NASHVILLE — Chattanooga City Councilman Chris Anderson, a Democrat, confirmed Thursday that he is weighing a challenge to Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, in next year's 10th District election.
Anderson said in the interview that either he or another Democrat will run against Gardenhire, who is seeking a second four-year term.
"He seems more concerned with pursuing a radically conservative agenda than serving the people of the 10th Senate District and the people of Tennessee," Anderson said.
Two other Democrats are also said to be looking at running, according to Hamilton County Democrats. Several Democrats said Carl Landsden Jr., son of a former top union leader of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, plans to run. A second name could not be confirmed.
Landsden could not be reached for comment.
Gardenhire said he is "approaching [the election] like it's a tough race because it's going to be I'm not taking anything for granted and working hard."
The district was built by majority GOP lawmakers during 2012 redistricting to lean Republican. Gardenhire narrowly won that year's GOP primary and fared better against the Democrat, then-Councilman Andrae McGary.
The district includes portions of Hamilton County and several portions of GOP-leaning Bradley County.
"I think I'm very in tune with the district and will continue to do what I think is right and go from there," Gardenhire said.
But Anderson and other Democrats believe Gardenhire is vulnerable for a number of reasons, primarily circumstances surrounding the senator's two votes against Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee proposal.
The plan sought to use money under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, to provide health care to an estimated 280,000 low-income Tennesseans. Haslam's bill died twice in GOP-run Senate committees, with Gardenhire voting "no" twice in the Senate General Welfare Committee.
The senator was first engulfed in a controversy when he chided a Democrat for bringing up the issue of lawmakers' own partially state-subsidized health insurance during the first committee vote. Gardenhire said he was not on the plan. He was on the plan at the time but later told the Times Free Press he had asked to be removed.
Weeks later, Gardenhire was confronted by an East Ridge protester over the issue in a legislative hallway. The protester repeatedly called on Gardenhire to give up his state insurance. Gardenhire, who was emerging from a restroom, was videotaped calling the man an "a———."
While some of the audio wasn't clear, protesters claimed Gardenhire said, "I'm not giving it up, a———!" Gardenhire has said what he actually told the man was "I gave it up, a———," again noting he had asked to be removed from the state health plan.
Anderson said it was reprehensible for "anyone to behave as aggressively as he does toward his own constituents." Asked if he was referring to the controversy, Anderson said, "have you seen the video?"
If he runs, Anderson would be the first openly gay legislative candidate in Hamilton County.
"I'm considering running," he said. "I'm also considering supporting other individuals." He declined to give specifics.
Gardenhire said, "I'm sorry that he thinks helping the Latino population is a 'radical conservative movement' and reforming the state's 911 system is a radical idea." The senator championed a bill this year that would allow undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children by their parents to attend public colleges at in-state tuition rates. It passed the Senate and narrowly failed in the House.
"I suppose that since he didn't mention it he must be against it," Gardenhire said of Anderson. "He's got a record that he's got to show off and compare to my record of achievement," the senator added.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lee said he expects Democrats will have a contested primary with two Democrats besides Anderson interested in running. He declined to provide names.
Anderson said the 10th District remains a "swing district" despite the redistricting that made the seat, then held by Democrat Andy Berke who is now Chattanooga mayor, more Republican by adding portions of Bradley County.
Lee agreed, saying that "with an average turnout it's still about 46 percent Democratic so it's in play. It's definitely in play. Obviously it's our top priority."
He said that besides Gardenhire's vote against Insure Tennessee, the lawmaker also sponsored a school voucher bill.
Jordan Young, a top aide to Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, told Senate Republicans at their retreat last week that Democrats would be coming after Gardenhire and GOP senators in two other districts in Middle Tennessee.
"It's one thing to say you've got Sen. Gardenhire [as] your enemy No. 1, but you need to have someone to beat him," Young said, according to the Nashville Scene.