NASHVILLE - A group of Tennessee Democrats, including Olan Mills II, of Chattanooga, has created a political action committee it says will fill a vacuum on progressive candidates and causes and compete with conservative Republican groups.
Mills, whose family formerly owned Olan Mills Inc., and Nashville businessman Bill Freeman are co-chairmen of Battleground Tennessee and have contributed $50,000 each. Former state Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester is treasurer.
Last week the group cut two $10,000 checks, one each to state Reps. Gloria Johnson, of Knoxville, and Darren Jernigan, of Nashville. Neither has primary opposition, but both expect strong Republican attempts to unseat them in November.
"Those two are the highest Republican targets in the state," said Forrester.
Battleground Tennessee's goal is to raise $250,000 for Democratic legislative candidates whose stances the group supports.
"What we're trying to do is fight fire with fire," Freeman said at a state Capitol news conference last week. He called it "our answer to the far right."
Mills was not present. Forrester and Freeman said the PAC also could get involved in opposing Amendment 1, which seeks to amend the Tennessee Constitution and hand state lawmakers more power to regulate abortion.
"For too long, the progressive community has operated at a distinct disadvantage in the face of numerous right-wing PACs," Freeman said. "Today, we turn the tide with Battleground Tennessee, our answer to the far right."
Two of the biggest Republican PACS are those set up by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey. In their most recent disclosure statements, filed in April, Harwell's PAC reported $559,478 cash on hand and Ramsey's listed $403,146.
Forrester said the PAC will make donations in party primaries and will "absolutely not" get involved in races for seats on the Democratic State Executive Committee.
Forrester has individually backed some challengers to current executive committee members. Democratic voters will elect committee members Aug. 7. Those members can elect a new chairman in January, but Forrester repeated Thursday that "I am not a candidate for party chair, and I will not be a candidate for party chair."
Kevin Teets, a former Democratic party executive director, will serve as director of the PAC. He will evaluate campaigns after the Aug. 7 primary and recommend other races where PAC donations can best help elect Democrats, Forrester said.
He said that could include the 4th Congressional District seat now held by Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who has faced considerable controversy since his 2012 re-election and is being challenged by state Sen. Jim Tracy, of Shelbyville, in the primary.
Teets worked for former state Sen. Eric Stewart, the 2012 Democratic 4th District nominee, who lost to DesJarlais in the general election.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.