A guide to next week's elections, from school board races to Supreme Court justices 

50 Ways to Love Your Lever

50 Ways to Love Your Lever

When the polls open on Aug. 7 next week, after two weeks of early voting for state primary and county general elections, it will be the last chance for Nashville voters to answer a few questions. 

In state House District 51 and state Senate District 21, Democratic voters will decide who replaces a longtime representative and a legendary senator respectively. In House District 55 and Senate District 19, they'll decide if they want to replace two longtime legislators at all. Ditto the U.S. Senate primary, where Republicans will be offered the chance to retire the state's former governor and senior senator, Lamar Alexander.

In four school board races, the questions are many. With the city in a pivotal moment for education, the hiring of a new director of schools looming, and a new mayoral administration coming next year, the makeup of the board could have serious implications for how Metro schools withstand Nashville's rapid growth — not to mention how the city navigates the ongoing debate around charter schools, among other ever-present challenges. 

Playing catch-up about all those yard signs? Here's the lowdown:    

Governor: Bill Haslam (Incumbent)

Gov. Bill Haslam is so assured of his re-election that his own campaign ad ends by simply urging Tennesseans to vote, without really specifying for whom.

"Whatever you do, vote," Haslam says. "Vote for those who will keep Tennessee moving forward."

When it comes to his race, Haslam needn't worry how voters interpret that statement. No viable Democrat stepped up to bother Haslam from his left, nor has a tea party challenger emerged carping from his right. His most visible adversary has been Coonrippy Brown, a man whose campaign is fueled by righteous anger over an adopted raccoon taken from him by Tennessee wildlife agents. While Brown's grassroots bona fides are beyond question, he doesn't seem likely to pose a threat at the ballot box, unless he develops dexterous front paws.

The reasons for Haslam's skate this season are simple. Haslam is widely popular. And as Democrats are known to quip darkly, he has more money than God.

Still, his stroll to re-election is unfortunate for Tennesseans. His administration, like most, prefers not to answer direct questions from the press. And whatever you think of him, the lack of competition in the primary or general election means Haslam isn't getting pressed by an opponent on Medicaid, education policy, the state's upcoming executions, or same-sex marriage.

Supreme Court: Cornelia Clark, Sharon Lee, Gary Wade

The election with the most impact this year will feature the state's Supreme Court justices. Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee are up for retention elections, giving voters a choice to keep the justices or push them off the bench.

Voting on these names at the bottom of the ballot is typically an afterthought. But ultra-conservative Republicans, led by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, are casting the three justices as liberals who are soft on crime and bad for business. Other conservative groups who want the justices out are also weighing in, contributing money and buying ads to sound the war drums.

Justice at Stake, a national watchdog group, estimates that as much as a half-million dollars has been spent on this race so far. That also includes money favoring the justices. The three have hit the campaign trail, ordering mailing lists of likely Democratic voters and raising money (largely from lawyers). Voters will vote on each justice individually.

U.S. Senate: Republicans Lamar Alexander (I), Joe Carr; Democrats Terry Adams, Gordon Ball

Sen. Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor running for a third term in the U.S. Senate, started taking the Republican primary seriously well before House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's shocking defeat to a tea party challenger and Sen. Thad Cochran's close call with another.

In December 2012, Alexander rolled out the list of co-chairs for his re-election campaign, a group that included every powerful Republican in the state. Since then he has made sure that his campaign coffers runneth over.

His challenger, state Rep. Joe Carr, has appeared to gain some momentum of late, with support from tea party groups and endorsements from the likes of conservative radio talker Laura Ingraham. Carr has criticized Alexander for giving in to Obama's America, calling out his support of so-called comprehensive immigration reform and claiming the senior senator is too comfortable compromising with Democrats.

Speaking to The Washington Post recently, Alexander described the fight within the GOP as one "between conservatives who think their job is finished when they make a speech and conservatives who want to govern."

There are Democrats running too. Terry Adams, a Knoxville attorney and Navy veteran, has built a campaign that Democrats are not ashamed of — a big step up from the Mark Clayton debacle of 2012. He'll have to fend off Gordon Ball, another Knoxville attorney, for the nomination.

click to enlarge State Senate Districts - INFORAMTION VIA CAPITOL.TN.GOV
  • Inforamtion via capitol.tn.gov
  • State Senate Districts

Senate District 19: Brandon Puttbrese, Thelma Harper (I)

After more than 20 years in the state Senate, Sen. Thelma Harper might be facing her first real challenge.

