Hoping to put a dent in the Republican supermajority, the House Democratic Caucus elected second-term Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville as its chairman in a Monday vote.
Dixie, the owner of a bail bonding company, will replace Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville, who is stepping down from the post after six years. He defeated Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who is entering his fourth two-year term, and four-term veteran Rep. Bo Mitchell, who worked closely with Stewart on elections statewide this year.
The mild-mannered Dixie defeated the bulldoggish Mitchell in a runoff after Clemmons bowed out in the first round. Caucus leaders declined to release the vote totals.
Democrats have stood pat in the House in recent years, now with 26 members compared to 73 held by Republicans. They picked up no new seats in the November election.
With Memphis Rep. Karen Camper as minority leader and Dixie as chairman, the caucus’ top two leaders are Black. But can they make headway in rural Tennessee, where Democrats are getting beaten badly at the ballot box?
Dixie said he was disappointed with the outcome of the recent election, in which Democrats saw openings in Shelby County but failed to win tightly contested races.
Democrats believe they are on the “right side” of the issues, from Medicaid expansion to education, but say they haven’t been able to communicate effectively with the residents in urban, rural and suburban areas.
“We didn’t have the right messages for the right districts,” Dixie said.
Healthcare rural broadband development and wage increases were among the topics Democrats failed to capitalize on, he said.
Dixie contends Democrats can attack at least four seats for the next election cycle but must find the right candidates for the right district.
“We can’t recruit them 30 days before the deadline. We have to start right now,” he said.
Although Mitchell and Clemmons have been outspoken on key issues on the House floor, Dixie might have had a bit of an advantage in the race because, as caucus treasurer for the past two years, he put the group’s finances back in order after they had a $130,000 discrepancy.
He told his colleagues not only did he put the books in order but he will start raising funds immediately so Democratic candidates can compete in the next election.
Clemmons, a former Nashville mayoral candidate, and Mitchell also said the caucus needs to improve its fundraising and find a way to take its message to voters statewide. Democrats have lost handily, though, in rural areas, except in Bolivar where Rep. Johnny Shaw wins consistently.
In addition, Clemmons, a Nashville attorney, told the caucus it needs someone with legal expertise to deal with redistricting to make sure Republicans don’t redraw district maps to pit Democratic incumbents against each other. His message didn’t resonate, though.
Mitchell had noted the caucus has to raise funds, recruit and “fight like hell in redistricting” over the next two years as he made the pitch.
“If we don’t get the funds to compete, we’re throwing rocks at tanks,” he said.
Mitchell claimed he raised $250,000 during the latter part of the election cycle while the caucus raised another $300,000. But it wasn’t enough to capture new seats.
Dixie pointed out afterward the next Democratic candidates need more money, better training and a cohesive strategy.
Besides working on campaigns, the new Democratic Caucus chairman will be battling with Republican leaders on the House floor. He says he will “do more” to keep Democrats relevant in House debate and legislative votes.
“Being an entrepreneur and owning my own business, I can’t take no sometimes for an answer. I’ve just got to find another way to ask the question,” he said. “Definitely we have to be more strategic about what we do when we do our responses. We have to be more prepared, and we have to have our members prepared.”