Democratic lawmakers propose changing TNDP structure

Democrats in the state legislature want to change the way the Tennessee Democratic Party picks its leaders.

Nashville Rep. Jason Powell, the lead sponsor of a newly filed bill, said his aim is “working to improve the enthusiasm and activity of the Democratic Party by allowing more Democrats to participate in the process.”

Currently, the state party’s executive committee is made up of elected representatives from each state Senate district. As Powell noted, there are thousands more Democrats in, say, Sen. Jeff Yarbro’s Nashville district, than there are in Maryville Republican Sen. Art Swann’s district, yet the two have equal representation on the party’s executive committee. Powell’s proposal, carried by Memphis Sen. Raumesh Akbari in the Senate and co-sponsored by several other House Democrats, would have that system thrown out and task the existing executive committee with coming up with a new structure ahead of their 2022 elections.

“If an organization has not been successful over recent history, we should step back, look at that organization and say, ‘How is this organization structured and set up?’” Powell said. “Saying ‘That’s how it’s always been’ is an unacceptable excuse.”

Many executive committee members are displeased with Powell and his colleagues. One committee member, Amos Powers from the 15th Senate District, sent an email to fellow committee members Thursday alerting them to the bill, but his description incorrectly stated that the proposal would “take away Democratic voters from electing members of this committee.” Another member followed up to say, again incorrectly, that he thought the bill would allow the legislators, not voters, to pick the executive committee.

The email kicked off a firestorm.

“If that’s what they want to do, then we’ll just primary every one of them,” wrote Meryl Rice, whose district, like Powers’, is home to a Republican senator with a comfortable margin of victory in her most recent election. Others said that “the suggested change is undemocratic” and that they felt “personally betrayed.” Eventually, Katharine Heriges, a new committee member from Nashville, wrote to say that she had spoken to Powell and that the bill would not do what they feared — that instead the executive committee itself would have the power to reorganize however it saw fit.

And yet, according to multiple committee members, some of the anger remains.

Multiple committee members referenced the recent party elections, when the executive committee overwhelmingly re-elected TNDP Chair Mary Mancini. The House Democratic Caucus endorsed one of Mancini’s challengers, Williamson County Democratic Party Chair Holly McCall. The move “arises from discontent over [the] chair election,” one member wrote.

But Powell said that his bill is “not about my feelings about current leadership of the party.” He sponsored similar legislation early in his legislative career, long before Mancini led the state party, he added. Powell and Mancini have a meeting on the books and Mancini declined to comment until after the two speak.

Under the proposal, Tennessee Democrats could decide to hold a statewide convention or caucus to elect party leadership, or they could come up with a new system altogether. According to Powell, such a change could help boost representation for younger, more diverse Democrats, like those who cluster in the Democratic power bases of Nashville and Memphis.

The Democratic lawmakers backing this bill will require support from the Republican majority, but Powell believes he can get it. “If Republicans wanted to deal with some restructuring in their own party I’d be happy to vote for it,” Powell said, suggesting that he’s spoken with Republican members who feel the same toward internal Democratic reforms.