost two-to-one endorsement to the chairmanship candidate whom the party VIPs had opposed.

Of the two rebukes, the more convincing was the one administered on Saturday, when longtime party activist Chip Forrester, supported only by the rank and file, decisively won election as party chairman over Charles Robert Bone, son of an established party power broker and a candidate who had the active support of Governor Phil Bredesen; Harold Ford Jr., chairman of the right-centrist Democratic Leadership Council; sitting congressmen Lincoln Davis, John Tanner, Bart Gordon, and Jim Cooper; and outgoing party chairman Gray Sasser.

Nor were these worthies merely giving lip service to their support for Bone. They wrote letters, made phone calls, and had their primary surrogates work the issue hard, using both carrot and stick as incentives. Here and there they made a convert - like Knoxville-based lobbyist Bill Owens, whose livelihood literally depends on good relations with D. C. officeholders. But mostly the line was held, and the final tally was: Forrester, 43, Bone, 25 - a compelling margin for a bona fide grass-roots rebellion.

Appropriately, the vote Saturday was taken in the very House chamber where the Democratic minority had staged its coup two weeks ago. And, if that previous vote - whereby 49 Democrats plus Williams had narrowly overcome a regular GOP bloc of 49 -- had been a patent maneuver to forestall Republican control of the chamber, the one on Saturday could be regarded as a proper sequel

Both events were directly related to the Democrats' unexpected debacle in last fall's election, when Republicans grabbed off enough seats to take a 50-49 edge in the state House, becoming the majority party there for the time since Reconstruction. (In 1969-70, the GOP had held the Speakership and majority leader position - the latter being Memphian Tom Avery - but that was the result of a 49-49 dead lock, with an independent casting his lot that session with the Republicans.)

Considering that the electoral trend in 2008 proved overwhelming nationwide, for both Democrats in general and presidential candidate Barack Obama in particular, the GOP victory in Tennessee's legislative races, if not a Perfect Storm, owed a great deal to some freak political weather. A last-minute touchdown in East Tennessee by GOP candidate John McCain, who was aiming at a Southwest Virginia audience; a hoarding of campaign funds by over-confident Democratic loser Nathan Vaughn; political advertising that was widely regarded as sub-standard; a feckless statewide election strategy that was deemed likewise.

But a major factor was what, in retrospect, seems an inexplicable aversion on the part of party leaders - notably Bredesen and potential gubernatorial successor Davis - to the idea of campaigning within the state by charismatic standard-bearer Obama.

The governor, a former businessman whose budget-cutting bottom-line approach to governing has often seemed cold and calculating, even antiseptic, to many of the party rank and file, is reported to have waved Obama off. Davis never endorsed Obama, and his aide Beecher Frasier - the same Frasier who was active behind the scenes for Bone's chairmanship hopes -- had expressed public misgivings last summer that the party nominee might have "terrorist" ties.

So it was that when state executive member Don Farmer of Milan, in the process of seconding Bone's nomination on Saturday, made pointed reference to each of the party heavyweights who had weighed in for Bone, there was an audible rumble of dissatisfaction from the House gallery, where scores of placards supporting Forrester were being held up by spectators.

There were other factors leading to Saturday's outcome - including rumors of untoward business relationships and vested interests among the Bone supporters - but at root the vote in favor of Forrester had been a pointed rejection as such of the established powers-that-be, whom a majority of the Democratic rank in file had plainly lost confidence in.

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