By Michael Cass and Chas Sisk | The Tennessean
The Tennessee Democratic Party missed a chance to keep controversial candidate Mark Clayton off the Democratic primary ballot for the U.S. Senate race earlier this year, the state's elections coordinator said Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a party official said Democrats would revamp their candidate vetting process in the wake of Clayton's victory last week, and the candidate himself told reporters that he wants President Barack Obama to "come back home" and drop his support of gay marriage.
Addressing the Democratic president directly as he spoke into a row of local news cameras, Clayton said, "President Obama, I want to let you know that I've been talking with a lot of your supporters. A lot of your supporters are my supporters, and they're praying for you, they're praying for Michelle, they're praying for Sasha and Malia.
"A lot of people have been very hurt. Somebody I was just talking to yesterday told me that switching on the gay marriage issue really hurt him. What we want you to do, President Obama, is we want you to come back home. It's OK to come back home and support traditional marriage between a man and a woman."
Clayton, who works for a moving company, won the Democrats' senatorial primary by a wide margin on Thursday, despite a set of socially conservative and libertarian beliefs that put him outside the mainstream of the party. A day later, the party disavowed his candidacy. It said he was part of an anti-gay hate group called Public Advocate of the United States and hadn't voted in Democratic primaries except when he was running. The party urged Democratic voters to write in anyone else's name on the ballot in November.
Party Chairman Chip Forrester had seven days after the April 5 qualifying deadline to question whether Clayton was a bona fide member of the Democratic Party. After that date, party and state officials had no legal grounds to block his candidacy, elections coordinator Mark Goins wrote in a letter to Democratic candidate Larry Crim.
Crim, a Nashville attorney, has demanded a new primary based on the idea that Forrester failed to exercise his duties as party chairman to screen Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate. Crim said in a news release that the vote should be held "about mid-September 2012 containing only those names of the bona fide Democrats so that voters' rights to a valid primary to select their Democratic nominee for United States Senator from amongst legitimate Democrats be upheld."
Goins said it was too late to hold another primary because military ballots for the general election must go out by Sept. 22. He also noted that Clayton met "all of the statutory requirements at the time of qualifying."
A pledge to fix screening process
Later Tuesday, Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee member Jim Bilbo promised to reform the screening process.
Bilbo, chairman of the party's by-laws committee, sent out a statement pledging to "fix the candidate review process that allowed an extreme candidate who is not a Democrat on the ballot."
"We have already begun our review of the process that failed us this year and nearly failed us in the past, and we pledge to fix it," said Bilbo, an attorney in Cleveland, Tenn. "We owe it to Democratic supporters, candidates and volunteers to enact reforms so that extreme candidates who don't represent our core Democratic, middle class values may never take advantage of our open elections again."
Bilbo also contradicted Goins, saying the party's by-laws "do not give the chairman unilateral authority to strip a candidate of their 'bona fide' credentials. A county party must challenge the bona fides of a candidate and bring the challenge to the executive committee."
"Coordinator Goins is misreading the by-laws," party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said, adding that he wasn't aware of the Davidson County Democratic Party raising any concerns about Clayton