Democrats map plan to stay relevent in new session

Friday, January 4, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 1
By Zack Barnes


With new leadership in both the House and Senate, Tennessee Democrats are trying to stay relevant in the face of supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly.

Karen Camper has been elected as the first African-American leader of the House Democrats, taking over from Craig Fitzhugh, who became minority leader in 2011 and left for an unsuccessful bid for governor. The Senate has elected Jeff Yarbro as the minority leader. Yarbro takes over for Lee Harris, who is now mayor of Shelby County.

“My goals as leader mirror those that I have had during my decade as a member of the General Assembly, to make sure that the people of Tennessee get the representation that they deserve,” Camper says.

As she takes on this new role, you can expect a well thought out plan every step of the way. “As a former soldier, I believe in laying out clear and concise goals, formulating a plan to accomplish said goals, and then implementing that plan.


“My colleagues – both in my caucus and across the aisle – can expect me to be fair, honest and direct. We represent every citizen of this state – they are our bosses. We have to be accountable to them and to our fellow legislators.”

On the Senate side, Yarbro’s goal is to represent the forty percent of Tennesseans who are Democrats. “Just because those voters are clustered and gerrymandered into fewer districts, we can’t let our small numbers be a small voice.”

That doesn’t mean Democrats are not ready to reach across the aisle to work on bipartisan legislation, especially in the area of healthcare and criminal justice reform.

“Tennessee has too many people without healthcare, too many people in prison, and too many lives lost and at risk in the opiate epidemic,” Yarbro adds. “Nobody’s saying those problems are easy, but Medicaid expansion and smart criminal justice reform, both of which are bipartisan issues in most states, are essential steps for the state.”

Camper says she’s ready to use the relationships she’s built over the past decade to work with the Republican supermajority. “I think that the House has done good work across the aisle when it comes to criminal justice reform,” Camper explains.

“I have a good working relationship with incoming Majority Leader William Lamberth, and we can expand on the work we have done previously on criminal and juvenile justice.”

Tennessee Democrats are hopeful that fresh leadership in the General Assembly can bring some much-needed wins.

The legislature isn’t the only place where there are changes. Mary Mancini, the chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, has two challenges in an upcoming leadership vote on January 12.

Holly McCall, the chair of the Williamson County Democrats and Christopher Hale, a former Obama campaign staffer who most recently lost the 4th Congressional District Democratic Primary, are facing off against Mancini.

Democrats are looking to the future, as well. With Lamar Alexander’s announcement that he is retiring, an open senate seat will most likely draw a variety of candidates in 2020. Memphis State Senator Sara Kyle and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke are a few names being floated as prospective candidates. After the defeat of Phil Bredesen in the November election, the Democrats will need a different strategy to have any chance of taking back statewide offices.