1. How much charter school money will flow into this election?
Hundreds of thousands of dollars from charter school advocates flowed into the campaign coffers of education reform-friendly candidates last year, and in some cases, changed the game for local politics.
Expect much of the same come 2014, said Brent Easley, Tennessee state director for Students First, which advocates in support of charter schools and other education reforms.
“I think the people in Tennessee want to keep the pedal to the floor in terms of the changes that are taking place in education, and we’re going to be supportive in a similar fashion,” he said.
Students First is powered by Michelle Rhee, a polarizing national education reform figure who built her reputation on being tough with teachers unions while chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C
Last year, Students First spent more than $200,000 on Tennessee political campaigns, funneling the bulk into legislative races, most often to Republicans, although more than half went to a single Memphis Democrat, Rep. John DeBerry.
Metro school board races drew an unprecedented amount of money — and interest — last year, largely due to local friction between charter school supporters and the Metro Nashville school board. The five races in that cycle collectively drew more than $400,000. Ingram Industries’ Margaret Dolan alone raked in more than $115,000, and Teach for America executive Elissa Kim collected some $85,000.
Students First played a part in their fundraising, giving $3,000 to each of them, followed by local pro-charter group Great Public Schools giving $7,100 to each. (Great Public Schools was formed with the help of Townes Duncan, president of the board of directors at SouthComm, which owns The City Paper.)
The friction that caused beefed-up interest in local school board races hasn’t disappeared, and other groups are beginning to reach out in Tennessee. One new group is Democrats for Education Reform, although it’s unknown what financial role it plans to play next cycle, when four Metro school board seats are up for election. Another is Stand for Children.
Michael Hayes, a voice on the school board who has embraced various education reforms, said he plans to run for re-election next year.
“I think about it often,” he said. “Frankly, I’m not finished. There’s a lot more work to be done,” he said.
Board members Jo Ann Brannon, Chairwoman Cheryl Mayes, and Vice Chair Anna Shepherd are also up for election next year. Calls for comment were not returned as of press time.
2. Will Darren Jernigan have an opponent? What about Bo Mitchell?
Near the more conservative eastern edge of Davidson County, Republicans are trying to line up the right candidate to run against freshman House member Darren Jernigan.
A Democrat, Jernigan barely wrestled District 60 from then-Rep. Jim Gotto last year, edging him out by 95 votes, or less than 1 percent.
“There’s a lot of conservatives out here. It’s a dogfight really every time,” said Jernigan, who doubles as a Metro councilman.
Redrawn in 2012 as a Republican enclave that Romney easily won by 8.5 percentage points last year, the district is seen as having enough of a GOP voter base for the party to stage a comeback if it can land the right candidate.
So far, Gotto — who served a brief stint on the county Election Commission before resigning in protest over the ouster of election commissioner Albert Tieche — is still considering a rematch.
“I’d very much like to return,” said Gotto, who added that he is consulting with his family and trusted confidants with plans to make a decision whether to run within the next 50 days. “The last election was very, very close.”
Casting the right candidate to run against Jernigan is a challenge. Jernigan, long active in public service, is wheelchair-bound after a car crash more than two decades ago left him paralyzed, making him a unique political opponent. Speculation among GOP insiders is the party is looking for a woman to run for the seat.
“They’ll send somebody out,” said Jernigan, who has nearly $24,000 in his campaign account. “Even if it’s only a Republican without a tremendous lot of name recognition but the credentials, the family, the conservative values, that kind of thing, and then put money into it.”
That they will, said the Tennessee Republican Party executive director Brent Leatherwood.
“With all these races, we’re looking for a compelling conservative candidate who can make the case that Republican principles are exactly what this state needs right now,” he said. “A number of people have expressed interest: businessmen, stay-at-home moms, just the gauntlet.”
The same bull’s-eye is on House District 50 seat currently held by Democratic state Rep. and Metro Councilman Bo Mitchell, in the north and western edges of Davidson County.
Mitchell, too, won his race by less than a percentage point last year in a district that favored Romney 54 percent to Obama’s 46 percent.
“Whether you’re a Democrat legislator or a Republican legislator, a target being on your back is really irrelevant because you’re doing what you’re expecting to be doing,” said Mitchell.
3. What will happen to DesJarlais?
The one race nearly in full swing is a three-way contest for U.S. Congress in the 4th District, which starts near Smyrna before snaking south to the state line and crossing into lower East Tennessee.
The seat is held by Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais, a physician who won a second term in 2012 despite campaign revelations that he had slept with patients. Though he describes himself as pro-life, that campaign also revealed DesJarlais had pressured one mistress to have an abortion, and records released after the election showed he supported two of his ex-wife’s abortions.
