NASHVILLE — As Tennessee Republicans focus on how to gain ironclad control of the General Assembly next year, the Democrats are busy fighting among themselves.
Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen acknowledges a “distance” and tension between himself and a number of top Democratic leaders, but he maintains he is “not blocking them out.”
“I am a little concerned about what’s happening with the party,” Gov. Bredesen said last week in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Since losing control in November elections of both the state House and Senate for the first time since post-Civil War Reconstruction, soul-searching Democrats have engaged in a series of squabbles and fingerpointing over who should be in control of the party.
In January, for example, Gov. Bredesen and four of the state’s five congressmen publicly backed Charles Robert Bone, who has ties to the party’s more conservative, pro-business establishment, for state Democratic Party chairman over Chip Forrester.
Mr. Forrester, a veteran party fixture with a history of clashes with establishment figures, had started campaigning for the post well before Mr. Bone started. And the 66-member state Democratic Executive Committee ignored party elders’ advice and overwhelmingly elected Mr. Forrester as chairman Jan. 24.
The new party chairman confidently said after the election that Democrats need to “circle the wagons and come together” to retake the House in 2010. But the governor, his top aides and congressional staffers seem to be driving the wagons at Mr. Forrester.
“When you have the Democratic governor who’s not unpopular at the moment and virtually all the Democratic congressmen having some strong preferences on the thing, you’d think people would listen to that a little bit, but they didn’t,” Gov. Bredesen said of executive committee members.
Democratic Executive Committeeman Weldon Markham, of Chattanooga, said the governor and others should move on.
“I’m extremely disappointed that these four congressmen and the governor aren’t backing Chip,” he said. “And we still have some members on the committee who can’t seem to get over this.”
Things went from bad to worse Feb. 19 when Mr. Forrester appointed Nashville real estate developer Bill Freeman as party treasurer. Mr. Freeman had quarreled in the past with Gov. Bredesen when he was Nashville’s mayor.
Records show Mr. Freeman has given substantial contributions to Republicans as well as Democrats over the years. He also raised $250,000 for the Obama campaign, according to Mr. Forrester.
But standing out among the contributions was $5,000 he gave to Republican Van Hilleary over Mr. Bredesen in the 2002 governor’s race and $5,000 he gave to Republican Jim Bryson in Gov. Bredesen’s 2006 re-election campaign, state campaign finance records show.
Gov. Bredesen acknowledged that inclined him not to help the party with fundraising.
“The person they chose to be the treasurer worked very hard against me,” Gov. Bredesen said. “So he’s not somebody that immediately when he calls up and says, ‘I now want your help raising money,’ that you say, ‘Oh, OK.’”
Gov. Bredesen’s comments to the Times Free Press were made Thursday and have not been previously published.
By Friday afternoon, with news out that state Democratic fundraising took a tumble in February, Mr. Freeman called it quits and acknowledged in a news release that his resignation stemmed in part from “opposition” to his appointment by “some of the Democratic establishment.”
“As I’ve made fundraising calls in the last month, several longtime donors have expressed their concern to me that Governor Bredesen was not as supportive of me as I had hoped,” Mr. Freeman said in a statement.
Mr. Forrester said in an interview Friday that what Mr. Freeman encountered were efforts to ask some long-term donors to “lay low and not necessarily support the party.”
He said he is unsure whether Mr. Freeman’s resignation will help smooth things over or merely whet critics’ appetite for his own head.
“I would hope that with Bill’s resignation and some of the concerns that people had about Bill that that might open up things and make things a little easier. That’s certainly my hope,” Mr. Forrester said.
ODOM on the outs
Mr. Forrester’s situation isn’t Tennessee Democrats’ only controversy. Just weeks after Democrats’ November disaster, Bredesen aides interjected themselves into House Democratic Leader Gary Odom’s re-election bid as leader, saying the governor had “trust” issues with Rep. Odom. Those were over Rep. Odom’s refusal last year to proceed with an administration bill closing off a tax “loophole,” they said.
Rep. Odom, of Nashville, won re-election over Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, despite gubernatorial aides backing Rep. Fitzhugh.
This year, Gov. Bredesen is not letting Rep. Odom sponsor any of the administration’s legislative package.
“My relations with the House Democrats are fine,” the governor said. “I mean, there’s a tension between Odom and myself. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Gov. Bredesen acknowledged being “upset” last year over the tax issue “not because he was against it, but he took the administration bill and then deep-sixed it.”
But he said he gets along “fine” with Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville.
“Oh yes, I’ll certainly help,” Gov. Bredesen said regarding fundraising for House Democrats.
He also noted that he will help the Democratic candidates when needed.
“When there’s candidates out there — as I have every previous time there’s been an election — I’ll be out pounding on doors and doing stuff to help Democratic candidates,” he said.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...