Will gender dominate 2016 legislative races?

tennessean-news-graphicFrank Daniels. The Tennessean. April 9, 2016.

Tuesday, Women for Tennessee’s Future unveiled a concerted strategy to shift the political debate in the 2016 legislative races, introducing 23 candidates, all women and all Democrats, who are challenging 21 Republican incumbents (two are running for open seats).

“The women here today care about the priorities of most Tennesseans,” said Bonnie Dow, co-founder and treasurer of the organization, which was prominent in Megan Barry’s campaign for Nashville mayor.

Speaking at the James K. Polk house, Dow said, “Our legislators play games rather than addressing the concerns of Tennessee’s citizens. They neglect genuine need, wasting time on matters that only seek to advance their own narrow political agendas. If they aren’t going to do the job of the people, they should get out of the way.”

It does often feel that way, doesn’t it?

Joey Garrison and Dave Boucher did great reporting and analysis in two Tennessean stories detailing how a network of Tennessee Democratic party leaders, activists and self-described parent-teacher mothers — “PTO moms” — mined social media, letters published in newspaper opinion pages, and county Democratic Party chairmen suggestions to find women willing to run for legislature in 2016.

Activated by Insure Tennessee

Dow said that the legislature’s refusal to even vote on Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee plan to provide health care insurance to the state’s working poor was a prime motivator for the 23 candidates.

One of the architects of the recruitment efforts is Lisa Quigley, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, according to The Tennessean story.

“If you were a woman, and you wrote a letter to the editor about Insure Tennessee, you got a phone call,” Quigley said.

Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, who is one of 11 women who have risen to run one of the chambers in a state legislature, faces a challenge from Sydney Rogers, outgoing executive director of the education nonprofit Alignment Nashville. Rogers says she is challenging Harwell because of her lack of leadership on Insure Tennessee and her handling of the sexual misconduct accusations against Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin.

“Representative Harwell is in a position to make a difference and she has become the protector of the status quo,” Rogers told The Tennessean.

If the embattled Durham makes it through the GOP primary in August, he will face Holly McCall, a communications professional. Thursday, the attorney general released a report finding that Durham exhibited a pattern of improper behavior, including reports of “inappropriate physical contact with some women.”

Monolithic? No.

While the announcement of the Democrats’ recruitment of female candidates made a significant splash, and will certainly capture attention for campaign fundraising, the party may be assuming that women in Tennessee are a bloc of voters that flock together.

The number of women in Tennessee’s legislature — 17.4 percent of the seats are now held by women — is similar to the states around us. Georgia’s legislature is 23.7 percent female; North Carolina, 22.4 percent; and Arkansas, 20 percent, but the other contiguous states — Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, and Kentucky — have fewer women sitting in their legislatures than Tennessee.

There are more Republican women in the state House, nine, than Democrats, seven, and twice as many Republican women senators — four versus two.

The state’s only female members of Congress, Diane Black, Sixth District, and Marsha Blackburn, Seventh District, are both Republican, and the Democrats do not seem to have the appetite to effect a change there in 2016.

Tennessee GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes was quick to point out that the Democrats are being, at best, disingenuous with a focus on women.

Democrats had decades to try and incorporate more women and didn’t, he said.

“Once again, Democrats are out to divide,” Haynes said in a statement. “Looking for qualified candidates of any gender is always commendable but their efforts here would be a lot more credible if they had, for example, actually had a woman serve as Speaker of the House in Tennessee during their 150-year hold on the state. They didn’t. Instead it took Republicans to put forth a strong leader like Beth Harwell to do that — and it was the first thing we did when we took full control of the House.”

More competition is better 

That said, Tennessee and Tennesseans will be much better served to have competitive races between candidates with strongly opposing views than the recent history of rubber-stamp general elections that perpetuate “safe” districts that inevitably tilt toward the extreme views in each party.

Reach Frank Daniels III at 615-881-7039 and on Twitter @fdanielsiii.