Mary Mancini recognizes that her “career trajectory” from modest music business jobs in New York to candidacy for the Tennessee State Senate is atypical, but then again, so was Ronald Reagan’s.
The Long Island native could well be on her way to the Tennessee State House, after beginning her career supervising the phone banks at New York radio station Hot 97, then a dance music format.
Mancini, who just turned 50, moved to Nashville in 1991. After following up her start in radio with major record company experience in New York, record retail in Nashville and then community radio, Internet services and political activism, she’s running as a Democrat for state senator of District 21, a “mixed district” encompassing parts of Nashville in Davidson County.
“The Democratic party here in Tennessee needs real leaders at this point, who will unify and inspire and also hold Republicans accountable,” says Mancini. “This state has a super-majority of Republicans in both the house and senate, and the governor is Republican and getting away with a lot that hurts working people. So we need leaders up there who will hold them all accountable.”
What is happening in Tennessee, Mancini continues, is that “the state legislatrue has its priorities all out of wack. Bills are introduced up there on behalf of large corporations and Tea Party extremists and wealthy donors, and the people aren’t even considered. They need to get their priorities in order: Is legislation good for the people who live and work in Tennessee? Once we start doing that, we’ll make real progress.”
Mancini’s message, then, is summarized in her campaign slogan, “People, priorities and progress.”
“It’s really interesting. People are responding to it!” says the candidate, who came to Nashville to continue her career in the music industry.
She had begun in publicity at Elektra Records in New York in 1987, then progressed into A&R—an administrative assistant in both departments.
“I moved to Nashville at a time when the business there was dipping its toes into the waters of rock and pop and trying to diversify,” Mancini recalls. “For the first time they were signing rock and pop bands and not being just a country music town, so I thought it was a good opportunity at that point to come down here and get a job.”
After starting to interview with the expanded labels, she was visited by a friend from out-of-town who was a D.J.
“There was no place to buy vinyl, so he said, ‘Why don’t you open up a record store?’ and I thought, ‘That sounds like fun!’”
And so began Lucy’s Record Shop, in 1992.
“The original name was Revolutions Per Minute,” says Mancini. “I always wanted it to be a place where people could come and have an exchange of ideas and talk about politics and the issues of the day, and groups could hold meetings–almost like a record store and community center.”
“Then a transformation happened,” she continues. “I wasn’t really political, but believed in dialog about issues–and always voted. But the kids who came in and took advantage of Lucy’s were political, and politicized me as I learned about their struggles and the issues that they brought up in their meetings.”
This was at the time of the “riot grrrl” movement of underground feminist punk rock bands, notes Mancini.
“Listening to them discuss gender bias and issues of abuse and things like that was very politicizing for me,” says Mancini, who changed the store’s name after three months to Lucy’s Record Shop—after her Weimaraner.
“Revolutions Per Minute was a great name, but I had my dog with me all the time and realized that people were coming in to see the dog,” she explains. “It was really becoming her shop!”
Mancini kept Lucy’s going for six years.
“I got married [to acclaimed alternative-country band Lambchop’s frontman Kurt Wagner] and wanted to settle down with a more normal life, since Lucy’s had also become a punk rock venue and all-ages venue and I was doing a lot of in-stores and live performances and staying open late at night. So I took a nine-to-five office manager job at Nashville’s first Internet services provider in 1998, while paying more and more attention to national politics.”
When Al Gore “won the  election but didn’t become president,” it “lit a fire in my belly that things weren’t working in a just and fair way for the majority of people in the country.”
She began talking up politics—and President Bush in particular–at work and after, and following the 2004 election she concluded that “I just couldn’t sit there and talk about it, but had to do something.”
Voter registration was always an important issue for Mancini, who stocked registration forms at Lucy’s.
“It was an important election , and I put a volunteer team together and went out at night to register 18-34 year-olds while they were in line at rock shows.” She organized an ACT NOW! Lucy’s Record Shop Reunion Concert & Voter Registration Extravaganza at the Belcourt Theatre, and was interviewed on Vanderbilt University station WRVU-FM about the event, which involved civic groups as well as bands.
But when registration in Nashville closed 30 days before the election, she needed a new outlet for the next month. Teaming with co-worker Freddie O’Connell, the two commenced their own progressive talk show, Liberadio(!), which ran weekly on WRVU for the next six years.
“I was still doing work in the technology field, but as I interviewed more local and state-level politicians, I got more involved in state and local politics,” she says. “Then, because of my work in voter registration, I helped try to get a bill passed to outlaw electronic voting machines.”
Her efforts here carried over into her next endeavor: promoting Uncounted: The New Math Of American Elections, the 2008 documentary about stealing elections through electronic fraud. Mancini quit her job to work on it, and also became an advocate for election integrity.
But she didn’t have a job after the 2008 election, and focused on Liberadio(!) and blogging.
“I still had so much free time that I was going to the state capitol and following bills and sitting in on committee meetings and sessions, and writing blogs and shining light on state-level politics, since so many people aren’t aware of what’s going on. And I learned a lot about state politics.”
So Mancini took the job of executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a public interest/consumer rights watchdog organization.
“I became a registered lobbyist on behalf of the people in the state and did grassroots organizing and advocacy work,” she says, citing issues including “affordable and accessible healthcare for everyone, workers’ rights, fair elections and economic and civil justice.” Three years after she started, the state senator in her district retired.
“I realized that because of all my experiences–small business owner, working for two start-ups, advocate and activist—I could bring a uniquely different perspective that was missing from the state legislature,” Mancini concludes.
“It’s an unusual trajectory, I know, but I’m just a normal person trying to go up to the state senate.”
To get there, of course, Mancini needs to win the primary, scheduled for next Aug. 7.
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