Person of the Year: Darren Jernigan

Darren Jernigan is a hometown boy and well-liked by his neighbors — which helped him win over his predominantly Republican district.

Darren Jernigan is a hometown boy and well-liked by his neighbors — which helped him win over his predominantly Republican district.

Two days after the Nov. 6 election, Darren Jernigan was back at Permobil, where he is employed as director of government affairs, processing the wild ride that had just ended in his gaining a seat in the Tennessee state legislature. “It’s kind of surreal,” he tells me over the phone. “I’m already getting calls from lobbyists.” Why such a big deal that he won? “I’m the only one who took out an incumbent.”

In a rabidly red state where Republican Mitt Romney won all but four of 95 counties, Jernigan, a Democrat, won by a scant 91 votes over Jim Gotto, who had been elected in the 2010 Obama backlash vote. In some states, that slim margin would trigger an automatic recount. But Gotto called and conceded. In Tennessee, the victor gets the spoils.

It was anything but an easy battle. “It was hard, everything was hard,” says Jernigan. “Gotto had just had the district lines redrawn to protect himself, and he was well-financed.” Jernigan had raised $150,000 to Gotto’s $130,000, but the Republican Party threw in another $200,000 to tilt the campaign spending scales more than two-to-one in Gotto’s favor. What Gotto may have overlooked was that in redrawing the lines, he drew Jernigan — who had not entered the race yet — in. “I grew up in this district,” says Jernigan. “Many of my friends are Republicans. I’ve been told I got a 30 percent crossover vote.”

Gotto’s attack ads may have backfired. “Every week there was a new attack ad trying to link me to Obama. In one they called us BFF, like I was Obama’s lifelong pal. In another they said I was a delegate to the Democratic convention. In another ad on primetime TV, the Republican party said I was in the pocket of the big labor bosses — they showed some cheesy-looking guy smoking a cigar in a back room and listed all the money given to me by labor, that sort of thing. Over the top. Lies.”

Jernigan’s response was a TV ad with the tagline: “I may be in a wheelchair, but nobody pushes me around.” His electorate, including some of his Republican neighbors, loved it. And so, Gotto, 20 years Jernigan’s senior, lost an election for the first time.

Supporters have come to trust that Jernigan puts people before politics, as he did as a Nashville councilman when the Cumberland River overflowed.

Supporters have come to trust that Jernigan puts people before politics, as he did as a Nashville councilman when the Cumberland River overflowed.

Jernigan prevailed in early voting, garnering about 300 more votes than Gotto, who polled more votes on election day, but not enough to make up the difference. Ironically, Gotto had won the early vote when he was elected in 2010. Another irony is Jernigan lives smack dab in the middle of the most conservative part of the district, Old Hickory, named for Andrew Jackson, America’s first “people’s president.” Since redistricting, Old Hickory is close to the county line separating populous Davidson County from its more suburban/rural neighboring county to the east, which is bright red — Republican with a strong Tea Party flavor. But that did not faze Jernigan, who rolled into the campaign full force.

He campaigned on four main issues — the economy, education, the environment, and health care. He is conservative fiscally, but liberal on social issues. With four children in school, he understands the importance of supporting education; he takes a balanced approach to environmental issues; and he knows Tennessee’s health care situation intimately, having campaigned on the state’s Choices program [money follows the person]. His wife is also deputy chief of longterm care (Tenncare). The Choices program was under assault last session by Republicans wanting to give more money back to the nursing homes. “My opponent voted for that,” says Jernigan, who vowed he would never take a dime from nursing homes.

“They are notorious for going around to legislators’ desks and dropping off checks,” he says. “They try to drop one off in my office, I’ll burn it in front of them.” In Tennessee there are 800,000 seniors and 200,000 people with disabilities. “Money needs to follow the person,” says Jernigan.  “State money gives dignity and choice to elderly and people with disabilities.”

Now that Jernigan sits in a state legislature controlled by a super majority of Republicans, you’d think he feels surrounded by the enemy. Not at all. He says he is having too much fun to feel threatened. In addition, now that Gotto is gone, there may be clear sailing ahead. “The media said the winner might be in that seat for the next 10 years,” says Jernigan, “because no Republican is as strong as the one I just beat, and no Democrat will unseat me.”

This is not just campaign bravado. Jernigan has been a Nashville city councilman since 2007, and in his bid to be re-elected to the council in 2011, he captured 77 percent of the vote.

How the Voters Saw Him
Jernigan was born on an Air Force base in Biloxi, Miss., and moved to Nashville early in his childhood. Both of his grandfathers were coal miners in rural Tennessee. Jernigan attended elementary, middle and high schools in his district. Today he has several buddies he went to school with since the third grade, and he’s still close with them. “We’d spend the night and ride bikes. There was a lake and we’d swing out over it and swim a lot.”

