It's a noble goal in the District 21 race — keep Tennessee from writing Jon Stewart's punchlines


Jeff Yarbro and Mary Mancini are both running against The Daily Show.

Not against its gleefully sardonic host Jon Stewart, who is held up as a patron saint for chronically depressed Tennessee Democrats. Rather, they're running against the fact that his show, and that of his cohort Stephen Colbert, has looked toward Tennessee with increasing frequency for tales of political absurdity.

As the Democratic primary in Senate District 21 begins in earnest with the new year, Yarbro and Mancini have each name-checked the late-night Comedy Central shows in messages to supporters and in interviews with reporters. Such references have become shorthand for criticism of Tennessee's Republican-controlled legislature, not that either candidate has veiled their disapproval of the menace they say they'll work to stop.

Since the start of this year's legislative session, dispatches from the Yarbro campaign have directed attention toward the failures of the state government, and started cataloguing the Colbert bait coming from the legislature.

"Our government can't and shouldn't try to solve everyone's problems for them," said Yarbro in one email to supporters. "But too often, our state government is making things worse."

In that message, he highlighted Tennessee's refusal to expand Medicaid, its status as one of five states without a minimum-wage law, and its low level of support for public schools compared to other states. In another, he lamented the legislature's first week in session, featuring "one bad idea after another." Among those bad ideas: a bill prohibiting the state from cooperating in implementing or administering Obamacare and the defeat of legislation that would have let college students use university IDs to vote.

"The legislature right now is failing to represent Tennessee, or do what's in the state's best interest," Yarbro said in an interview with the Scene this week.

He says big majorities of Tennesseans support things like investing in pre-K and expanding Medicaid, but the supermajority isn't listening.

"Too often the legislature is listening almost exclusively to the extremists on the right," he says.

Yarbro, an attorney at Bass, Berry and Sims who ran for the District 21 seat in 2010 but lost narrowly to the incumbent Sen. Doug Henry, returns often to the subject of education and has pointed to his involvement in the issue on the local level. He is a founding board member of East Nashville charter school East End Prep and has served as an education adviser to Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

"So much of the tax money that we send to the state goes toward health care and education, and on both issues the legislature is talking about the wrong thing," he says, before counting the ways: "Exploring private school vouchers, for-profit online schools, instead of investing in the things that work."

At a campaign kickoff earlier this week at Craft Brewed on Franklin Pike in Melrose, Mancini stood on a beer barrel and couched her reasons for running in a similar critique of the bunch doing the job now.

"I'm running because we have a Republican-controlled legislature who focuses on the wants of large corporations over the needs of people in this state," she said. "I'm running because we need to change that."

Mancini's stump speech figures to be relatively similar to Yarbro's — both cite education, health care and the like as priorities — but hers is notably flavored by her experience as an activist. She's more inclined to use the words "corporations" and "workers."

Speaking to the crowd of supporters at the event, she touts her experience as an activist fighting for the rights of voters and labor — before entering the race, she was executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action — and cites her perspective as a former temp worker and small business owner as a strength.

"When I sound the alarm about corporations getting tax break after tax break without any accountability, my words resonate because I was a small business owner who struggled to keep the doors of my business open on a weekly basis," she says.

In an earlier interview with the Scene, she outlined issues that will be at the forefront of the campaign. Among them are protecting the autonomy of local school districts, giving workers a living wage and, again, creating more accountability for corporations on the receiving end of state tax breaks.

"I understand that business is important," Mancini says. "I understand that we need businesses to move to Tennessee. But we need them to create not just any jobs, we need them to create good paying jobs."

Both candidates speak of giving Tennesseans a voice in a conversation that Yarbro and Mancini say they're being left out of. Yarbro has repeatedly said the state senator from District 21 must stand up for Nashville in a legislature that has continually sought to usurp the city's authority on a variety of issues. Mancini says it's about changing the conversation "from what's good for large corporations to what's good for people who live in the state."

What remains to be seen is whose voice voters in District 21, and Tennesseans in general, will hear most in the coming years: Jeff Yarbro's, Mary Mancini's — or Jon Stewart's.