Despite taking over the Tennessee Democratic Party at a time when Republicans lay claim to the governor’s office, supermajorities in the General Assembly, both U.S. Senate seats and seven of nine U.S. House seats, newly elected chairman Hendrell Remus said he is hopeful about what the future holds.
On Jan. 16, Remus became the first Black man or woman to be elected party chairman in Tennessee history. He beat out a crowded field of challengers, narrowly earning more votes than top contender Wade Munday in the final round of voting by the Democratic executive committee.
Just a few hours after the historic inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Remus spoke with the Tennessee Lookout about his optimism for Democrats’ fortunes in the coming years and his plans to overhaul a party that has not won a statewide race since Gov. Phil Bredesen won re-election in 2006.
What were your thoughts on today’s inauguration ceremony?
Obviously the adrenaline rush of that change over is always great, and the history-making moment of seeing Vice President Harris sworn in is very symbolic. Not only as an African American, but to see that honor bestowed upon a Black woman was also great. I think about my mom, and my wife, and my little girl and all the women who played a huge role in my life, that was great to see.
But the striking message of hope from President Biden set an extremely hopeful tone for the future that I hope Republicans will be listening to, and be able to put their radical recklessness aside to help unify the country around some central themes of just making life better for ordinary folks, especially during this pandemic.
You touched on the divisive times we’re living in. For some people those divisive times are a reason not to serve, or a reason not to run for local office, or in your case state party chair. What are your thoughts on serving during this time where there is division?
Even though I believe there is a divide there, I’m hopeful about what the future holds. I think the last days of the Trump presidency revealed a moment of reckoning, especially for folks in the Republican party on how we have an opportunity now to press reset. I think this is one of those moments where we get a small window of opportunity to press reset and recalculate our relationships with one another as Democrats and Republicans.
I know there are some folks who are cemented in their thinking and their ideology. I believe that we also have a lot of people who are now willing to say we’ve been on the wrong track when it comes to how we treat one another. I hope we can close that divide a little bit here across the country.
What caused you to get into the race for chair and what do you think was the difference for why you won?
What pushed me to get into the race, No. 1 is my love for politics. Secondly, reviewing the job and the direction I believed the party needed to be going in was building an organization infrastructure to be able to be effective in delivering results for Democrats across the state, and then being able to make sure voters and donors were getting a return on their investment they were making in the party.
I looked at my love for politics combined with my career skills from my professional career and I think it made me a well-rounded (candidate). It was like marrying two perfect elements for the perfect moment. For me that was the deciding factor for why I had the skill set and could be the person to lead the party in a new direction, to make the party stronger after I leave and after the executive committee leaves. I think that resonated with folks all across the state to build a diverse coalition of executive committee members to vote for me. When I talked to people one of their lone concerns was that they didn’t think the organization was ever run like an organization. I think for far too long we’ve taken the path where most of the leadership of the organization has been more individuals who have come from the political side of the house – whether it’s been as candidates or as members of the legislature. We hadn’t really taken the approach where we’ve taken someone who has a business background professionally and an academic background in business at the helm of the organization to really build an organization that works.
So I think that’s what was a determining factor for me to run and I think that’s what helped to culminate in the victory overall.
What’s top of the to-do list as you get started?
Right now, top of the to-do list for me is to start building out the organization, setting the tone for how we’re going to operate moving forward and then getting a staff in place that can meet the expectations that I’ve set. I am, here in the next couple days, going to roll out a transition group of folks from all across the state who will help me to identify prospective new staffers and then begin to look at requests for committee requirements, and then just to shake things up to put the best pieces to the puzzle in the right places. We’ll have a diverse group of folks to help me move the needle on that and offering insight from every demographic column across the state.
With that in mind, that’s a top priority. When I ran for the seat I promised the executive committee that within my first 90 days I would establish a committee to begin strategic planning so that we could lay out a two-year strategic plan, and start working towards that. So for me, that’s the top priority right now.
I was talking to a veteran operative, adviser who’s worked for top elected officials. And this person told me they think the No. 1 job for the new chair should be data collection and data building. What is your take on that?
Yeah, I would say that is a priority for me. In the reorganization of how I see the office, one of the positions I’m laying out is a data analytics and technology director. Because I believe that in order for us to be effective and able for us to apply our resources effectively, we’ve got to be following the data. We need to know where the voters are – our returning voters, where our new voters are, and where we have the best chances of mobilizing people to either donate to the party or get involved with the party. And we drive that by data.
That also makes sure we have a data person who can also assist candidates from across the state. So one of the biggest expenditures from me the salary side will be on that data person, because I believe that’s crucial for us to be able to be successful, especially in the digital age.
I’ve heard differing opinions about how much Democrats’ success in Georgia applies to Tennessee, so I’m curious in your take on that. What lessons can be learned there, and is there any part of Georgia’s move to the left you think doesn’t necessarily apply to Tennessee?
I think the biggest lesson to be learned is patience. Because what we’ve learned out of Georgia is it wasn’t some quick get-blue scheme. They actually worked the long-term over 10 years towards what culminated in them being able to flip the U.S. Senate seats and the presidency for that state. During that same period, they barely moved the needle on state legislative seats. So it’s important for us to realize it’s going to take patience and it’s going to take time. And if we’re really going to do this, we’ve got to be planning for the long haul and not just a quick moment.
But, similarly to Georgia I believe the seat that should be in striking distance for us should be those statewide seats like the governor’s seat. We should be able to mobilize voters in our urban Democratic areas to blow those blue areas up like a balloon, similar to what they did in Georgia until we’re able to flip a statewide seat. And we’ve got to close in some of the more red areas of the state. Even if we don’t win those districts overwhelmingly, if we can reduce the number from a GOP majority of 40 percent down to 30 percent or 35 percent, those numbers add up if we’re able to do that from county to county across the state.
One other thing I think Georgia had an advantage that we didn’t is Georgia has a much larger abundance of black voters. So here in Tennessee we have to make sure our message is resonating not just with black voters, but also white voters as well who are either on the fence, independent or who’ve been disengaged from the process. One of those advantages Georgia had over us is the number of black voters, and then being able to mobilize them in those areas.
One of the things they did extremely well that we’ve got to make sure we’re doing, and it’s something I’m going to make sure my administration is spearheading, is we can’t get in over our heads where the party is trying to do everything. We have to make sure it’s a collaborative approach with allied organizations and stakeholders across the state, and that our priorities aren’t overlapping, but that we’re able to work in a cohesive way to collaborate and deliver meaningful results with organizations that voters trust and look to for guidance.