BY SARAH GREGORY
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, a former state senator and former pastor from Dresden, spent some time in Greeneville Saturday afternoon to meet and speak with local party members during the Greene County Democratic Picnic and Auction.
The event was held in a garden at the home of Dr. George and Lois Blanks, on North Main Street.
Greene County Democratic Party Chair Barbara Britton said that between 60 and 65 people turned out for the casual event, which saw a number of active local supporters joined by friends from Kingsport, Johnson City, Nashville, and Newport.
Britton described the event as "a wonderful Democrat reunion" that was "really good for us."
Former State Representative Eddie Yokely said the event gave many local supporters a chance to meet Herron, whom he introduced following the meal.
Herron both delighted the group with entertaining anecdotes and drew their applause at several points during his talk of nearly 30 minutes.
Following his comments, the group enjoyed dessert and a live auction of homemade items, as well as items donated by local businesses.
'TURN THIS AROUND'
Herron spoke to the crowd informally, without prepared comments or using a microphone. He talked about his background, telling the group about his parents and their struggles during the Great Depression, World War II, and the years following.
He also talked about what he said is the need to "turn around" the state, politically. Republicans currently control both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly, and Gov. BIll Haslam is a Republican.
Both U.S. Senators from Tennessee are Republican, as are a majority of U.S. Congress members from the state, he pointed out.
Such a situation, Herron said, is not completely unique for the state.
He told the group that in 1970, the state's political landscape was similar before prominent Democrats such as Ned McWherter and Al Gore boosted the Democratic Party in the state.
"We can turn this around," he said.
"We didn't get in this mess in one cycle; we didn't head off this ditch in one cycle. It'll take us more than one cycle to get out of it," Herron told the group.
He said he would not have accepted the party chairmanship if he did not believe that the party was capable of winning elections.
"If we believe, we can achieve," he said, continuing, "if we are faithful enough, we can help -- working with other like-minded citizens who love their neighbor, and love their state, and love their country -- we can turn this country in the right direction."
Herron also made general comments on issues such as public education, healthcare, and abortion, using the topics as opportunities to describe current Republican state lawmakers as "extreme."
Herron said that Republican lawmakers are "against" public education, using an anecdote in which he recalled that, of 20 Republican lawmakers who left the state legislature at the same time he did, 18 had their children educated in private schools.
He also pointed to a proposal by Republican State Senator Stacey Campfield, of Knoxville, that would have reduced state aid to dependent families with children who did not successfully complete grade-levels.
"Republicans in the Legislature thought that you would benefit Tennessee by cutting the support for a child if the child didn't pass to the next grade," he said.
"So, if the child's got a learning disability, if the child's got a struggle, if the child's hurting already, you take that subsistence amount of money -- about $180 for a family of three, a mama and two children -- and you cut that by 25 percent, 'see if that doesn't make things better somehow,'" he said.
"I call it, and we call it now, the 'Starve The Children' bill," Herron said.
Governor Haslam announced opposition to it as well, and the bill did not make it to a vote in either the state House of Representatives or the state Senate.
Herron also criticized Republicans for what he said was opposition to providing healthcare for working adults.
"Lawbreakers and lawmakers have healthcare," he said.
"Every guy on death row gets healthcare. Every murderer on death row, every rapist in a prison gets healthcare. There's not a person in the Greene County jail who doesn't get access to healthcare.
"Welfare mamas -- and I'm not disparaging folks who are trying to get by -- but every welfare mama and child gets healthcare," he said.
"What's wrong with working people who are working every day getting healthcare," he asked, referring to a waitress in Knoxville who works two jobs, six nights a week, but can't afford insurance.
The Republican solution for such people, he said, is to go to an emergency room.
"They'll stabilize you," he said, "but they won't treat you" for conditions such as cancer or heart disease.
HITS GOP ON ABORTION
Herron also described Republicans as "unreasonable" concerning the topic of abortion.
"I'm sure we have many different views here on the issue of abortion," he said, before telling a story in which a doctor recommended his wife undergo an abortion due to medical complications with the couple's twin boys.
"By the grace of God, we got another doctor. And he said, 'I don't disagree about the diagnosis, but I'm more hopeful about the prognosis,'" and said that it was possible the couple could birth two boys.
"Our babies were born. Now they're 22 years old and doing well," he said. "I may be more conservative than some [concerning abortion rights], but I'll tell you this -- I doubt that there are any of us here that think the Republican policy in SJR [Senate Joint Resolution] 127 [is the right policy]," he said, referring to an effort to amend the state constitution that will be on the ballot in 2014.
The wording in the amendment proposed in SJR 127 is as follows:
"Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother."
That measure, Herron said, "will take away any state constitutional protection of a woman to end a pregnancy when necessary even to save her own life."
"If your daughter or granddaughter is raped, they [Republicans] would take away any state constitutional protections for your family to make the decision about whether to force her to bear the rapist's child. They would take away your state constitutional right on that," he said.
"I don't think it's the place of a bunch of white guys in Nashville on Capitol Hill to make that decision," he said. "I think the decisions out to be made by the family, the doctor, by the pastor, and with prayerful consideration," he said, to applause from the group.
He said that he offered an amendment on the floor of the senate "that said in cases of rape, incest, or mother's life in danger, the family and the woman can still make that decision. Republicans voted it down," he said.
"I offered an amendment on the floor of the senate that only would've allowed an exception for a woman to save her own life -- not her health, her life, her very life -- and every Republican in the senate voted against it. I'm not making this stuff up," he said.
"That's where we are. That's how extreme," he said, telling the group that current Republican lawmakers "don't reason."
"They take the most extreme, right-wing position, and no matter how many women it hurts, how many children it hurts, how many Tennesseeans it hurts, they take the most extreme right-wing position," he said.