Consider yourself an outlier — or just someone who believes in the democratic process — if voting crosses your radar during this year’s local elections.
As expected of a Metro general election without a competitive mayor’s race, turnout during early voting was lackluster at best. Some 2,000 registered voters showed up each day at the polls during the early stage, setting up a scenario in which an overall turnout of 55,000 seems likely. More than 100,000 people took part in Metro’s election four years ago, when five high-profile candidates vied for the city’s top job. Davidson County currently boasts 285,000 active registered voters.
“There’s no big mayor’s race driving the ticket,” Albert Tieche, Davidson County’s election administrator, told The City Paper, explaining the low turnout.
Indeed, the dominating force in this year’s election is not Dean’s inevitable victory over three no-name opponents. Instead, taking center stage — though not necessarily boosting turnout — is a proposed Metro Charter amendment that would make it more difficult for city government to change the status quo at the 117-acre Tennessee State Fairgrounds. The referendum follows a year in which the mayor’s plans to redevelop the property for an unidentified corporate campus were roundly criticized and eventually stymied.
Leading up to this week’s vote, several Metro Council incumbents have opted not to tout their records of support for Tennessee’s most expensive municipal project ever, the $585 million Music City Center. Rather, the message of preserving the fairgrounds has permeated the campaigns of numerous candidates — mostly challengers — across the county.
“I think of all the issues out there — and I’ve got it in my television ad — the general public is still more enthralled with the fairgrounds issue than they are with the convention center,” At-large Councilman Tim Garrett said.
Of course, Election Day is just round one. If any of the district races fails to produce a winner (a candidate who receives 50 percent plus 1 of the total vote), then the two leading contenders will face off in a Sept. 15 runoff. At-large candidates, meanwhile, must garner at least 10 percent of the aggregate number of votes cast for that office to prevail on Election Day. More than likely, several at-large candidates will also be subject to the runoff.
When all is spoken for, Nashville could be looking at a dramatically different 40-member council. Thirteen members are term-limited, and two others have opted against re-election. Five incumbents and two outsiders are running unopposed.
While the thrum of election season will continue through mid-September, some important questions will find their answers in the coming days.
Will fairgrounds preservationists prevail in the referendum, and how will yes votes compare with Dean’s re-election votes?
Throughout the roller-coaster ride that was Dean’s pursuit of a redeveloped fairgrounds, one consistent message came from the mayor’s office: Fairgrounds preservationists were a loud but small minority.
That will be tested Thursday. Dean, who figures to lose politically if the amendment passes, has not campaigned against it. The mayor has said it’s the “people’s right” to amend the charter, though it’s not something he recommends. Dean has also pointed out that altering the charter this way would merely increase the threshold of council votes required to pursue redevelopment. The mayor would need 27 council votes (instead of the current simple majority of 21) to reach that goal if the amendment passes.
Most political odds-makers are forecasting a victory for fairgrounds backers. But such prognostications can be wrong — many predicted a victory for the English-only charter amendment during Metro’s controversial special public referendum in 2009, for example.
Metro Councilman Jamie Hollin, who heads the group Save My Fairgrounds, which led a successful petition drive to get the referendum on the ballot, surveyed various polling locations during early voting. The outgoing East Nashville councilman called the fairgrounds issue “the driving force” in getting people to cast a ballot.
Hollin is confident many who vote for Dean would also vote for the amendment.
“The voters of the fairgrounds cut across all political spectrums — young, old, progressive, conservative,” he said. “It’s an icon in our city. Before there’s going to be change, there should be a public process.”
Will Dean’s politicking in council district races backfire?
While Dean’s re-election victory is a sure thing, it’s unclear how his clout will emerge after Election Day. If the fairgrounds amendment passes, of course, some of Dean’s critics are likely to hold it up as a political trophy.
But the mayor has gotten involved in district council races, putting his name and face on three campaign mailers to help challengers. Like many of his most prominent allies (as well as former Gov. Phil Bredesen), Dean is supporting attorney Sarah Lodge Tally in her bid to unseat District 24 Sylvan Park-area Councilman Jason Holleman. The incumbent voted against financing for the Music City Center and questioned the mayor’s handling of the fairgrounds.
