By Lucas Johnson, Associated PressNASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democratic leaders are putting on a brave face about their dwindling numbers in the Tennessee Statehouse, claiming the political landscape presents an opportunity to regroup and emerge stronger.
But the party’s recent electoral record — and an internal Democratic memorandum obtained by The Associated Press — present a bleaker picture.
The last time Democrats gained ground in the Legislature was in 2006, when they defeated a state senator who had switched parties to become a Republican.
Since then, they have lost 19 seats in the House and three seats in the Senate, placing them firmly in the minority of the two chambers. Another nine Democratic incumbents have announced they won’t run again this year.
When former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, announced earlier this month that he plans to retire after 38 years in the chamber, the Covington Democrat told his colleagues it was because he felt it was time to “pass the torch to the next generation of leaders.”
Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said other Democrats share the same mindset.
“I think that Jimmy Naifeh said it pretty well,” he said. “There are a lot of legislators who kind of see this as a passing of the torch year. It’s actually a pretty exciting time.”
But an analysis commissioned by the party and obtained by AP indicates that Democrats have a long way to go before they can justify the grounds for any optimism about future success.
The confidential November 2011 study is based on interviews with close to 100 current and former leaders in state Democratic politics. It identifies a “deep and longstanding lack of trust and mutual respect among the most significant Democratic stakeholders,” and stresses that the party needs to make major changes in order to claw back Republican gains in the state.
“The window to fix these problems is closing and the situation could get worse before it gets better,” according to the study by Big Change Strategies, an Ohio-based consultant.
Democrats have been split among themselves ever since Chip Forrester was elected chairman of the party in 2009 and later re-elected despite the public objections of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen and most of the state’s Democratic delegation in Congress.
The memo calls the lack of a “recognized head of the party” and a lack diversity key weakness for Democrats.
Puttbrese acknowledged that Democrats realize that “we need to change our direction,” but said that wasn’t an unusual consideration given the Democrats’ new place in the minority.
“And so, what does any organization do when they need to change directions?” he asked. “They have to do a little bit of soul searching.”
One major hurdle that Democrats have had to contend with this year is newly redrawn districts by Republicans. House Speaker Beth Harwell said she’s not surprised by the number of Democrats who aren’t seeking re-election.
“The Demographics of this state have severely changed,” said the Nashville Republican.
Democratic Rep. Lois DeBerry of Memphis said it’s not unusual for lawmakers to drop out during a redistricting period. DeBerry, who has been a lawmaker almost 40 years and is the first female speaker pro tempore in the House, recalled a time when Democrats were in control and a number of Republicans decided not to run again.
“When you’ve been in a long time, I think people have the attitude: ‘I’d rather walk out a winner than walk out a loser,’ ” she said.
But the redrawn maps have also placed several Democratic incumbents into the same district, which is unlikely to spread goodwill among the party.
For example, Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis has pulled petitions to possibly challenge several fellow Democratic incumbents, One potential target is DeBerry, whose redrawn seat includes a significant part of Hardaway’s old district.
“I’m a firm believer that once the redistricting is done that there is no incumbency,” Hardaway said. “Everyone has the same options I have. So I encourage them to explore their options.”
Regardless of who runs, Democrats are counting on new candidates who will hopefully get elected and energize the party.
“I’m very excited about what’s going on with excellent candidates that are running for a number of different seats,” said Sen. Roy Herron of Dresden, who has decided not to run again.
“I think the combination of some experienced veterans and some enthusiastic rookies will be a great combination for Tennessee,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state Republican Party has watched with undisguised glee as a steady stream of Democrats has filed for the Statehouse exits.
“Tennessee Democrats must be real fans of the rock band Queen,” Chris Devaney, the state GOP chairman, said in a release after a recent retirement announcement. “Because their new theme song seems to have become ‘Another One Bites the Dust.'”