Nashville’s progressives — and the Tennessee Democratic Party, for that matter — let out a collective sigh of relief Thursday night as one of their worst fears never came true: Republican candidate Eric Crafton didn’t become the new Davidson County Juvenile Court clerk.
In a contest that began last winter with a crowded field of 11 contenders, the oft-controversial Bellevue Metro councilman — he of failed English-only fame — was never the favorite.
Frontrunner status always belonged to the better-financed, better-connected choice of the downtown legal community, General Sessions court officer David Smith, who in the end came out on top by 10 percentage points, and is now poised to take over the seat held by the maligned incumbent Vic Lineweaver.
Though once a foregone conclusion, Smith’s victory seemed less certain when early voting figures showed turnout in the Republican primary outshone that of the Democratic primary by more than 2,000 voters, a pattern that continued on Election Day. Republicans, clearly energized by the three-way battle in their party’s gubernatorial primary, were motivated and arrived in full force.
To pull out a win, Smith knew he needed a huge chunk of voters in the Republican primary to cross over and vote for a candidate with a “D” next to his name when it came to a down-ballot general election race.
“I probably lost weight,” said Smith, recalling his nerves as he dwelled on the party-turnout discrepancy. “I was absolutely concerned.”
The candidate wasn’t the only one who felt uneasy. For any Republican to win a local race in decidedly blue Davidson County would be an embarrassment for Nashville’s Democratic establishment. But this wasn’t just any Republican. It was Crafton, the man who led the city through the failed English-only referendum only 18 months ago, a push many progressive Democrats called wrong and mean-spirited.
Leading up to Election Day, the state Democratic Party rallied behind Smith’s candidacy and, perhaps just as telling, attacked Crafton. The party pumped $15,000 into Smith’s campaign in the form of direct-mail pieces, with party chairman Chip Forrester vowing Democrats were “fully engaged” to defeat Crafton.
“We see the potential of Eric Crafton, who is a right-wing nut-job Republican, using this [office] as a steppingstone for higher office,” Forrester told The City Paper a few days before Election Day.
Then on election eve, there was a not-so-veiled email sent by Nashville For All Of Us — the group formed to defeat the English-only push — that urged voters to “project what a particular candidate will do to support our mission of ‘A Productive, Just and Welcoming Nashville For All of Us.’ ”
Most observers interpreted those words to be directed at Crafton.
As fate would have it, Republicans did vote for Smith in numbers large enough to push him over the threshold. For Smith’s part, he had always touted his group of Republican supporters. At the same time, there’s a general consensus that some Republicans may have been turned off by Crafton’s English-only tag.
Reviewing the outcome, At-large Councilman Ronnie Steine said voters simply sized up the two candidates and identified “exactly what motivations one might have for wanting the job.” He added that voters’ memory of English-only undoubtedly played some role.
“I think that without question, that is one of the things [Crafton] will be identified with,” Steine said of the English-only referendum. “I think this is the second time this community has rejected that kind of notion.”
Former At-large Metro Councilman David Briley, who sent a last-minute email urging people to vote for Smith, said independent voters accounted for a sizable percentage of those who voted in the Republican primary and also for Smith. Still, Briley also believes centrist Republicans remembered Crafton’s English-only past.
“When the chamber of commerce is leading the fight against English-only, that’s a good indication that a lot of Republicans are against it as well,” Briley said. “I think they hadn’t forgotten Eric’s role in what they saw as a pretty solidly anti-business agenda.”
Contacted by The City Paper shortly after his defeat, Crafton had only kind words for his opponent. “He ran a really good race,” Crafton said. “He and I were the only candidates who never said a negative thing or ran a negative ad about one another. I’m very proud of that fact.”
Crafton rejected the notion that his English-only push may have hurt his chances.
“I don’t think it hurt me because on that I did what I thought was right,” Crafton said. “And I would do it again if it cost me every election I ever ran in. I did what I thought was right, and I don’t have any regrets about that whatsoever.”
Asked whether Crafton’s English-only past may have helped him, Smith refused to go there. (Apparently Crafton wasn’t joking about the fair gamesmanship between the two.)
“I started this campaign in February of ’08 with a promise that I was not going negative in any way at all,” Smith said. “I’m not going to talk about Eric Crafton and English-only.”
With a 30-month campaign in the rearview mirror, Smith is all business now. His new job begins Sept. 1, and he says he’s ready to go. He’s even got a list of things he’d like to do.
“I’d like to meet with the mayor, the finance director and ask for an audit of the office, No. 1,” Smith said. “And then I’d like to start figuring out how we can update the scanning of those files, like we talked about doing from day one.”