Photo by Rutherford Photography

These same childhood friends worked the polls for him on election day. Jernigan says a couple of them are Republicans, and one of them is a hardcore Democrat who worked for Obama in Ohio four years ago. In the November election he knocked on doors for Jernigan. “For these guys it wasn’t about party affiliation,” says Jernigan. “It’s way more, it’s loyalty. Old friends claim more of your soul than anybody else does.”

Jernigan’s family and friends understandably supported him in his campaign for state representative, but what was his appeal to the tens of thousands who did not know him personally? Michael Cass, reporter for The Tenneseean, a Nashville daily, says Jernigan is a politician who responds to people’s needs. In a Jan. 24, 2010 article, Cass tells the story of how Jernigan visited a devastated neighborhood during the catastrophic Nashville flood of 2010, promised legislation that would avoid another such disaster, then brought all parties together and fulfilled his promise.

“That was my signature piece of legislation in my first term with the council,” says Jernigan. “There was a particular neighborhood called Waterford, where the Cumberland River overflowed. I remember being down there, and a lady was crying, and I couldn’t do anything but just sit there and be with her, and she looked at me and thanked me for being there, and she said, ‘please, make sure this doesn’t happen again.’”

Jernigan brought together homeowners, builders, developers, and all concerned parties with a plan to overhaul stormwater legislation. He knew those who stood to lose financially would balk at making changes. “I started out banning everything. I threw a grenade on the table and got them all there, and when I got them in the same room I said, ‘OK, this was just to get your attention, I’m going to let you build in the floodplain but there’s going to be restrictions. You don’t need to build on a floodway [where floodwaters actually flow and cause the greatest damage]. We need the wetlands.’”

This kind of immediate action and balanced approach has endeared Jernigan to voters. They have learned from his actions as well as his words that he is a politician who can be trusted. “In both style and approach, Darren is very thoughtful,” says Megan Barry, a fellow council member, “and he is smart. The pleasure of working with him is he can boil down an issue quickly in search of a solution, and he does it with grace, humor and style. He’s always going to listen. When he wants to get something done, he gets it done.”

Barry was so impressed with Jernigan as a council member that she enthusiastically supported him in his campaign for state rep. “I opened my home up and threw a fundraiser for him, not just for people in his district, but for people interested in politics. I wanted to get them excited about his campaign like I was,” she says.

Tom Rolick, vice president of sales at Permobil, has known Jernigan since he first signed on as director of government affairs. “People are appreciative of his desire to give back,” he says. “Frankly, the more you know about politics, the more you despise it, but Darren is capable of putting the politics in perspective and making the right decision, doing the right thing. He will challenge the political side of things in order to do the right thing.”

Going Door to Door, Getting Personal
Jernigan took the personal approach in his campaign, working long hours and meeting as many potential voters as he could. “We knocked on thousands of doors,” he says. “We’d park in a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood, get our list, and start walking.”

For a candidate in a power wheelchair, the traditional approach wasn’t easy. “I’d bump through yards or driveways, I’d get stuck in yards, stuck in holes. One time I almost threw myself out of the chair. But I always had someone with me. They’d go to the door and knock and hand them a flyer. I’d be at the bottom of the steps, and I’d say, ‘I’m Darren Jernigan, I’m running for state representative, and I’d like to officially ask for your vote today.’”

Of course he had strong support from his mother and father [his stepfather, who helped raise him from the time he was 11 years old]. “I call Mom my diva. She comes out at early voting and sits there and hobnobs and then goes away for a little while. Then you gotta find her. She did better at writing postcards and things of that nature to people and asking for their vote. But she helped me out quite a bit. Just her support, knowing she was there, was the main thing.”

His stepfather, Richard, was the jack-of-all-trades campaign worker. “You name it,” says Jernigan, “he worked the polls, he worked early voting, he put out signs, repaired signs, picked them up. He put a big 2×4 sign in the back of his truck and drove it around for three months. He was very involved in the labor part of it.” Family and close friends were at the core of his team, but his appeal went far beyond his doorstep with 200 volunteer campaign workers.

Besides Jernigan himself, his star vote-getter was his wife, Michelle, who wrote a letter to every woman in the district. It wasn’t your usual campaign letter. All 13,000 of them were written on ivory paper, with a personal stamp and Michelle’s return address. Best of all, the content was not political. “It was about me, my character, a bit about my accident and stuff,” says Jernigan. “And you talk about something that got me votes — she got fan mail. One lady sent her 20 bucks. Just last night we were at a veteran’s thing and two women came up to her and said I voted for your husband because of your letter. One lady said she cried, another said she put it on her refrigerator. It was very personal.”

Jernigan has developed a reputation for being easy to work with, but tough. A tagline from one of Jernigan’s television commercials was, “I may be in a wheelchair, but no one pushes me around!”