With help from her high-profile backers, Tally raised more than $50,000 in the short time prior to the most recent June 30 financial reporting deadline. Dean and his allies’ public backing has been so overt that Holleman responded with a YouTube video in which he touted the support of his friends, neighbors and family.
“You’ve heard a lot about who’s backing my opponent in this election,” Holleman says in the video. “So I want to take just a second to talk about who’s supporting me.”
The mayor also dipped into his own campaign funds to help Antioch-area candidates Tanaka Vercher and Page Turner, who are challenging District 28 Councilman Duane Dominy and District 33 Councilman Robert Duvall, respectively. Dominy and Duvall are two of Dean’s most outspoken critics, especially when it comes to the mayor’s position on the fairgrounds.
It’s not a stretch to think Dean could come out of Election Day on the losing end of the fairgrounds referendum, as well as the three district races he’s targeted. Would Holleman, Dominy and Duvall be strengthened as a result? Would Dean look politically weak?
“How that impacts the relationship between the mayor and I ultimately is going to be up to how the mayor chooses to deal with it,” Dominy said when asked about a potential victory in his council race.
Councilwoman Emily Evans, running unopposed in her Belle Meade-area district, said, “There’s nothing wrong with mayors expressing a preference,” adding, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen this level of involvement — ever.”
Evans said she sees little upside in the mayor’s politicking.
“The council is not the mayor’s Cabinet,” she said. “We’re an independent body. We’re there to balance his power. The downside of him getting involved is that if he succeeds, the city doesn’t have the checks and balances that the charter envisions. [And] the downside if he loses is, he has a council that is automatically — without even discussing the first issue or policy initiative — against him.”
Will a challenger break into the council’s field of five for the first time?
Renard Francois has been doing all the right things in his bid to join the council’s group of five countywide at-large representatives.
The former Bass, Berry & Sims attorney has held fundraisers hosted by big-ticket businessmen such as Bill Freeman and Mike McWherter. He’s released a television commercial, a series of Web videos on education, growth and development, and made the rounds at forums and other events across the county.
But Francois and the others face a well-known systemic hurdle: Never in the history of Metro government has an incumbent at-large member lost re-election. This year, all five at-large members — Megan Barry, Tim Garrett, Jerry Maynard, Ronnie Steine and Charlie Tygard — are seeking a second term. At-large winners tend to enjoy countywide name recognition and fundraising prowess.
“In the beginning of the campaign, it was viewed more as a barrier,” Francois said of the historic force he must overcome. “Now, as we’re coming closer and closer to Election Day, it’s actually being mentioned by others in terms of, ‘You have the ability to make history.’ Now it’s kind of that positive thing that’s urging us on.”
Francois is just one challenger who seems capable of knocking off an incumbent. Others include term-limited district Councilman Eric Crafton and Joelton businessman Ken Jakes. Both men could capitalize if turnout spikes for the fairgrounds referendum. There’s also term-limited Antioch-area council members Sam Coleman and Vivian Wilhoite, both of whom enjoy name recognition.
What role low voter turnout will play in the at-large race is something of a wild card. Political observers across the board are calling Maynard the most vulnerable of the crop, principally because he received the fewest votes four years ago. Still, Maynard — with Dean’s help — racked up an impressive $64,691 in fundraising during the last financial quarter. He said he plans to use the money for an aggressive mail campaign.
Maynard said he doesn’t believe he’s vulnerable, pointing out that he didn’t finish too far behind the third- and fourth-place finishers in 2007.
Can council conservatives hold their ground in district races?
Fixing potholes and settling zoning issues, the saying goes, have little to do with partisan labels. Yet several races this year have a clear left-versus-right dynamic.
Trying to promote a conservative voice in a legislative body that runs center-left, the Davidson County Republican Party has engaged in district council races more this summer than in the past. The party’s involvement follows a year when the council approved a few liberal-minded pieces of legislation, including a nondiscrimination bill — later nullified by the GOP-dominated state legislature — that directed Metro contractors to provide employment protections for gay, lesbian and transgender workers.
“In the past, it’s been mostly the Democrats who have run it because Davidson County is blue,” Davidson County GOP chair Kathleen Starnes said of the council. “But we’re obviously in a big mess at this point. Instead of people that are rubber stamps, we need people to ask the hard questions.”
Most notably, some high-profile Republicans — such as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and various state senators — have assisted in fundraising efforts for some from the council’s handful of conservative council members. Those include District 8 incumbent Karen Bennett, who’s hoping to fend off progressive candidate Nancy VanReece and challenger Nina Ground.
In addition, Antioch incumbents Dominy and Duvall have benefited from Republican fundraising in their bids to stave off their progressive challengers.
“Davidson County is nonpartisan, and I think it should stay nonpartisan,” Bennett said, downplaying the party’s backing. “We need to focus on the issues and what we can do for the community.”
In a countermove, some Nashville progressives have rallied behind VanReece, Vercher and Turner. Meanwhile, Dean — a self-described progressive — has added his helping hand to Vercher and Turner.
Local Republican leaders have also helped District 30 Councilman Jim Hodge’s re-election campaign; District 35 candidate Tanya Jones, who’s trying to dethrone incumbent Bo Mitchell, whom she claims is “in the pocket” of labor unions; District 4 candidate Dave Patterson; District 13 candidate Josh Stites; and at-large candidates Crafton and Jakes.
“We know we can’t get them all, but if we can keep the ones we have and pick up three or four, we’d be thrilled,” Starnes said. “We all assumed it was going to be a nonpartisan race, but the mayor made it partisan.”
Perhaps sensing an attainable victory against Dean, the Davidson County GOP has also organized pro-fairgrounds efforts, issuing a list of council candidates who the party says align with this goal. If the fairgrounds amendment passes, stay tuned for a triumphant Davidson County GOP press release to follow.
Can women increase their representation on the council?
Since its inception, the Metro Council –– like many legislative bodies throughout the country –– has looked like a boys’ club, with men far outnumbering women. Today, nine women serve on the council, a figure that seems high compared with 30 years ago.
This year’s crop of council candidates features 30 women out of the more than 100 hopefuls. A few female candidates are in strong positions to win.
“It’s not the main reason why I’m running,” said Davette Blalock, competing for the council’s District 27 (Nippers Corner-area) seat against Greg Dooley and Michael Leftwich. “But we definitely need equal representation. More women on the council definitely brings different views.”
Of the current slate of female members, Councilwoman Wilhoite is term-limited, while Kristine LaLonde is not running for re-election. Wilhoite is running for council at-large.
District 8 Councilwoman Karen Bennett, running for re-election in her redistricted Madison/Inglewood-area seat, is in a heated race. But if she were to lose, she’d be replaced by a woman — either Nancy VanReece or Nina Ground.
Waging a strong campaign to replace LaLonde in the politically progressive Belmont-Hillsboro District 18 is Burkley Allen, who has dipped into her campaign warchest to air a television commercial, a rare move in a district race. Her opponent is David Glasgow, who came in third place in the district’s special election two years ago.
Squaring off in Bellevue’s District 22, a seat currently held by the outgoing Crafton, are Seanna Brandmeir and Sheri Weiner. Also in Bellevue, former Metro Planning Commissioner Tonya Jones is putting up a spirited campaign in a race against incumbent Bo Mitchell.
West Nashville’s District 20 Councilman Buddy Baker, meanwhile, is embroiled in another of the season’s most-heated races, with one of his two challengers, Mary Carolyn Roberts, demonstrating a strong showing.
Of course, bolstering the number of women on the council means those seeking a second term need to hold serve. That could be a challenge, with District 17 Councilwoman Sandra Moore facing fierce opposition from three opponents: Ken Bogman, Jerry Graves and Lisa Leeds. Over the past year, Moore has been caught in the middle of the much-disputed future of the fairgrounds. Moore, whose district includes the property, has sided with the mayor on the issue, much to the consternation of some neighbors.
Like Moore, District 16 Councilwoman Anna Page has also dealt with a bit of scrutiny over her fairgrounds stance in her race against Tony Tenpenny. Though Page’s Woodbine-area district doesn’t include the fairgrounds, the property is nearby.
Meanwhile, across the river in East Nashville, former Councilwoman Pam Murray is looking to reclaim her District 5 seat two years after being removed via a memorable recall election. And in Bellevue, the District 22 Mitchell-Jones bout has gone off the Richter Scale in terms of nastiness.
Winners, losers and answers begin arriving Thursday night. Tune in.