Politicians should be better at politics

State Rep. John DeBerry – TN90

The ouster of Tennessee House Rep. John DeBerry has been the political talk of the week here in Memphis. There’s been a great deal of pontificating, grandstanding, and wrongheaded analysis. But one thing has shown through in this affair: some politicians should be better at politics.

Politics is a team sport. You can’t be effective in politics acting alone. You won’t get anything done.

For some politicians, the team is just a vehicle for getting elected. Furthering the goals of a political party or working with like-minded people on a project is too “in the weeds” for them. Some can’t even find the time to respond to constituent questions.

There are lots of politicians who aren’t particularly good at the business of politics. But I’ve never met a politician who went so far out of the way to NOT talk to constituents as John DeBerry.

So let’s talk about the elephant in the room, his ouster by the TNDP Executive Committee, and give some clarity that the local fishwrap was too busy being hyperbolic about to deliver.

The Process

Tennessee Democratic Party

This isn’t a new process. In fact, TNDP Chair Mary Mancini explained the process in response to a Change.org petition calling on her, and the TNDP to oust Deberry and others posted in November of 2019.

In explaining the process, Mancini doesn’t express an opinion. She just shows them where it is in the party bylaws, which are easy to find on the TNDP website.

So why didn’t they hear the complaint earlier?

You can’t have a complaint until you have a candidate. DeBerry filed his petition with the Shelby County Election Commission on March 25th.

On March 30th, notice that DeBerry’s petition had been approved was emailed out by the Shelby County Election Commission. This is the earliest someone could file a complaint challenging him name on the ballot as a Democrat.

According to members of the TNDP Executive Committee I’ve spoken with, the grievance came Wednesday, April 1st. The filing deadline was noon on Thursday, April 2nd.

The TNDP Executive Committee heard the grievance Thursday, April 9th and voted 41-18 to remove him from the ballot.

On Wednesday, April 15th, the Executive Committee heard his appeal. Rep. DeBerry gave a statement, and wouldn’t take any questions. According to sources, several members said they wished he would take questions because it might help his case. The final vote was 40-24 to keep him off the ballot.

People hate process

One thing I’ve found in the 16 years of writing about politics is people can’t stand it when a little known process leads to an unexpected decision.

“Process” decisions are happening all the time whether you know it or not: Zoning process, election precinct process, street repair process. All of these things get decided by some kind of process that is largely unseen to the public, until something happens to bring it to the forefront.

The DeBerry vote was a process. Indeed, it was a democratic process. 66 members of the TNDP Executive Committee are elected in public elections. That’s one man and one woman from all 33 State Senate Districts who do the business of the party. Six members are from statewide Democratic groups for a total of 72. Part of that business is determining if someone qualifies for the ballot as a Democrat.

This process began when Rep. Deberry turned in his petition. It couldn’t have begun any sooner because he wasn’t a candidate qualified for the ballot.

But most of all, people don’t like democratically elected bodies making decisions that don’t seem democratic…even when they are.

Its hard to square kicking a 26 year incumbent off the ballot. But incumbency isn’t automatic protection from scrutiny. Some have said he was punished for his voting record, but this grievance wasn’t just about his record, it was about giving money to Republican candidates and voting for Republicans for House leadership. The break in voting was just the icing on the cake.

DeBerry could have avoided all this

People hate process, but few are willing to step up and advocate a change in process. Its boring and hard to rally around. But process is where a lot of power comes from. Politicians use process every day…it’s how politics gets done.

Any Democrat who doesn’t want to get booted off a ballot, there’s a simple solution: don’t give money to Republicans. That’s it.

The Democratic Party doesn’t have any purity test but that. DeBerry wasn’t removed from the ballot because he was a social conservative, despite what Ryan Poe thinks. DeBerry was booted for actively supporting Republicans who were running against Democrats.

Its that simple.

The State GOP would have done the same to any person seeking to represent their party on a ballot.

Relationships and politics

The deck was more stacked against DeBerry because he isolated himself. I’ve lived in DeBerry’s district since I moved to Memphis 16 years ago. My mother-in-law served with him in the TN House, and ran against him in the 2012 primary after the redistricting “process” moved her district to Knox Co.

I’ve been involved with the local Democratic Party off and on since 2008. I’m on first name basis with many Democratic legislators in the TN House, Senate, and Shelby County Commission.

I have never spoken to John DeBerry. Never.

I’ve never seen him at a community meeting. I’ve never seen him at a Democratic Party function. He’s never responded to a constituent email from me or any other attempts at communication. He’s a ghost.

If process is how politics gets done, relationships are where politicians get their power. John DeBerry has never been at any function I’ve been at (as far as I know).

You’d think in 16 years we would’ve crossed paths. I’m told he gave me a thumbs up as he drove past Jeanne’s headquarters when I found all those voters who got the wrong ballots in 2012, but I don’t know for sure.

Here’s what I do know: aside from Minority Leader Karen Camper and the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, there wasn’t a big line of other Democrats lining up to support him. (BTW, incumbency protection is the main electoral job of any caucus)

There were plenty of Republicans speaking out for him.


The title of this post is “Politicians need to be better at politics”.

Maybe I didn’t say that enough times to make it clear that’s what this is ultimately about.

People are more willing to cut folks slack when they know them.

DeBerry isolated himself. His isolation made it easier for people to question his voting record. That set off a chain reaction of people trying to beat him in a primary, and looking at his record. All of it.

And that’s where he made the mistake only an out of touch politician can: he took his office for granted. He decided he couldn’t be held accountable.

DeBerry didn’t have to give money to Beth Harwell or Bill Sanderson *(see Ed. note below). But he did. Why? He didn’t think he’d be questioned. And if he’d been more present in the whole community of his district, he might not have.

5 of 25 precincts in District 90 carry 40% of the votes. If he had more relationships in those precincts, this might have slipped under the radar.

One of those precincts is his home precinct 16-3 (the Annesdale-Snowden Neighborhood), which he has failed to carry in the 2016 and 2018 primary elections.

There are 10 precincts where 67% of the votes come from. If he had more contact with his constituents, maybe this doesn’t happen.

Had he ever shown interest in the local or state party other than complaining about it, he would have known something about the process.

He also would have had more allies to lean on.

But that’s not what he did. He didn’t have that many allies, except organizations whose primary intent is incumbency protection. He didn’t have enough advocates on the State or County Executive Committee to look out for him. Lacking those relationships in the community is a big part of why he’s been opposed in three of the last four primary elections.

But that’s not why he was removed from the Democratic Primary ballot.

He was removed because he broke the simplest rule in partisan politics: he supported the opposition and didn’t think he’d get held accountable.

He was wrong.

*Ed. Note: It has come to my attention that the allegation about the Bill Sanderson donation was retracted.

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