He faces two challengers in the August 2013 Republican primary. One is state Sen. Jim Tracy, a retired teacher who placed third in the 2010 primary for the 6th Congressional District, shown up by then-state Sen. Diane Black and runner-up tea party favorite Lou Ann Zelenik.
So far, Tracy leads this race financially by outpacing DesJarlais’ fundraising 7 to 1 in the first half of the year. Tracy now has $656,000 in the bank — as of the latest campaign financial disclosures — to DesJarlais’ $88,000.
The other challenger is state Rep. Joe Carr, a tea party-friendly candidate who has championed issues like stiffer state immigration laws and blocking federal gun laws from enforcement here. While Carr trails Tracy financially, he has about $275,000 cash on hand.
Don’t underestimate this race, political insiders say. The district is very rural, making it one of the least digitally connected districts in the state and giving DesJarlais the distinct power of incumbency. While Tracy is doing wonders in fundraising, Carr’s staff includes veteran campaign manager Chip Saltsman, who managed the 2010 and 2012 wins for 3rd District Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, ran the national presidential campaign for Mike Huckabee and helped George W. Bush defeat then-Vice President Al Gore here in his home state.
“I think if DesJarlais had to run against either of them heads up, he’d be in real trouble,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, Vanderbilt University political science professor, who said splitting the vote is the best chance for any of them to survive. “One would think DesJarlais is in a lot of trouble, but stranger things have happened.”
4. Is there a race brewing in North Nashville?
Rumor has it that three-term House Rep. Brenda Gilmore is eyeing a promotion to the state Senate.
While Gilmore says that’s true — and she appears to be elevating her profile in recent discussions about Metro’s investment in North Nashville — she is stopping short of taking on longtime incumbent Sen. Thelma Harper.
“If the opportunity presented itself, I’d certainly be interested,” Gilmore told The City Paper.
“Even if I stay and run again for this [House] position, it’s not something I want to do continuous and continuous, because I want to make way for younger people,” she said.
Gilmore is a former Metro councilwoman who started in local politics with her election there in 1999. She won two terms in the council before making the leap to the legislature in 2007.
Political turnover is critical to build a class of younger Democrats who can climb the political ranks, said Gilmore. Lonnell Matthews Jr., a current member of the council, is already saying publicly that he hopes to take a shot for Gilmore’s seat should she try for a Senate upgrade, and he likely won’t be alone.
But despite all that, Gilmore said she’s not ready to challenge Harper right now.
“I’m not saying I would never do that. I’d just say at this point I wouldn’t. At this time, I’d just say it’s out of respect,” she said.
“I would say today, it is not my plan … but if there’s even a crack in the door, I would be ready to step in,” she said.
So far, Harper is keeping that door shut. “Hell yes, I’m going to run,” she told The City Paper. “I think they [voters] trust me. They know I’m not going to lie to them.”
Harper has sat in the legislature since 1989 and last saw an opponent in the 2006 Democratic primary, winning handily 5-1. While her party peers like Sens. Doug Henry in Nashville and Lowe Finney in Jackson have decided to bail from the legislature next cycle — and others may, too — Harper doesn’t plan to go anywhere.
“If there’s nobody else here but me, I’ll still be here,” she said.
From financial disclosures, Gilmore isn’t prepared take Harper on. The latest reports show her campaign war chest has less than $1,000 in it, whereas Harper has more than $10,000 in the bank and held a fundraiser last week.
5. Will there be a Democrat who runs against Haslam?
That’s the big question.
With Bill Haslam logging more than $2 million in the bank, a last-recorded 63 percent approval rating and personal wealth to back him up, the bench of potential challengers wanting to go toe-to-toe with him in 2014 is empty.
Although the governor is viewed as a shoo-in for re-election, Haslam has fallen on difficult times in the past few weeks, and that could give a strong challenger a chance to make Haslam work for a second term.
After a breezy first two years, Haslam’s family business became the subject of a federal raid by the FBI and IRS, with accusations the company shorted trucking customers by millions of dollars on fuel rebates.
Around that time, questions were being raised about Haslam’s relationship with his political consultant Tom Ingram, a lobbyist who for three years forgot to register as representing a company wanting to mine coal in East Tennessee.
Then questions about the governor’s administration began bubbling to the surface, including queries over questionable outsourcing of contracts for automobile work and for management of state office buildings to a company he once invested in.
Despite the governor’s trying few months, there’s no prominent Democrat in the pipeline to run against him.
At one point, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh flirted with the idea. After saying in December he’d consider a bid for the state’s top office, the Ripley Democrat told The City Paper last month he’d take a pass and instead focus on picking up seats in the legislature.
“It’s not too late for someone to step up,” said Fitzhugh. “I hope someone would have the resources to take down the current administration.”
Republicans aren’t too worried.
“I think the Democrats will have a hard time finding anybody who can match the governor’s profile,” said Leatherwood. “With each day that passes, it’s harder to find someone.”