One of the most competitive state House races in Nashville this election cycle is a clash between current Metro Council members, a contest Republicans hope proves that growing negativity toward Democrats on the national level has trickled down to state and local races.
When the dust settled after August’s primary election, voters in state House District 60 — which includes an electoral swath stretching from Antioch to Hermitage — were left with a race between Republican Jim Gotto, uncontested in his primary, and Democrat Sam Coleman, who staved off a handful of challengers to win his party’s nomination. The district is one of the few open House seats in the state, with Democratic state Rep. Ben West Jr. opting not to seek re-election after a 26-year run. Election Day is Nov. 2 and early voting begins Oct. 13.
On one hand, the Coleman-Gotto face-off is intriguing purely for the candidates themselves: two council members who were both first elected in 2003. It’s a unique scenario that allows voters to compare the candidates’ voting records, issue by issue. Gotto represents the Donelson-Hermitage part of the district, while Coleman’s base is in Antioch. Both have played it nice on the campaign trail thus far, calling each other friends and refraining from personal attacks.
More broadly, state parties are watching the race for other reasons. Democrats hope to defeat a few freshmen incumbent Republicans to move the party tilt in the House back their way, a balance that currently reflects a 51-48 Republican majority. For that scenario to play out, holding onto the House District 60 seat is probably a prerequisite.
Meanwhile, Republicans nationwide are giddy about their party’s Election Day outlook, with numerous polls suggesting the GOP is in for big gains, in part because of declining job approval ratings for President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress. In Tennessee, Republicans hope to capitalize on those sentiments and build on their House majority. They believe picking up the seat held by West — known for his moderate stances — is within their reach.
“There’s no doubt that the national climate is going to benefit our candidates this year, all the way from our gubernatorial candidate to our congressional candidates to our state legislative ones,” Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said. “People are very unhappy with the direction of the country, and this will be their first real opportunity to let their voices be heard.”
Asked if he believes those sentiments could play out in the Coleman-Gotto race, Devaney said he does.
“I don’t know if it’s a bellwether necessarily,” Devaney said. “This is not a slam-dunk kind of race. It’s certainly going to be a tough race, but Gotto is the kind of candidate that can win.”
Though Republicans sense the seat could be vulnerable, the area has voted solidly Democratic in the past. In 2008, voters in the district went for Obama 55-45 percent. Benefiting from his strong surname in Nashville and personal popularity over the years, West claims he never brought in less than 64 percent of the vote.
“We have an extremely strong candidate in Councilman Sam Coleman,” Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Chip Forrester said. “We’re going to deploy all the necessary resources to ensure that that Democratic seat remains in the Democratic column.”
Forrester rejects the idea that national mood could swing the District 60 House seat to the Republicans.
“If you’re looking at a marginal Democratic seat, I would agree that it could be more competitive,” he said. “But the strong Democratic performance, historical Democratic performance, it will make it extremely difficult for Republicans to win the seat.”
But Gotto, one of few unabashed conservatives on the council who is known for his straightforward, no-nonsense approach, seems at least encouraged by the national trends. “I certainly don’t think it hurts my chances,” he said. “I’ll put it that way.”
Coleman, one of nine African-American council members, indicated the national disposition could play some role.
“No doubt about it,” he said. “It will have some effect on Democratic candidates across the country, and no doubt it will have some effect on Democratic candidates right here in Tennessee. But I think it’s incumbent upon each individual candidate to allow the voters to know how they will work effectively for them.”
Differences on council
While the candidates have kept it clean leading up to the election, party leaders have derided opponents as extreme to the right or left. Forrester called Gotto “an extreme right-wing candidate” whose “political and social values don’t mirror the district’s values at all.” Devaney characterized Coleman as “one of the most liberal members of the Metro Council” who “has never met a tax increase in his life that he didn’t like.”
Over the past year, Coleman and Gotto have differed on some key votes. When it came to financing Nashville’s new $585 million Music City Center, Coleman approved Mayor Karl Dean’s plan. Gotto voted against it. There was also a vote in June to adopt a new “living wage” for Metro workers that would have increased the minimum wage; Coleman signed off on it and Gotto opposed. Both voted against a bill to make it unlawful to discriminate against Metro workers based on sexual orientation or gender identity, with Coleman pushing a related bill to end work discrimination for any “non-merit-based” reason.
Coleman and Gotto also share the distinction of sponsoring recent memorable legislation that stalled.
Last winter, Coleman pushed a bill that would have exempted a handful of rural parks from Metro’s ban on guns. The bill, deferred indefinitely, came in response to a previous Metro decision to opt out of a new state law allowing handgun-carry permit holders to possess guns in parks. More recently, Gotto sponsored a memorializing resolution to express Metro’s support for the Tennessee Healthcare Freedom Act, an attempt by Republican state lawmakers to nullify the Democrats’ health care reform law. It was defeated overwhelmingly, with some colleagues calling it an “inappropriate” issue for the council to weigh in on.
During his stint on the council, Coleman said, he has tried to engage constituents in his decision-making processes, particularly on issues that “affect their pocketbooks.” As a state representative, he called “economic development, jobs and growth” his top priorities. He also said it’s important to have programs that can assist veterans when they return from war.
Gotto, a self-described fiscal conservative on the council, said he’s always tried to be “very conscious of the burden that the taxpayers have.” When it comes to zoning issues, which occupy most council members’ time, Gotto said he’s always sought to use a “commonsense approach” and to reach a consensus. He said “putting people back to work” and improving education top his legislative to-do list.
West and Coleman
West is keeping a particularly close eye on the District 60 race. He raised some concern among Democrats when he crossed party lines to endorse tea-party Republican CeCe Heil, who was defeated in her party’s primary to elect a challenger to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper. Though he often says kind things about Gotto, West came home to his Democratic roots for his own district, endorsing Coleman as the candidate to succeed him.
Nonetheless, West hasn’t shied away from his belief that growing negativity surrounding Democrats in Washington could filter into local races, including his own district.
“What’s happening in Washington is bleeding down across the state of Tennessee to the local districts in the legislature, Senate and House,” West said. “That’s what I hear from people in Donelson, Hermitage and Antioch.
“I’ve had them tell me, ‘Ben, I’ve been voting Democrat all my life, but I can’t do it anymore,’ ” he added.
West said it’s something Coleman must overcome. He said Coleman must remind voters about what’s he’s done in the council to pull disenchanted Democrats back over.
“I don’t know,” West said when asked if the seat could turn Republican. “I think it’s pretty well even as it relates to the votes.”