"Truce" or Surrender? Democratic Establishment Grabs Power Back from Forrester (UPDATE: Chairman Forrester Replies!)



Chip Forrester, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, responds to a Flyer article suggesting that his recently accomplished "truce" with influential party figures represents a "surrender" on his part:

April 29, 2009

I read with deep concern Jackson Baker’s April 28th post on Political Beat, “Truce or Surrender? Democratic Establishment Grabs Power Back from Forrester.” While I have long admired Mr. Baker’s journalistic skills and appreciate his insightful reporting on politics, this time he just didn’t get it right.

First, it is no secret that my candidacy for Tennessee Democratic Party chair was not supported by key Democrats, including the Governor. But since my election January 24th I have worked hard to “circle the wagons” and unify the Party for the crucial effort of taking back the State House and Senate and winning the governor’s race in 2010.

Like any coming together, this has been a process as feelings have healed, lines of communications have been established, and all the parties have been able to put the election behind them and look forward to 2010. I never expected that this would happen overnight but I knew that over time these key Democratic officeholders would do what they knew to be best for the Party.

There have even been a few bumps in the road during this process. With 20/20 hindsight it was not my best decision to ask Bill Freeman to serve as Party treasurer. I was certainly focused on the incredible fundraising successes he had with the Obama for President campaign and not on his past difficulties with the Governor. But with Mr. Freeman’s resignation, it is now my hope that this issue is behind us.

I’m proud to say that House Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner and Governor Bredesen have been key leaders in this process, but it has also involved high-level staff and donors. The process has been an evolutionary one with no magic “Aha” moment that defines that a deal has been struck. The process is continuing even now.

Mr. Baker was right when he noted in his article that things were moving in a positive direction at Speaker-emeritus Jimmy Naifeh’s annual Coon Supper. But to characterize this as “surrender” could not be further from the truth. The coming together of all the constituencies for party unity is something I hoped would happen and could not be more pleased with how this has taken place.

He also wrongly states that the “deal” requires that I hire an executive director picked by the governor and reporting directly to the governor. This is completely untrue. What we have decided to do is bring on a top-flight communications director (something that I, in fact, campaigned on while running for chair) to more aggressively combat the continued failings of the Tennessee Republican Party which has been hijacked by extremist right wing zealots like Rep. Jason Mumpower, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and the current TNGOP Chair Robin Smith.

Given his history as a successful entrepreneur, Governor Bredesen looks at operations from a business perspective and in discussions has suggested that the party develop a business plan to help guide its operating activities, which we are in the process of developing now. The kind of leadership that the governor has given the state in these turbulent economic times is just the kind of leadership he has demonstrated for the Party.

What we are really all doing is having the entire team play to its strengths—the governor’s fundraising prowess is key to our statewide financial success, an “all hands on deck” candidate recruitment process that seeks, identifies, recruits and trains the best candidates for 2010, empowers the 72 members of the state Democratic executive committee in a much more visible leadership role, re-engages our 95 county parties, brings the grassroots activists from across the state into the Party and new 21st century communication tools (like our brand new web site www.tndp.org) that creates a community of committed Democratic activists—to do the single most important job we all have—win in 2010. There has been no “surrender” — just the unification of our Party for the battle ahead.

Chip Forrester, Chair
Tennessee Democratic Party

What follows is the original Jackson Baker article:

It didn't take long for the rumors of intra-Democratic-Party truce that were rampant at ex-state House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's Coon Supper in Covington last week to be confirmed.

It's now official: By agreement with Governor Phil Bredesen, state party chairman Chip Forrester will handle publicity and grass roots organization for the party, while fundraising and candidate recruitment will be the province of an executive director to be named by ”“ and responsible to ”“ the governor and the rest of the state party's power establishment.

Almost everybody considers the “truce” to be a surrender imposed on Forrester by that establishment, which, in theory, consists of Bredesen plus four of the five Democratic congressmen from Tennessee (everybody but Memphis' Steve Cohen, who has been studiously neutral during the last three moths of intra-party strife). In reality, it comes down to 4th District congressman Lincoln Davis, and, in particular, his administrative aide Beecher Frasier.

Yes, the same Beecher Frasier who opined during last year's presidential campaign that he couldn't be sure that then candidate Barack Obama didn't have terrorist ties.

The same Beecher Frazier who has spearheaded the battle against Forrester almost from the moment the Chipper announced his candidacy for the party chairmanship last November. That was in the wake of the electoral debacle last November in which the Democrats managed to lose both houses of the Tennessee legislature.

Forrester was a longtime rank-and-file man with close ties to the liberal blogosphere, including several in Memphis, and he was able to decisively beat Charles Robert Bone, the hand-picked candidate of the establishment at the January meeting of the state party executive committee.

Things went downhill from there, with the governor, the congressional Big Four, and residual party star Harold Ford Jr. all keeping their distance from Forrester.

Not that the would-be reform chairman didn’t commit some mis-chances. The most notorious (and probably the most harmful) of these was Forrester’s hiring of one Bill Freeman as the official party fundraiser back in February,
Freeman had indeed raised a carload of cash for the Obama presidential campaign last year, and that was a major credential in Forrester’s eyes. It seemed at first to satisfy the new chairman’s grass-root supporters, most of whom thought the state party establishment had blown opportunities in 2008 to tap the momentum and enthusiasm of the nationwide Obama movement.

Rightly or wrongly, Governor Bredesen was thought to have asked Obama to stay away from Tennessee during the general election. It was certainly the case that few Democratic Party campaigns for legislative seats paid anything more than lip service to the party’s presidential nominee ”“ if that.

This fact by itself angered Forrester’s supporters, most of whom had been enthusiastic for Obama and thought too many of the party’s candidates in Tennessee spent more time me-tooing the Republicans than establishing ideological distance from them.

These same progressive cadres were scandalized, and their support somewhat neutralized, however, when word got around that Freeman had played around on the other side of the street as well ”“ having raised money for numerous Republican persons and causes, including the erstwhile Bush-Cheney presidential campaigns.

Worse, from the standpoint of maintaining statewide Democratic unity, was the fact that Freeman had raised substantial cash for both of Bredesen’s two GOP election opponents, Van Hilleary in 2002 and Jim Bryson in 2006.

Already alienated from Forrester, the party’s core power group, especially the governor, now became virtually estranged.

Unable to pry anything loose from the usual suspects among Democratic donors and realizing that he had become a liability, Freeman eventually resigned ”“ a fact that caused Forrester as much embarrassment on the back end as his hiring of Freeman had on the front end.

Something had to give, and in the end it was the Chipper. The new arrangement makes him a de facto auxiliary to the Big Boys, who will run the state party according to their wont.

Their governing philosophy was perhaps best expressed by a statement from state Representative John Litz, a Morriston Democrat who achieved some clout of his own this year as one of the brokers of the Democratic ploy that resulted in the election of maverick Republican Kent Williams as Speaker of the state House.

Said Litz, by way of approving the terms of the “truce”: “I don’t think the Tennessee Democratic Party that I’m a part of is like a California Democrat. We’re not baby-killing, gun-stealing tree huggers.”

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment