Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, he of English-only fame and other dubiously demagogic acts, never came up during 28 minutes of deliberation by the Davidson County Election Commission over who might become the new elections administrator. Nor did Tennessee State Fair Executive Director Buck Dozier.
In fact, the commission ignored the most divisive and partisan of the seven finalists for the job before deciding, unanimously, on mild-mannered Albert Tieche.
When Elections Administrator Ray Barrett announced over the summer that he planned to step down from the job he has held since 2004, buzz in Nashville’s political circles centered on what they saw as conventional wisdom: The Republican-majority five-member commission would install someone with a GOP brand and identifiable name. After all, this would be the first time that a commission with a Republican tilt would have a say about the leader of Nashville’s elections. Wouldn’t they — Republican commissioners Lynn Greer, Patricia Heim and Steve Abernathy — want to make a statement?
In September, applications for the job poured in. Fifty-five of them. Among the names was Dozier, a former at-large councilman and mayoral candidate, known as a social conservative, though his political party identification is somewhat unclear. More interestingly, Crafton threw his hat in the ring. A Bellevue council member, Crafton is most remembered for his failed initiative that sought to make English the official language of Metro government. Earlier this year, Crafton eyed the Davidson County Juvenile Court Clerk’s Office, running as a Republican in a contest that traditionally isn’t a partisan race. He lost to Democrat David Smith.
The original group of 55 was winnowed to seven. Crafton and Dozier were still there.
In his interview with the commission, Crafton said he doesn’t consider himself a politician. That certainly was news to Democrats, who still haven’t forgiven him for landing Nashville in
The New York Times, among other national media outlets, for the embarrassing English-only crusade.
Hiring Crafton the same week that Republicans handed Democrats historic losses —nationally, but even more so in Tennessee — would have seemed like a fitting topper to a glorious week for the GOP. It would have irritated local Democrats.
In the end, though, it didn’t happen. It wasn’t even an option.
Instead of selecting the lighting rod Crafton, the commission last Wednesday opted to hire the 55-year-old Tieche, a no-name to most who works at the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services.
In doing so, commissioners resisted pressure by Republican observers to install a local political heavyweight and instead went for the candidate who has the most experience with elections and whom they know best.
Tieche, whose hire is still contingent on a background check, has worked as an election poll officer since 2003 and has trained others in the field. Throughout the interview process, commissioners expressed a certain comfort level and familiarity with Tieche as someone who knew the ropes. Chair Greer, a
Republican, went so far as to praise Tieche’s “moral character” and “personal demeanor.”
“I don’t know how we could do much better,” Greer said. “I thought Albert Tieche clearly had the best overall background and credentials. He had the most experience in the election process.”
Tieche also had the advantage of knowing several election commission staff workers, and he seemed to have won them over. He came off as a natural for the job — the guy has even drafted and copyrighted a manual to help poll workers know their tasks and responsibilities on Election Day.
“We always like to hire and work with people we already know,” Greer said after the meeting. “I bet a half a dozen employees walked up to me and said, ‘We really want Albert in here.’ ”
After Abernathy made the motion to hire Tieche, a few commissioners spoke up to praise other candidates. But the two who were mentioned were Lisa Powers and Tom Cunningham, not Crafton or Dozier.
One commissioner, speaking to The City Paper, later pointed out the obvious if Crafton were hired: What would happen the next time a hiccup occurred during voting, almost an inevitability during Election Day madness? All fingers, especially from Democrats, would be pointed at Crafton, fair or not.
“Mr. Crafton was interviewed,” Greer said when asked whether commissioners seriously considered him. “I did not hear anybody make a comment on him during the meeting. I don’t know what everybody’s thoughts were.”
Following the unanimous vote, Democratic Commissioner A.J. Starling dismissed the idea that Crafton’s past stances hurt his candidacy.
“I think in the final results, he wasn’t disqualified because of his views on the political side,” Starling said. “It was just that Albert was the best choice.”
First election will be contentious
The elections chief is usually a pretty thankless job. It’s one of those behind-the-scenes positions that typically generates attention only amid controversy.
“It may be one of those cases that if you want it, there must be something wrong with you,” Tieche joked. “But no, I have a lot of experience. I started training Election Day poll workers in ’03. From ’03 to ’08, I trained almost all the Election Day poll workers. That entailed me learning this book,” he said as he pulled out a clean, updated version of Tennessee Election Laws.
“I know the Election Day procedures pretty thoroughly,” he concluded.
Tieche is set to begin the job by shadowing Barrett for a half-day each week before taking the reins during the holiday season. The job will initially earn Tieche between $82,500 and $85,000 a year, but that could bump to about $100,000 if he clears a certification test in the spring.
During his six years as Nashville’s elections chief, Barrett has received high marks from Republicans and Democrats alike. He’s seen as fair, partly because he doesn’t wear a partisan badge on his sleeve. Most say he’s a Republican, but they’re not entirely confident.
Tieche certainly doesn’t have a mandate for change.
“Incremental improvement,” he said when asked about his objectives. “Ray has done a nice job.”
One change could be the incorporation of Tieche’s Election Day manual, which he said he drafted after discovering that training of poll workers was insufficient. He describes the manual as a “training curriculum based on what the actual jobs are.” He said he plans to talk to election staffers to see whether they’re pleased with the current guide.
“We call it a manual, but it’s basically a compilation of PowerPoint slides so that people can take notes as they look at each slide,” Tieche said. “People, adults in particular, you can’t just tell them what to do, you have to tell them why they’re doing it. Why is this important?”
Tieche’s first election should be a doozy.
On March 15, citizens of Lakewood, one of Davidson County’s satellite cities, will go to the polls to once again decide whether to relinquish Lakewood’s city charter and incorporate into Metro government. In August, Lakewood citizens decided by a 400-399 vote to join Metro. But claims of voter fraud and irregularities produced lawsuits, and a new election has been set. All eyes this go around will be watching to ensure voting goes smoothly.