Even with Jason Holleman out, the District 21 Democratic primary is still the best race in town


Less than six months after Metro Councilman Jason Holleman and attorney Jeff Yarbro lined up in May for the race of next year — of the decade, nay, the century! — local liberal activist Mary Mancini announced she was joining the Democratic primary race to replace longtime state Sen. Doug Henry in District 21. Now, little more than a month later, Holleman has announced he's getting out.

So what does this mean? Well, that's easy. We give you ... Mary Mancini vs. Jeff Yarbro: The Hottest Race of 2014.

In other words, it's not yet clear.

At first blush — not to suggest that campaign punditry is shallow — Holleman's exit would seem to complicate matters for Mancini. As a clear alternative to two white male attorneys from Sylvan Park — whose policy positions are about as close to each other as their homes — Mancini seemed positioned to benefit from a three-way race. Her record of activism, and days as a record-shop owner, give her instant credibility with a set of local liberals. Their support, combined with the votes of Democrats either unable or unwilling to decide between Holleman and Yarbro (whether for social or political reasons) and topped off with some won-over undecideds, might have meant victory for Mancini.

With Holleman out, she would seem to face a steeper climb. Yarbro has been seen as the favorite to replace Henry ever since he narrowly lost to the Distinguished Gentleman in 2010. Although the district has been redrawn since then, campaign experience at the state level can't hurt. He also entered the campaign without the cumbersome political baggage Holleman carried from his public run-ins with the Dean administration (some members of which openly support Yarbro).

How he matches up against Mancini is somewhat harder to pin down. While both might enjoy some name recognition — he from the 2010 campaign and she from her activism — most voters are still months away from tuning into the race. A poll right now might indicate some reason for optimism, but frankly, neither candidate has enough name ID to make one very accurate.

For Holleman, the future is just as murky. Although Yarbro's mighty six-digit fundraising disclosure in July was seen by many as an opening salvo that would scare him out of the race, Holleman initially stayed in, with supporters citing his well-known aversion to backing down from a political fight.

In announcing his exit, Holleman said the campaign thus far had made him realize that "the demands that would be placed on me as senator ... would be shared by my children and family." He added that "in order to lead the rest of Tennessee, Nashville must first model the kind of collaboration and results-driven leadership that would necessarily be undermined by a contentious, contested primary."

"The conclusion is clear," he said, in a letter to supporters, "my best contribution, right now, is to serve at the local level, focusing on my important work as a Metro councilman and my essential work as Cecilia and Walter's dad."

While that may be true, it's also boilerplate. A campaign exit by numbers. The types of things you say when you get out of a race, no matter why you're getting out.

Whatever Holleman's actual reasons were for exiting — and that has been Topic A among Nashville's political class since the announcement dropped last week — bailing on the state Senate would seem to limit the options of a term-limited councilman whose political ambition has always been scantily clad.

At one time, Holleman was said to be among the lengthy list of Nashville political players who considered themselves potential mayoral material. Having chosen the Senate primary instead, and then retreating from it, he may be pinning his hopes for remaining in public office on an open council at-large seat in 2015.

For now, the District 21 primary appears to be the de-facto general election. Although the state Republican Party has indicated that it has an interest in the district, no GOP candidates have declared. Some Nashville political observers have speculated that they might be more inclined to do so now, arguing that, to conservatives, Holleman was the most palatable of the liberal candidates.

In any case, candidates won't officially pull papers until January. Consider this the race of the year — subject to change.