A group of people gathered outside Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk’s house to protest his plea deal with former Nashville police officer Andrew Delke. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The starting point for any analysis about District Attorney Glenn Funk’s political future is the acknowledgment that Funk would not be district attorney in the first place had it not been for the support of Black voters.
But a high profile plea deal could put that support in jeopardy a year out from the next election. Funk agreed to give former officer Andrew Delke a three-year sentence for shooting a Black man in the back. The prosecutor said the deal was appropriate given the complicated facts of the case, but influential politicians and strategists wonder if the decision could jeopardize his re-election bid.
In 2014, Funk defeated an opponent who had the backing of much of Nashville’s political establishment. Funk won thanks in part to a shrewd political strategy in which he partnered with Black candidates on the ballot to drum up support. It worked. Funk defeated Rob McGuire, who had the endorsement of outgoing DA Torry Johnson, and he bulldozed into office promising, and largely delivering, on a series of reforms that both Black political leaders and Nashville progressives had long sought.
Among other accomplishments, Funk dramatically increased the diversity within the DA’s office. According to the most recent data provided to the Tennessee Lookout last fall, the number of minorities working in the DA’s office increased from two to 16.
Funk also made good on a promise to stop pursuing prosecutions for petty crimes that disproportionately affect minorities. On driver’s license related offenses, the number of citations and arrests dropped 63.4 percent from the time Funk took office until the middle of 2020. The number of jail days for inmates stemming from driver’s license related arrests fell a marked 93.8 percent over that same time frame.
Similarly, Funk stopped pursuing jail time for people arrested for marijuana-related offenses, namely simple possession. The number of jail days for marijuana arrests fell 94.3 percent over that same time frame.
I attended a campaign event in 2015 for then-mayoral candidate Megan Barry — the one at a predominantly Black church in which she declared, “I’m a Christian,” and then a group of black faith leaders and politicians laid hands on her head. Before Barry received the blessing of the city’s African-American spiritual leaders, Funk gave a brief update on the progress he’d made in diversifying his office and implementing reforms that had been avoided by his predecessor. As I recall, Funk kind of stole the show at that gathering, since the leaders in the room had been clamoring for those very reforms.
In addition to progress on those matters, Funk has delighted progressives by recently refusing to prosecute business owners who won’t abide by the controversial new state law regarding which bathroom transgender people must use. He also implemented a conviction review board, which has already identified at least one legally erroneous conviction by his predecessor.
In 2018, he famously pursued a conditional guilty plea for then-mayor Barry for theft, instead of eschewing a criminal charge and allowing her to resign without a criminal record. While that maneuver may have also hurt Funk with progressives, he did impress some leaders who felt like regular folks regularly did jail time for stealing but politically connected people faced no consequences.
All in all, between those reforms and his fundraising head start, Funk was widely viewed as nearly invincible when it came to re-election next year.
Then came the Delke plea deal. I hope readers do not misinterpret this analysis as an examination of the criminal justice strategy of offering a plea deal to Delke. People can come to their own conclusions about whether a three-year sentence, and likely a 15-month jail term, is sufficient for a law enforcement officer who has now admitted in open court to wrongly shooting Daniel Hambrick, a Black man who was fleeing him, in the back. They can weigh for themselves if an officer admitting in open court that he was wrong in shooting and killing a fleeing Black man is political progress at a time when officers regularly beat charges in similar shootings by simply claiming they feared for their lives.
As a political reporter, that sort of analysis would be outside my depth. But, I do have connections to Nashville’s political leadership. And over the weekend, I sent a simple text to some of Nashville’s top elected officials and political strategists, the kinds of operatives who guide successful campaigns and advise top politicians. I asked: “Not to quote you, but do you think the Delke plea deal at all jeopardizes Funk’s reelection chances?”
All told, 11 politicians and strategists took the time away from their cookouts and fireworks to answer my texts. The emphatic conclusion was yes, the plea deal will hurt Funk’s chances to get re-elected.
“Where’s his base now that he has angered the constituency primarily responsible for his being in office?” one person asked.
“‘15 months for a killer cop’ is a TV ad,” said another strategist.
A third strategist said the plea deal will hurt him, particularly if it helps draw out a serious challenger capable of raising money.
The consensus is there is now a path on Funk’s progressive flank to zero in on the plea deal, downplay his earlier progressive reforms, and promise to take the DA’s office even further to the left.
Election interest among black voters figures to be higher in 2022 with both the DA’s race and Odessa Kelly’s primary challenge of U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper are on the ballot – the DA’s primary is in May and the congressional primary is in August. That could lead to a campaign strategy aimed at increasing black voter turn out – the same roadmap Funk used in 2014 – to hurt the incumbent.
“I think a well-funded liberal could use it to get substantial support from within a major constituency, but it’s not going to completely torpedo Funk on its own,” said one Nashville elected official. “It’s gonna need someone with resources and a base.”
One elected official pointed to a poll from a few years ago that showed most respondents had no opinion of his performance, but Funk had low approval and low disapproval ratings. Without being able to examine the actual polling data, I won’t go into more detail.
It would be natural political speculation to wonder if Keeda Haynes, the charismatic former public defender who fared better than any primary challenger ever had in her campaign against Cooper last year, would try to unseat Funk. Haynes attended a small gathering of critics who protested the Delke plea on the street in front of Funk’s home last week.
A recent social media post by Haynes casts doubt on whether she’d want to run for the job.
“I am not impressed with anything a prosecutor does!” Haynes tweeted on May 20. “And I don’t believe in ‘progressive’ prosecutors either! I said what I said!”
If not Haynes, another name to watch is federal prosecutor Sara Beth Myers. She’s viewed as a rising star in Nashville politics. More than one of the sources I texted about Funk said they’ve heard Myers is a finalist in consideration by the Biden administration to be appointed U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. If she doesn’t receive that appointment, Myers would conceivably have the fundraising base and progressive credibility to stage a challenge.
More than one year out from the election, several sources were skeptical that Funk would be in position to lose despite the political hit of the Delke deal. “Voters have short memories,” one former elected official told me.
Funk has the name recognition, the fundraising head start and, until last week, the progressive credentials to win re-election. Prior to the Delke plea a second term for Funk seemed like a forgone conclusion. But, now the door to the corner office inside the District Attorney’s office is clearly cracked open enough for some progressive minded challenger to barge in.
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