Jernigan has developed a reputation for being easy to work with, but tough. A tagline from one of Jernigan’s television commercials was, “I may be in a wheelchair, but no one pushes me around!”

Jernigan is convinced the personal approach paid off in early voting, which lasts about two weeks in Tennessee. He positioned himself outside the polls every day from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and on four of those days until 7 p.m. “It was all day long, and it was freezing outside,” he says. “You don’t have to do it, but it’s campaigning, and when you’re there, the voters go right by you. I said my name literally 15,000 times, that’s how many voters we had. We’re handing out leaflets, I’d say, ‘my name’s Darren Jernigan, running for state rep, this is a little about me,’ shake their hand, ‘do you have any questions,’ whatever, and they’d say, ‘Hey, how are you,’ or ‘I’m going to vote for you,’ or ‘you’re terrible’ or whatever. And then they’d go on in and the next one would come up.”

People could see firsthand that Jernigan wanted their vote and was determined to get it. More importantly, they could make a real connection with him. One reporter who covered the campaign and requested anonymity put it this way: “I think it was generally seen that he was more approachable than his opponent.”

Jernigan’s easy-to-approach, “good ol’ boy” attitude comes naturally. His mother raised him to believe in seeing a little bit of good in everybody. “Even if you don’t like somebody, try to find a little good in them, focus on that,” says Jernigan, who also credits growing up with a sense of humor and learning social skills in his fraternity at college. “When I got out of college,” he says, “I kind of grew up, but I never forgot how to talk to people, how to make them laugh, and laugh with them, to know the difference between when someone is joking or not — you know what I’m saying. When to be offended and when not to. When’s it appropriate and when not appropriate. When you can master something like that, and the line between them, you can have fun and you learn to engage people.”

Family Man, Community-Minded, Public Servant
Jernigan breaks the mold, makes politician a good word. He is the genuine thing, a person devoted to public service: Working three jobs at once; crafting legislation in response to diverse needs; being active in a church that helps others with no questions asked; teaching 4-year-olds at that same church; shaping values with his children at the dinner table every night.

Michelle Jernigan has four children from her first marriage — one boy and three girls — and Darren has not shied away from being a father to Harris, 16; Elise, 14; Amanda, 11; and Claire, 9. At dinner every night the children take turns saying who they helped that day. Wednesdays are “high-low” days, when each child talks about the highs and lows of the week. “That gives them a chance to have a conversation about something that went really good in their life,” says Jernigan. “They can tell it, and something that wasn’t so good, and maybe we can talk about it, what the low was, and have their siblings respect what everyone says.”

Thursdays the Jernigans do shout-outs at the dinner table, where one sibling chooses another one and they recognize something they have done that is positive that week. “Maybe it was a grade, maybe success at a track meet, maybe it was something else, and they do a shout-out,” says Jernigan. “Then the sibling who got the shout-out does it to another one, and they include us, my wife and me, and we do it, too.”

Jernigan and his wife take molding the character of their four kids seriously, and even direct dinner-time talk toward stories of how each child helped someone that day.

Jernigan and his wife take molding the character of their four kids seriously, and even direct dinner-time talk toward stories of how each child helped someone that day.

At a time when most middle and high school kids are too busy talking on cellphones, texting, tweeting or fiddling with Facebook to have a meaningful conversation, the Jernigan kids are learning responsibility and forging their most important relationships face to face. It’s conversation time with a purpose, a threatened tradition in modern cyber-America. “It’s family time around the table,” says Jernigan, “a time to engage with our kids and to keep up with what they’re doing in life.”

Darren and Michelle are involved in their community life as well, supporting their children and others in school and extracurricular activities, and teaching 4-year-olds at a local church. For Darren, unlike some politicians who freely mix religion with politics to gain votes, church is a time for spiritual formation. “Church is my break from politics, my Sunday where they talk about this is how you can make your marriage stronger, or here is some financial stuff and then relate it to lessons in the Bible. There’s no talk about gambling or drinking or gays or abortion. No talking about the social hot topic issues.”

Their church is currently raising money to build an impact center for people in the community, whether church goers or not —  “a place where you can go in the middle of the week if you need divorce counseling or clothes or a food bank,” says Jernigan. Currently, church members have raised more than 70 percent of their goal.  “The Red Cross will designate it as a disaster center,” says Jernigan. “It will be a community-driven impact center.”

“People see Darren as a community guy,” says Rolick. “He is very active and vocal about improving the community. You can see it in his life and his platform, and it’s resonating with the crowd. They see him at band practice, educational matters, church matters, he’s an amazing dad. Every dad knows how precious little time you have, and he’s one of those guys who spends every spare moment with his family.”

When your political life is an accurate reflection of your personal life, and your priorities are to serve others, yet put your family first, good things are bound to happen.

“For Darren,” says Megan Barry, “the sky’s the limit on the type of career he can have politically. He will bring a lot of good sense to our legislature.”

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