NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Democrats may be stuck with anti-gay rights activist Mark Clayton as their U.S. Senate nominee in November whether they like it or not.
In a letter to Democrat Larry Crim, one of the seven little-known candidates who ran in last week's Senate Democratic primary, state Election Coordinator Mark Goins said Tuesday, "There is not enough time to hold another statewide [primary] election before the November general election."
Crim is demanding another Democratic primary be held after the state party's chairman, Chip Forrester, disavowed Clayton, 35, the day following Thursday's primary. Clayton now is the party's nominee in November and faces U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a former Chattanooga mayor.
In disavowing Clayton, Forrester cited the Southern Poverty Law Center's assertion that Clayton is associated with a "hate group."
Clayton, who won the primary with nearly 50,000 votes, is vice president of Public Advocate of the United States, which opposes and lobbies against gay rights.
But now Forrester is facing a firestorm of criticism from other Democratic candidates and some Democratic State Executive Committee members for failing to properly vet candidates. Gary Davis, another Democratic candidate, charged that Forrester has managed to turn Tennessee Democrats into a national "laughing stock."
In his letter, Goins, a former Republican legislator, noted that election results of the Thursday primary won't be officially certified until later this month. Because of that, Goins said, there isn't time to hold another primary because absentee ballots for voters serving in the military "must be mailed out by Sept. 22."
"Although Chip Forrester had the authority in April to disqualify Mr. Clayton, he did not do so," he added.
The party's bylaws allow the chairman to deny ballot access to candidates who are not a "bona fide" member of the party. Forrester had a week to act after the April 5 filing deadline.
Jim Bilbo, of Cleveland, a member of the Democratic Party's Executive Committee and chairman of the party's bylaws panel, vowed in a news release to improve the candidate review process.
"We owe it to Democratic supporters, candidates and volunteers to enact reforms so that extreme candidates who don't represent our core Democratic, middle-class values may never take advantage of our open elections again," he said.
Meanwhile, Clayton held a news conference Tuesday and denied that Public Advocate of the United States is a "hate group."
"Nobody that I know in this country ... or anybody who's ever be associated with any of the campaigns, would ever want to hurt somebody who's gay," he said. "We just want to help protect traditional values so that moms and dads can raise families in difficult and uncertain times."
He declared that "Mark Clayton does not belong to a hate group. Mark Clayton belongs to a love group."
Clayton is now asking Democratic President Barack Obama to invite him to the Democratic National Convention and give him a speaking slot to address delegates.
But Clayton acknowledged he didn't vote for Obama in 2008 -- he said he voted for a third-party candidate -- and has yet to decide whether he will vote for Obama now. He urged Obama to renounce his recent support for gay marriage, saying many Democrats and others are upset over Obama's move.
"I'm very close to voting for Obama this time," he said. "But like many supporters, we want President Obama to come home and be for traditional marriage between a man and a woman."
He also lashed out at Forrester, noting that "despite reports to the contrary," the chairman "is not the Democratic Party." If Forrester "continues to act against party rules and fight an elected nominee, then we're going to have to go for his resignation," Clayton said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.