Democrats in Tennessee have been struggling to remain relevant, given their greatly diminished numbers in the state legislature.
WPLN’s statehouse reporter Chas Sisk is with morning host Jason Moon Wilkins to look at how the minority party did in the 2017 session, which concluded this week.
Jason Moon Wilkins: One of the consistent stories throughout this year's session was the unusually large number of protesters at the Capitol. Most of them were there in opposition to Republican-backed measures, but did their presence really help the Democrats get anything done?
Chas Sisk: You know, I’m not sure that’s really clear. The protests were certainly frequent — and at times, pretty loud — but lawmakers tend to make a big show of shrugging those sort of things off. And I can’t really point to any legislation that passed because protesters at the state Capitol demanded it.
On the other hand, I think the protests reminded conservatives that there could be blowback if they go too far. Especially on social issues like LGBT rights. Legislation stating which bathroom transgender people have to use didn’t go anywhere this year, for instance.
Hanging in the background of those debates was the threat of a nationwide boycott like the one that arose last year in North Carolina. And the protesters reminded lawmakers of that possibility.
JMW: It's rare that anyone uses the word “bipartisan” in Tennessee politics, but were there pieces of legislation that Democrats successfully partnered with Republicans to get passed?
CS: Yeah, definitely. Democrats are pointing to criminal justice, in particular, as an area where they were able to find some common ground with Republicans.
The legislature approved a few bills that make it easier and cheaper for ex-offenders to expunge their records. And there was a bill passed that requires the TBI to release their investigations into police shootings.
Then, there was that fight over the state budget, where Democrats joined with some disgruntled Republicans to force Governor Haslam and GOP leaders to rethink how to divvy up road funding. That was a bit of a victory for Democrats.
Last of all, outsourcing. Democrats were pushing some bills that would’ve hindered Governor Haslam’s plans to turn state park operations over to private vendors. Those bills failed, but they got enough traction that it sent a pretty clear message that lawmakers of both parties are unhappy with the prospect of that.
JMW: Overall, did Democrats show that, even in small numbers, they could be effective? Are there victories they can point to as they gear up for the next round of elections?
CS: Small victories. But, you know, I think it’s less about Democrats’ convincing voters that they’re steering the boat than it is about showing they’re not just going along for the ride.
And what I mean is this: Republicans have such a big majority in the state legislature, that it starts to seem like the Democrats are completely irrelevant. And if that’s the case, voters don’t have much reason to support them. They may think they’re better off electing moderate Republicans who can work within the GOP caucus than Democrats who will be locked out of the conversation.
If Democrats are ever going to come back in Tennessee, they have to show that they can be effective as a minority party. And I think what you saw this year — maybe for the first time since they lost power in 2011 — is some sense of how they plan to move forward.