Aftyn Behn and Anthony Davis, special election competitors for the District 51 seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives Credit: Campaign photos

On paper, the two candidates in a special election primary to replace the deceased Bill Beck would seem to be similar. Anthony Davis and Aftyn Behn are on the Aug. 3 ballot for the Democratic nomination, two progressives who say they are energized to fight what they see as overreach by a Republican supermajority in the legislature. 

But the two don’t see it that way.

Anthony Davis was a friend of Bill Beck, and following his death, the Metro Council voted unanimously to appoint Davis to the seat in an interim capacity, primarily because of Gov. Bill Lee’s special session on gun safety in August. Davis was sworn into that seat on Monday. But while Davis, who represented District 7 on the Metro Council from 2011-2019, might boast a long list of endorsements and support from colleagues at both the local and state level, Behn has been running a fierce campaign that could mobilize the voters she needs, and has the backing of Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), who joined Representatives Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) as one of the “Tennessee Three” that the Republican supermajority attempted to expel from the house. 

“This House seat is crucial to fighting extremism at the state legislature,” Behn tells the Banner. “When you have a majority Democratic district, and the incumbent is able to not worry necessarily about heavily campaigning during the general, what that provides is an opportunity for the candidate then to rally Tennesseans across the state in various House races.”

Behn believes districts like House District 51, in a heavily gerrymandered, heavily red state can be leveraged over the next year to help Democrats get out of the super minority in the 2024 election. As a loud, outspoken activist, who has previously been arrested for protesting former Speaker of the House Glen Casada at the capitol, she believes she is the right person to join the Tennessee Three, which has acted as something of a small progressive caucus in the House, rallying blue voters across the state. 

“We need new leadership, we need new voices, we need an aspiring future generation of leaders who have a vision for this state that is not just working across the aisle, it is literally building power so that we can get out of the super minority and actually start passing bills that benefit people’s lives,” says Behn. 

For some progressives, Davis’s appointment to the District 51 seat left a bad taste in their mouth. They argued that with the election coming up so quickly, there was no need to make an appointment before then, and that his appointment would just give him an unfair advantage at the polls. Davis says that while he understands the arguments against his appointment, the looming possibility of a special session to address gun control in August, an issue he cares deeply about, made his appointment necessary. He hopes that voters will get behind him to make his seat official for the remainder of Beck’s term.

“I was known to be one of the most progressive councilmembers,” says Davis. “What I plan to do is vigorously defend our democratic issues down at the state. And that’s when Republicans are attacking LGBT, women, when they’re attacking Nashville, whether it be about taking over our airport authority or shrinking the council. A laundry list of things they’re attacking, I plan to defend that.”

Davis believes that Metro Council experience gives him the edge over Behn, who despite her many years of activism and organizing, has not held governmental office. He said that it will be important for the person in the House District 51 seat to not only fight for their constituents, but to reach across the aisle when needed. 

“That’s what’s important to me, is go down there and play defense, and be passionate and strong about issues,” says Davis. “But try to take any lanes and forge any relationships to get anything done. I’m not afraid to swallow my pride and move the ball on gun safety in any way whatsoever.”

Campaign finance disclosures show their support is coming, in part, from different places and in different amounts.

Davis has raised $52,651 so far, with all but $4,425 of it coming from Tennessee, almost exclusively Davidson County. Behn has almost double the number of donors, but has raised $35,791.50, with almost a third — $11,796.50 — coming from out of state. 

Special elections typically have low voter turnout. Even the primary for the District 52 seat, where Jones  is running after his expulsion made national news, had less than 2,000 voters. District 51 encompasses a large portion of East Nashville, as well as part of downtown and the East Bank. While there is a Republican primary being held, the district is typically a very comfortably blue seat in the red supermajority Tennessee House, so whoever wins the Democratic primary will likely win the special election on Sept. 14. 

The victor will have a quick turnaround. Whoever wins the seat in September — either Behn or Davis will face Republican David Hooven — will have a primary less than 11 months away, in August 2024.