Politics » Politics Feature

Hanging in There

Democratic chairman Chip Forrester hopes to survive his party’s debacle.


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"Previously he had a small role as Forrester in ... Goodbye, Mr. Chips."

No, that modestly abridged line from the Wikipedia website is unrelated to anything happening in Tennessee politics. It actually comes from an online bio of the English actor William Moseley, and Chip Forrester, the longtime Nashville activist who has chaired the Tennessee Democratic Party for the last two years, is doing his best these days to make sure he doesn't have to say goodbye and can keep his current role for at least the next two years.

"I've got unfinished business in several areas where the party can make progress," Forrester declared after attending Monday's memorial service for the late Memphis state representative Ulysses Jones at Hope Presbyterian Church on Walnut Grove.

Forrester was one of many representatives of Tennessee's political and governmental communities on hand to help honor the fallen firefighter/legislator, who died unexpectedly last week, apparently of complications resulting from pneumonia.

And though he, too, was here to pay tribute to Jones, "a spectacular man, who was larger than life," Forrester also availed himself of the opportunity to touch base with potential supporters of his reelection bid.

And, come Tuesday, he was on the road to Chattanooga. "I intend to be in every area of Tennessee in the next few weeks," said Forrester, who maintained a similar peripatetic presence in the run-up to his first election as chairman two years ago by the party's executive committee, when he upset Nashville lawyer Charles Robert Bone, the favored candidate of the Democratic Party establishment.

Forrester's victory then owed much to support at the grassroots level which allowed him to overcome strong support given Bone by Governor Phil Bredesen and four of the state's then reigning Democratic congressmen — all but Steve Cohen of Memphis, who stayed neutral.

Three of those congressmen are now gone, either via retirement or through defeat in this month's election, which gave Tennessee Republicans a 7-2 advantage in congressional seats and absolute control of both houses of the state legislature.

But the same GOP tsunami which may have thinned the ranks of his former party opponents is also an obstacle to Forrester's reelection effort. Will Cheek of Nashville, a former party chairman who supported Bone two years ago, is among those calling for Forrester to step down, citing the example of the Titanic, whose captain chose to go down with the ship. "He didn't ask for a new command," Cheek said.

Forrester is undeterred. He notes that Bredesen is so far staying out of the chairmanship battle and has pointedly exculpated him from responsibility for this year's Democratic debacle. And, though others besides Cheek have called for Forrester to step down and several names are in circulation as potential opponents, nobody has yet stepped forward as an avowed challenger.

The state executive committee will meet in Nashville in January to consider the chairmanship and other reorganization matters, and Forrester intends to be ready.

Among the unfinished business Forrester intends to continue: elimination of the party's debt; development and training of party cadres; and acquisition of a new state Democratic headquarters, one which could house not only party meetings but conclaves of labor and environmental groups and other traditional groups in the Democratic constituency.

"We need more continuity than we've had in the past," Forrester said. "Too often we've had chairs serving only one two-year term, which means that the party is always having to regroup with a new staff and new mission instead of following through on what it's started."

• The urge to regroup is something which even the victors in this year's election seem to be obsessed by.

Speaking to a Tipton County Republican women's group in Munford on Saturday, Memphis lawyer John Ryder shook his head in amazement at an ongoing move to shuffle the leadership deck in national Republican ranks.

"Think about the irony of this," he said. "We just won one of the greatest victories a party has ever won in American electoral history. And the soon-to-be former speaker of the House [Nancy Pelosi] has announced that she is running for election as minority leader, having lost 60-plus seats in her own caucus. And the victors are about to oust the national chairman.

"So go figure. I just thought that was an interesting kind of ironic juxtaposition," repeated Ryder, who is considered close to the current Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, who last year named Ryder to chair the RNC's national redistricting effort.

Steele is currently under fire from South Carolina Republican senator Jim DeMint and others, especially conservatives of the Tea Party persuasion, who want to replace Marylander Steele, who eked out a victory over several other contenders in 2009, becoming the first African American to head the national GOP.

On the subject of redistricting in Tennessee, Ryder acknowledged that the very size of the GOP's overwhelming victory, which, among other things, gave Republicans an almost 2-to-1 majority in state House seats, might complicate efforts to reconfigure district lines, in the sense that newly elected GOP legislators might prefer to run for reelection with the same constituencies as before.

"But I'm confident that we'll find a way that is fair," he said.

• An impressive array of dignitaries turned out for the late Representative Jones' memorial service, including representatives of fire services from as far afield as Chicago.

Among those offering eloquent tributes to the late legislator were Memphis mayor A C Wharton, who praised Jones for braving the hazards of both firefighting and legislating, both of which were "ways of serving the community he so dearly loved," and former Mayor Willie Herenton, who confided that Jones was one of the few legislators he relied on consistently to uphold the interests of Memphis in Nashville.

Herenton said Jones, a battalion commander with the Memphis Fire Department, had told him recently of plans to retire. "'I'm coming home,' he said. He retired. He retired in eternity."

Former councilman, county commissioner, and Juvenile Court clerk Shep Wilbun noted in his testimonial that Jones owed the beginning of his political rise to involvement in the North Memphis Roundtable, an organization to which both of them belonged.

Among other Roundtable members present for the memorial service were state representatives Larry Miller and Joe Towns Jr.; city councilman Joe Brown; former city councilman Rickey Peete; and recent sheriff candidate Randy Wade, currently an aide to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen.

One of the newest members of the Roundtable present Tuesday was Frayser/Raleigh activist Antonio "Two-Shay" Parkinson, considered a possible successor to Jones and to City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware, who has been ill and is now under suspension after her indictment last week for "official misconduct." (See Viewpoint, p. 17.)

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