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Mary Mancini's 'racist state' gaffe is a setback for Tennessee Democrats and a gift to Republicans
David Plazas, Nashville TennesseanPublished 10:16 p.m. CT March 20, 2019
Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini has apologized and promises to pursue thoughtful and respectful conversations now, but is it too late?
- David Plazas is the director of opinion and engagement for the USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee.
If Democrats remain in a perpetual super minority in the Tennessee General Assembly, they can thank state party Chairman Mary Mancini.
Mancini contends that Tennessee “is a racist state” not just in an interview this week with The Tennessean, but in past remarks to at least one Democratic group.
In a Twitter thread on Tuesday evening, she explained that she “used a poor choice of words” when she expressed her frustration about Republicans in the Tennessee House and her assertion that they are bigoted, misogynistic and homophobic.
She later apologized for the remark about Tennessee being racist.
No political party can claim a spotless record on issues of race relations
Mancini in fervor to attack the GOP fell into a dangerous trap of making gross generalizations and essentially demonizing the majority of voters in Tennessee.
- The Tennessee House of Representatives has 99 members: 73 Republicans and 26 Democrats.
- The Tennessee Senate has 33 members: 27 Republicans, five Democrats and one independent.
That means that 75 percent of the popularly elected General Assembly is Republican.
Democrats once dominated the General Assembly for more than a century before 2011 — during Jim Crow era and then the Civil Rights era.
The 1978 dedication of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in the state Capitol was led by Democratic state Sen. Douglas Henry.
A combination of factors contributed to the GOP super majority including the Affordable Care Act backlash during the 2010 election, subsequent gerrymandering, and polarizing rhetoric on immigration, former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
Today, political boundaries give Republicans an edge in nearly all of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
However, there are blue big population centers in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
The state is more purple than red.
A path to better civil discourse: Civility Tennessee
"Tomorrow, a story might be published w/ the probable headline of “@TNDP chair calls Tennessee a ‘racist state.’ It’s true. In the heat and the frustration of seeing and hearing the constant drumbeat of bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia coming from Republican Speaker @GlenCasada"
6:58 PM - Mar 19, 2019
Politicians must fight for what's right, but they need to listen to residents
In recent years, Democrats have been positioning themselves as the “big tent” party that welcomes diversity and inclusion and have cast Republicans as old, racist and out of touch.
Meanwhile, Republicans have enthusiastically retorted that Democrats want to push the country toward socialism, using foils like New York Congressman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who extols democratic socialist ideas.
In 2018, Republicans earned big wins in the governor’s and U.S. Senate races, while the strongest Democratic candidates the party could muster lost by double digits.
So, can the Democrats ever win statewide again?
My observations when traveling throughout the state last year was many citizens are concerned about some fairly basic issues: their quality of life, their public safety and their faith.
Many communities are homogeneous and the entry of new residents who are religious minorities, like Muslims, or LGBT has produced a clash of cultures. Some residents fear the loss of what they have always known. So, while it might be counterintuitive, it is the reason why a Southern border wall resonates with voters even though the state is 1,000 miles away from Mexico.
That does not mean that a border wall is right. It does not excuse lawmakers from proposing homophobic, misogynistic or bigoted legislation. It does not allow legislators to shirk their responsibility of defending the Tennessee Constitution.
Advocates should call out efforts to harm people who are minorities, who lack access to health care, and who do not have money or power.
Serous policy debates require thoughtful and respectful discussion
However, calling an entire state racist is not an effective way to get most residents to consider sophisticated policy ideas.
Mancini is responsible to her executive committee, not the voters, so her political future will most likely depend on internal interests.
It is worth noting this sentence in her apology statement:
“Racism is not an issue that we can shy away from addressing head-on. However, I am more aware than ever that words matter when discussing tough issues like race. I commit to continuing this conversation thoughtfully and respectfully with the voters of Tennessee.”
If she is serious about this last statement, she may survive this gaffe and lead Democrats to more thoughtful rhetoric – and possibly more electoral wins.
If she is not, however, she may have handed Republicans a roadmap to increase their super majority in 2020.
As we know from communist societies, one-party rule is never good for democracy.
David Plazas is the director of opinion and engagement for the USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee and an editorial board member of The Tennessean. Call him at (615) 259-8063, email him at email@example.com or tweet to him at @davidplazas. Subscribe and support local journalism.