NASHVILLE - Former state Sen. Roy Herron became the Tennessee Democratic Party's new chairman Saturday, winning a solid majority of executive committee members' votes despite criticism he is too conservative on some issues such as abortion.
The 59-year-old Dresden attorney outpolled Dave Garrison, a Nashville attorney, 39-27. Garrison was backed by the state's two Democratic congressmen along with House and Senate Democratic Caucus leaders and the mayors of Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville, as well as labor unions.
Herron will lead an embattled party that has seen Republicans seize the governor's mansion and absolute control of the state Legislature.
Following his election, Herron charged that under Republican rule, "we've gone from common sense to nonsense." He accused the GOP of "trying to destroy the public schools" and said "those things that unite us as Democrats are far more important than those things that divide us."
But his election left some Democrats uneasy.
At the end of the meeting, executive committee member Jerry Maynard, a Metro Nashville councilman, took the unusual step of asking Herron to declare his support of President Barack Obama.
Maynard said he had never heard Herron endorse Obama during the election campaign.
"I voted for the president, I announced I was for the president, I told anybody who asked me that I was for the president," Herron replied. "I support the president, I support what he's trying to do for the country, and I support the United States of America."
Herron, who lost a 2010 congressional bid and didn't seek re-election to his Senate seat last year, later told reporters that GOP proposals "are pulling us off track."
"We ought to be talking about jobs, education, health care and doing what helps Tennesseans prosper and survive," he said.
He sought to allay Democrats' concerns about his abortion stance, saying he was against a proposed amendment by "the radicals and the reactionaries" to strip abortion rights from the Tennessee Constitution.
Herron sought to amend the proposal to make exceptions for the mother's life and health. When that didn't work, he voted against it.
Herron succeeds Chip Forrester, who was elected four years ago despite opposition from top Democrats such as former Gov. Phil Bredesen and major party fundraisers. They punished Forrester by largely withholding support for the party.
Speaking before the vote, Forrester said he now was sorry he ran "without the support of the majority of the elected officials of this state."
"Because of that I and my staff have faced an uphill battle for four years unifying this party."
He added, "I hope today you will vote for the candidate that can best bring our Democratic family together."