DeBerry’s Leadership Formula: Maturity, Principle, Compromise

Next year promises to be a year of firsts.

For the first time since the post-Civil War era, Republicans will wield a trifecta of power in Tennessee state government — the governor’s office and two legislative chambers.

The first female speaker is expected to be sworn into the House of Representatives.

And if Memphis Rep. John DeBerry Jr., is selected on Dec. 15 as House Democratic Party leader, he will be the first African-American to win that post in the state’s history. He is competing against Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley, and two-time Democratic Caucus Leader Gary Odom, of Nashville, for the high-visibility assignment.

One of the minority leader’s essential day-to-day functions is to plot and execute resistance against the majority party’s more objectionable policy offensives — but not at the price of appearing oblivious to the democratic will of the citizenry. The floor leader is the lead spokesman and most public face of the caucus. He or she also plays a significant role in campaign fundraising, ensuring that members get re-elected and offering hope that the party is always positioning itself to win back majority power at the earliest opportunity.

DeBerry wouldn’t be the first racial minority to hold a high-level legislative leadership slot. Rep. Lois DeBerry (no relation to John DeBerry Jr.), also from Shelby County, is the long-time speaker pro tempore, the official backup to the House speaker.

If fact, he said he “never thinks about it from that standpoint.” Growing up in a family of civil rights activists, DeBerry Jr., 59, witnessed firsthand black Americans making pioneering strides toward integrating themselves into the political and cultural mainstream of society, he said.

DeBerry has spent the last two years chairing the Black Caucus, a position he will hold through the end of the year.

His background and past experiences aside, DeBerry indicated that if he’s selected to lead his party on the House floor, he would not make addressing issues important to the African-American community more important than addressing issues affecting the Democratic Party or the people of Tennessee as a whole. DeBerry said he wouldn’t be “a zealot for a particular mission, for a particular demographic.”

If selected as minority leader, he said he would find ways to fix problems — like when he discovered there was no policy outlining that it was wrong for a legislative staffer to depict President Barack Obama as a solid black picture offset only by a white pair of eyes.

Instead of calling press conferences and egging on national media efforts to paint Tennessee in as unflattering a light as possible, DeBerry organized “sensitivity training” for legislative staffers and helped establish policies designed to make clear what kinds of words or actions are inappropriately offensive in the state Capitol, he told TNReport.

The seven-term legislator has never run for a top party slot before and last exercised leadership as the Children and Family Affairs committee chairman.

Irrespective of the history-making milestone of electing an African American to lead the Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives, that possibility alone won’t sway many people’s decisions, said Rep. Mike Turner, House Democratic caucus chairman.

“If John DeBerry gets elected, it won’t be because he is African-American. It would be because he is a capable person who can carry the Democratic message,” said Turner, who added that he has encouraged members to vote for the best candidates for leadership posts, regardless of where they are from in the state.

Rep. Joanne Favors, a fellow member of the Black Caucus, said she’s not caught up in the historic nature of votes for legislative leadership.

“That won’t be the key issue for me,” said Favors, of Chattanooga, stressing that she wants someone who has strong negotiation skills, understands the legislative process and can work effectively across the aisle.

Agreed, said Johnny Shaw, also a member of the House Black Caucus.

“I think his chances are as good as anyone else’s,” said Shaw, who represents Bolivar. He added that he thought DeBerry would likely draw some support from the House’s 14-member legislative Black Caucus. “But to say who it would be, I couldn’t make that call.”

The minority leader post guarantees a role at the negotiating table with Republicans on key issues — assuming they invite Democrats in.

DeBerry’s party lost 22 races in the November midterm elections, handing Republicans a 64-34-1 majority in the House.

Republicans have taken the opportunity to declare that they do not need Democratic help on legislation or on the budget and insist that they’ll run government on their own.

DeBerry says that’s where he comes in.

The future looks grim for Democrats next year as they are outnumbered by Republicans by nearly 2 to 1. So the key, he said, is trying to work with them, not against them.

“We can declare a war and stand on the floor and make speeches on every little insignificant issue,” he said. “Or we can take another direction. We can build bridges. We can work with the governor. We can work with Republican leadership.”

DeBerry faces formidable opponents. Fitzhugh chaired the powerful Finance, Ways and Means committee last session. Odom is the reigning House Democratic leader.

With 34 members in the House Democratic Party caucus, DeBerry would need 18 votes to win the election.

The election is set for Dec. 15 in Nashville. The member with the fewest votes will be knocked out, then the caucus will choose between the remaining two candidates, according to Turner.