News of the stunning returns in the Davidson County General Sessions judge race spread among Metro Council members as they listened to a lengthy public hearing on a controversial Antioch-area asphalt plant Tuesday night. They couldn’t believe the results. Attention immediately diverted to an old colleague.
Looking down at their laptops and fidgeting with their cell phones, council members saw that Mike Jameson, a former two-term councilman whom they had appointed to the bench three months earlier, had lost the early vote — and lost decisively — to attorney Rachel Bell in the Democratic primary for General Sessions judge.
“He’s done,” a mayor’s office aide at the front of the council chambers put it bluntly.
That prognostication proved accurate. With all the votes counted a few hours later, Bell, a 34-year-old attorney with seven years of legal experience, ended up with 54 percent of more than 16,000 votes, defeating Jameson, a star among local progressives and fixture in Metro politics for nearly a decade, by a healthy 15 percentage points. Attorney Jack Byrd finished a distant third.
It was a shocker. With big-name supporters, incumbent status, superior fundraising prowess and ostensibly greater name recognition, Jameson was supposed to win this race. Wasn’t he? Instead, Bell crushed him.
At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard, a Jameson supporter, called the dynamics of the low turnout primary “a perfect storm.” His analysis suggests Bell, who is black, benefited from blacks being energized to vote for President Barack Obama in the Democratic primary that night.
“A lot of Democrats stayed home because they thought Jameson had it in the bag,” Maynard, Jameson’s highest profile black supporter, told The City Paper. “A lot of African-Americans came out because they wanted to vote for Barack Obama, even though it’s the primary and even though he had no opponent. They were very excited to go out and vote for Obama.
“I heard many people tell me at the polls that the message was, ‘Go vote for Barack Obama, and while you’re there, vote for Bell,’ ” Maynard said.
Time will tell whether this was the case. Voting figures for individual precincts won’t be available until later this month, according to Davidson County Elections Administrator Albert Tieche.
Still, even Jameson supporters like Maynard acknowledge Bell hit the campaign trail hard. She outworked the political veteran and ran a better campaign, observers say. While Jameson seemed determined to point out each and every one of his political friends — on his television commercial and on campaign mail pieces — Bell more effectively identified her voters. And they voted. Jameson’s campaign seemed insider. Bell’s was just the opposite.
It added up to a major upset.
Jameson, 48, enjoyed what seemed like every advantage a candidate could want. His $88,000 was more than double Bell’s campaign cash, a financial edge he used to air a television commercial that highlighted another advantage — endorsements from some well-known local politicos, including former Mayor Bill Purcell, council members Megan Barry, Jerry Maynard, Ronnie Steine, Charlie Tygard, Emily Evans, Jason Holleman, and several Democratic state lawmakers.
Then there was Jameson’s backing from Nashville attorneys. A poll of Nashville Bar Association members found 49 percent of respondents “highly recommended” Jameson for the job, far better than the 7 percent who did the same for Bell. In fact, Bell had the highest negatives in the poll: One out of five participants went so far as to not recommend her to the General Sessions post.
An elated Bell from her victory party last week turned to a Christian expression: “But God!” she said. “That’s all I would like to say. If you put that in the paper, that will be enough for me.”
In an interview the following day, Bell, a diabetic, lifelong Nashvillian and former college basketball player, hinted at some keys to her win: Hustle, combined with a willingness to stump at any event anywhere; and a capable campaign machine that many underestimated.
“The community stood behind me,” Bell said. “I had a great staff and campaign team, and a great group of volunteers, family, friends and clients.”
Though Bell, whose slogan was “Ring the Bell for Justice,” described supporters from “every part of town,” she seemed to focus her get-out-the-vote effort in the historically black neighborhoods of North Nashville and Bordeaux, her home base. A partner at Bell & Kinslow who works on civil and criminal cases, Bell is positioned to be just the second black judge of 11 Davidson County General Sessions judges currently on the bench. She’s favored to win the general election in August.
“I know that we mobilized and worked really hard in our base,” Bell said. “I wanted us to be successful, but if we weren’t successful, I still wanted to make sure my neighborhood, my home town, came out and voted for me.
“Some people said I needed to do it backwards, go to other parts of the city, and then back home,” she said. “I said, ‘No, I’ve got to start at home. We’ve got to start at home first.’ ”
On his loss, Jameson didn’t express any regrets and tipped his cap to his counterpart: “I think she ran an excellent campaign. She’s to be commended for that.”
Working for the Bell team was Ellery Gould, a Hillsboro High School friend of Bell’s who today works as a Democratic political consultant. Gould agreed to work for his old friend as an in-kind contribution. It was his first Nashville race in years. “I’ve never seen a harder working candidate,” he told The City Paper.
“She might not have ultimately had the same amount of resources as Jameson, but she used them effectively,” Gould said.
“When you are faced with limited resources, you have to really spend that money smart, and so it was really a matter of judicious targeting,” he added.
While Jameson turned to Nashville-based Democratic consulting media firm Fletcher Rowley Inc. to go on television, Bell relied on some basics. She passed out business cards to seemingly everyone she met. She bought advertising on MTA buses and in print publications. Robo-calls and mailed ads — which Jameson also used — hit targeted audiences. Bell’s visibility was unmatched by any other candidate this election cycle.
“She made herself available,” said Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr., a Bell supporter. “She really presented herself and was visible at a lot of events in the community. A lot of people didn’t know who she was, so she really relied on presenting herself and trying to introduce herself to people face to face.
“It paid off in the long run,” he said.
Jameson’s decision to pay for television ads will be questioned. As it turned out, the two judicial candidates to go on TV — the other was Circuit Court judge candidate Stan Kweller — both lost.
Tipping them to air the ad, however, could have been the breakdown of early voting demographics, discovered before Election Day. According to their internal numbers, based on individual voting files, black turnout in early voting was up 10 percent from the Democratic primary four years ago.
For them, that confirmed a fear. A Super Tuesday that featured a competitive Republican presidential primary had attracted some Jameson supporters. (A voter wasn’t allowed to vote in both primaries.) The “perfect storm” that Maynard described seemed to be brewing.
“Rachel deserves all the credit for winning,” said attorney David Briley, a former councilman who supported Jameson. “She ran a good race. In a low turnout election like that, there are a lot of factors that come into play that can push the outcome one way or another. She’s the beneficiary of that, and I think Mike suffered as a result of the shift in turnout.”
The Bell-Jameson race could force some in the local political class to rethink some assumptions. Perhaps district council members like Jameson don’t have the name recognition countywide that those in the tiny universe of Metro government think they do. And perhaps endorsements from local politicians aren’t that influential at the polls.
Neither of those advantages carried the day for Jameson. Bell countered both with hard work and a positive attitude.
“I went everywhere I could, and I spoke to everybody and had a personal conversation with each person I shook hands with,” she said
Throughout it all was one theme: “I always told the team from the very beginning that this would be a very spiritual race and that we were going to stay grounded and have faith.”