May 04 2009

TNDP Summit Wrap-Up

Posted by Steve Ross in TNDP

I just got home from the TNDP Summit in Monteagle, and I have to say, I’m completely blown away. I’ve been to my fair share of political events but this was something completely different. I don’t think I’ve ever left a state or local political function of any sort with the feeling hope in my heart and fire in my belly that I’m feeling right now. This wasn’t just some kumbaya moment, though there were some elements of that. This was more a tent revival, a call to action than anything else. What follows are some of my general impressions of the events of the weekend. If the TNDP releases video of the events, I’ll link it and discuss the events of the weekend in more detail.

Saturday morning started off with comments from TNDP Chair, Chip Forrester, Representative Bill Harmon, whose district includes Monteagle, and Representative Mike Stewart. These three really helped set the tone for the weekend, focusing on unity and the task we have ahead of us, not only in the coming 2010 election, but for the years that follow in helping build a better Tennessee.

From there, we had a panel discussion entitled “What Unites Us as Democrats”. This is where the rubber started meeting the road. Moderated by Representative Gary Odom, the panel included politicians and activists from across the state. It was interesting to hear all these people, from liberal to more conservative positions, talk about the ideas that unite us, and it was a good segue into the next panel, which was a bit more contentious.

Rep. Mike Turner moderated the “Winning & Protecting Seats in Rural Tennessee” panel. Featuring Rep. Ty Cobb, Rep. Charles Curtis, and several political consultants, this panel sought to take what unifies us, and parlay that into a larger discussion about using those unifying themes, rather than some of the more contentious issues, to win in rural Tennessee. All the panel members made some interesting points, but the two who carried the day were Rep. Curtis and Rep. Turner. As questions came in, there was a great deal of concern from several in the audience about specific hot button issues. This could have turned into an ugly discussion, but Turner and Curtis deftly turned it around into a conversation that focused on unity rather than division. Democrats here in Tennessee are a diverse bunch. There are rural and urban, conservative and liberal members from all across the state, but when it comes right down to it, there is a unifying theme between all of us. It’s easy to point out divisions and forget what we have in common, but it’s often harder, in the face of some hot button issues, to recognize that which we agree on. More than anything else, this session helped highlight these commonalities, and helped me better understand the realities that many of us in more urban environments often forget. It was also a great set-up for the events of the day that would follow.

Our lunch speaker was Blue Dixie author, political coorespondent for the Nation, and editor of the Texas Observer, Bob Moser. I read his book back in January on a whim. Published just a few months before the November election, Blue Dixie does some in-depth analysis about the events that led up to a localized Democratic resurgence in the rural south in 2006, and strategies that will help bring that to other areas. Perhaps the two best messages that I gathered from the book, and the discussion were 1. Thomas Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie, is full of it and should be ignored, and 2. The only people who can turn the south blue, are southerners who come together under a common purpose and maintain a constant effort to build their communities and relationships. If you’re a Democrat, and you live in the south, you HAVE to read Blue Dixie.

One of the main focuses of the TNDP Summit was training. Over the course of the weekend there were several opportunities to learn new strategies and tacics. I wasn’t able to make it to all the trainings, but as a recent participant in the DFA Campaign Academy I know this can be some eye opening information that is key to building a strong statewide organization.

Saturday wrapped up with some bluegrass and BBQ with speeches by gubernatorial candidate Kim McMillan who had a prior commitment for the following day’s candidate panel, and Representative Lincoln Davis. I have to admit, I was skeptical. I’ve been hard on Rep. Davis here in this space over the past several years, and I have no doubt that he and I will disagree again on issues in the future. But if there was ever any doubt that Lincoln Davis is a Democrat, it was dispelled on Saturday night. Davis, who didn’t attend the events earlier in the day (to the best of my knowledge) delivered a barn burner of a speech that further highlighted the “85% of issues”, as Rep. Mike Turner later stated (I would put it closer to 90%) that unite us a Democrats. I really hope that the TNDP will put video of this speech up on their site because you have to hear it to believe it. Powerful, informative, Davis brought out the commonalities of Democrats and the differences between the Republican’s “Party of no” and the Democrats “Party of know”. I couldn’t possibly distill the entirety of the message here, but I came away both impressed and fired up. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.

Sunday started with a prayer breakfast led by State Senator Roy Herron and State Rep. Johnny Shaw. This led into a Gubernatorial forum with Sen. Herron and Ward Cammack (McMillan and McWherter had prior commitments). Despite the absence of two of the announced candidates, it was great to hear these two speak about their visions for the state. Truth be told, the differences between the two were very nuanced. A one hour forum is also a very short period of time to acquaint yourself with their positions, but it was good to hear from the candidates on the issues this early in the process. I hope that all the candidates can work together to do these kinds of forums across the state as the campaign heats up in the coming months.

The last speaker for the even was Alex Lofton, Field Organizer for Organizing for America, a grassroots organization that sprung from the Obama campaign. Lofton freely admitted that Tennessee was not a focus of the Obama campaign, but also noted that Organizing for America is an effort to maintain the momentum gained, and spread that momentum throughout the areas that the campaign was unable to reach. In all honesty, this sounded like the next logical extension of former DNC Chair Howard Dean’s 50 state strategy, which has often been passed over as one of the key strategies that led to the legislative gains in 2006 and 2008, as well as the success of the Obama campaign.

In all, I don’t think this event could have been timelier or more appropriate for Tennessee Democrats. Everyone I talked to left with a higher sense of purpose, and a feeling of hope and activation that I have not seen since I moved here in 2004. Over the course of the weekend over 300 Democrats came together to work for a better future for Tennessee. That’s ultimately what this was about, and I firmly believe that this will happen in the 2010 election.

Kudos to TNDP Chair Chip Forrester, the TNDP volunteers who organized the event, the sponsors including SEIU local 205, Tennessee House Democratic Caucus, Ward Cammack, Roy Herron, Jim Kyle and LeQuire Gallery, and most importantly, the 300+ people from all over the state who took time out to learn, fellowship, and come together this weekend. Hopefully, we can do this again soon…and maybe a little closer to Memphis.