Local Democrats Pick New Leadership, Hope To Expand Their Reach

By By James Bennett, The Daily Herald, Columbia, Tenn.

The Maury County Democratic Party voted in new officers Tuesday night, including only its second woman chair in history, Kendall Azzariti.

The party continues to recover from its November election hangover.

Local Democrats had high hopes with former Gov. Phil Bredesen running for U.S. Senate and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in contention for governor.

On the local level, newcomer A.J. Holmes campaigned tirelessly for state representative with the full support of party membership. Mariah Phillips and Justin Kanew were credible and likable candidates for Congress.

It was the party’s strongest slate of candidates in at least 12 years, making them a little punch drunk with giddiness and too-high expectations.

Democrats were energized, it seemed, by two years of Republican Donald Trump in the White House and issues ranging from climate change to the #metoomovement.

Then the wave of crashed (and crushed) the local and state parties. Only Bredesen, who was re-elected governor in 2006 as the last Democrat to win a statewide office, received more than 40 percent of the vote in the races on local ballots.

Maury County Democrats spent part of the 2018 election cycle dealing with internal dissension. Former party chairman Seth James Campbell presided over standing-room-only local meetings at times and the largest Heritage Dinner in memory, but he was a lightning rod for controversy after resigning several times, including a month before the election. The Maury County special education teacher was elected as a member of the Tennessee Executive Committee.

In his resignation as county party chairman, Campbell said he did not have enough time to work as a teacher, coach and doctoral student.

Several monthly meetings in late 2017 and early 2018 featured arguments, infighting and would-be members walking out.

Tuesday night, the party’s county executive committee voted in a new slate of officers after a wave of resignations, including Campbell’s and vice chairman Mark Orman.

Azzariti, 35, a Columbia nurse, was elected chairman. Former chairman Lynn Nelson was voted as first chairman, Rupa DeLoach as third vice chairman and Lori Kohort as secretary. Michelle Miller remained as second chairman.

Azzariti becomes Maury County’s second woman chairman, following in the footsteps of Linda Colley. She will serve until March, when the party will have an election for two-year terms.

“I am happy to do it,” Azzariti said after she was elected by acclamation. “I have been filling in the gaps that we have had the past few months.”

Azzariti asked members of the party’s executive committee to write down the party’s weaknesses and share with her.

“She’s a hard worker and is good with people,” Cindy Rayburn, president of the Maury County Democratic Women for 11 years, said of Azzariti. “She will help grow the party.”

After working with the 25-year-old Holmes on the campaign trail in his unsuccessful race against Republican Scott Cepicky, Azzariti saw firsthand the difficulty in persuading Republicans to switch parties.

“I think we need to do more community outreach,” Azzariti said. “There are whole groups of people who do not know we’re here.

“We need to reach out to more young people,” she added. “The mistake we’ve been making is that we’re not going to them. We’re expecting them to come to us.”

The party’s monthly meetings should be like an hour with the Welcome Wagon. Instead of running off potential members with screaming, shouting and personal attacks, party leaders should save the rancor for executive committee meetings, further from public view.

The Democrats also failed to identify campaign issues that were important to them. Cepicky ran his campaign purely on his full support for conservative Republican principles.

Promises to reach across the aisle and promote bipartisanship were wishy-washy, ineffective efforts by the Democratic candidates to convert GOP voters, who do not want compromise.

The state party has continued to hydroplane. Chairman Mary Mancini likely will be re-elected in 2019.

It might be time for the party to think outside the box to generate excitement. Trump will be facing the fallout from the Mueller investigation in 2019 and 2020.

To capitalize, Democrats should approach former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry about being state chair. Barry, who was forced to resign earlier this year after admitting to an affair and pleading guilty to a felony charge of theft of property, is looking for a way to re-enter politics, in my opinion.

The state party job would be a soft landing for her and allow her get her sea legs back.

Many would scoff at the notion of letting Barry back into the ring, but Democrats need someone who can land a knockout punch. Barry can articulate Democratic principles as well as Marsha Blackburn spoke of her conservative ideas in thousands of TV ads during her U.S. Senate win over Bredesen.

What will it take for Democrats to build from the ground up, including Maury County?

“We’re not going to win anything until we’re proud to be Democrats,” party member Larry Brewer said Tuesday night.

James Bennett is editor of The Daily Herald. His column mixes exclusive reporting, old-school storytelling and original commentary. He’s been a Tennessee Press Association first-place award winner for editorial writing, news reporting and public service since joining the newspaper in 2014.

This article provided by NewsEdge.