Sunday Column: On Tennessee’s Endangered White Democrats

In our state’s most populous county, Shelby, Republican-controlled redistricting this year left legislative Democratic incumbents — one black, one white — to run against each other in two state House districts. In both cases, the black incumbent won on Aug. 2.
As Otis Sanford observed in a recent Commercial Appeal column, this has left white Democratic state legislators an endangered species in the Memphis area. There’s only one now — Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, who was left by redistricting to run in the Democratic primary against an incumbent colleague, Sen. Beverley Marrero, who is also white.
White Democrats are otherwise endangered in Legislatorland, not because of competition with black Democrats, but because of competition with white Republicans. Or noncompetition in some cases, as with the retirement of Rep. Bill Harmon, D-Dunlap, who will be replaced by a white Republican since no Democrat of any race, creed or color ran for his seat.
There’s at least a chance that, after the November election, there will be no white Democratic state representative representing any county in East Tennessee and only one senator — Charlotte Burks, who lives in Middle Tennessee’s Putnam County but who also represents Cumberland County after redistricting.

The current easternmost Democratic state senator, Andy Berke, chose not to seek re-election after his seat was redistricted to become a majority Republican district. He’s running for mayor of Chattanooga instead. There is a Democrat running to replace him in the new Senate District 10, but probably as an underdog.
State Sen. Eric Stewart, whose district has counties in both Middle and East Tennessee, is also not seeking re-election, opting instead for an underdog run for the 4th Congressional District seat. Republicans have a good shot at winning the race to replace him, with high-energy, arch-conservative Janice Bowling facing old-guard Democrat Jim Lewis.
In the House, the easternmost white Democrat today is Rep. Harry Tindell of Knoxville. He’s also retiring in a district revised to be more Republican. Again, it’s going to be competitive by most accounts, though Republicans seem optimistic that their guy, Gary Loe, can defeat Democrat Gloria Johnson.
It should be noted that Loe defeated a black Republican, Vanderbilt Brabson, in the primary. In a couple of telephone interviews, Brabson came across as a bright, energetic fellow who did not believe race a factor in the contest. But Loe had more money, including donations from House Speaker Beth Harwell and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who proved pretty good — as in 100 percent — at picking winners in open seats
Black Republican state legislators are extinct in Tennessee and, with very rare exceptions, have been so since the Reconstruction era. The last was former Rep. Pete Drew, then of Knoxville, who lost a bid for re-election after changing parties to the GOP.
It may also be noted that redistricting assures two House seats in East Tennessee remain Democratic with black incumbents, one in Knoxville held by Rep. Joe Armstrong and the other in Chattanooga, which will be held by Rep. JoAnn Favors after she defeated Rep. Tommie Brown in a redistricting-dictated primary.
Elsewhere in East Tennessee, the last remaining white House Democrat is Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston, whose district includes Fentress and Morgan counties. He’s got a serious Republican challenger but appears the favorite thanks to close community ties and a conservative voting record.
And there are some incumbent East Tennessee Republicans facing credible Democratic challengers — notably a couple of Democrats swept out of office in the 2010 Republican wave who are making comeback attempts, former Reps. Jim Hackworth of Clinton and Eddie Yokley of Greeneville.
Still, it appears the only safe Democratic legislative seats in East Tennessee are those held by Armstrong and Favors in urban areas with a substantial number of black voters. That’s increasingly true for the rest of the state as well. This leaves the possibility that white Democrats will one day be as rare as black Republicans in our state.
And, you know, it would be a shame if red and blue becomes the same as black and white.

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