The incumbent has easily dispensed with past challenges, and although her seat — and indeed her exit — has been privately desired in some Democratic circles for years, her seniority has left most to quietly wait for her to retire. But this time around, former Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese wants to hand the longtime legislator her hat.

He's said Democrats need stronger voices in the legislature, particularly in the Senate, where their caucus could meet in a cubicle. Harper has subtly countered that (ahem) perhaps those who have spent the past few years working for the state party are to blame for those circumstances.

The dynamic is one more often seen on the Republican side of electoral politics in recent years. The incumbent is calling upon her deep roots in the district, where she has loyal supporters. The challenger suggests her tenure has outlasted her effectiveness.

Senate District 21: Mary Mancini, Jeff Yarbro

Jeff Yarbro and Mary Mancini aren't talking about each other. But listen to the way they talk about themselves, and it works just the same.

Yarbro, an attorney who nearly defeated Sen. Doug Henry in the 2010 primary, says now is not the time for Democrats to simply rile up the base in opposition to the Republican majority. Democrats, he says, have to identify the people they can work with in the legislature and form coalitions to "change what's actually happening on the ground."

Mancini, best known for her years as an activist and organizer, says she'd be perfectly willing to do that, but she expresses skepticism that many Republicans would willingly join such a coalition. When it comes to Medicaid, Yarbro is optimistic that some form of expansion can be accomplished. Mancini is not, and says the only way to change the dynamic of that debate is to get the people involved.

Take your pick, Democrats. The winner is practically assured of general election victory in a district drawn to grab as many left-leaning neighborhoods and coffee shops as possible.  

click to enlarge State House Districts - INFORAMTION VIA CAPITOL.TN.GOV
  • Inforamtion via capitol.tn.gov
  • State House Districts

House District 51: Bill Beck, Jennifer Buck Wallace, Stephen Fotopulos

Three Democrats are seeking to fill the void left by Rep. Mike Turner's retirement. And it is indeed a void.

Turner was an undeniable presence at the state legislature — vocally, physically, and politically. With state Democrats at their all-time-low, the burly firefighter could be counted on to go after the Republican majority on the House floor and stride down the hallways of the legislature handing out quotes to reporters by the dozen.

Now Jennifer Buck Wallace, Bill Beck, and Stephen Fotopulos are vying to replace him in a blue district that, after redistricting, includes downtown and parts of North Nashville.

Wallace, the former executive director of the Tennessee Democratic Party, has collected endorsements from elected Democrats. She cites her perspective as a woman — a fairly unique one, given the current makeup of the state House — and her experience in politics. Beck, an attorney with deep roots east of the river, is selling a less partisan approach, arguing that to be effective in the current environment, Democrats have to seek out Republicans they can work with. The former executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Fotopulos brings the advocate's perspective and touts his years of connecting "grassroots communities to power."

Although there are Republicans running on the other side, the makeup of the district all but guarantees the Democratic primary will serve as the general election.

House District 55: John Ray Clemmons, Gary Odom (I)  

In what has become a dirty little race, Nashville attorney John Ray Clemmons is trying to dislodge 28-year legislator Gary Odom from his House seat. Both candidates have gone negative here, filling up voters' mailboxes with hit pieces on the other.

While the two generally agree on most policy issues, they disagree on The Amp. Odom is on record voting for the bill that effectively flattened the tires on the bus rapid transit project, although it was a compromise measure OK'd by the mayor's office. Clemmons argues the state shouldn't have gotten involved in the first place, and has said he'd support any mass transit plan the mayor's office finds worthy of taxpayer dollars. Odom is more skeptical and would want to see a plan first. Opponents of The Amp expect the project will seek funding next year, setting up another legislative showdown.

Clemmons has also taken aim at Odom's job as executive director of the Tennessee Association of Optometric Physicians, accusing Odom of doubling as a lobbyist and funneling money to tea party candidates. Odom, who is not a lobbyist, says he has nothing to do with how campaign funds are passed out.

click to enlarge School Board Districts - INFORAMTION VIA CAPITOL.TN.GOV
  • Inforamtion via capitol.tn.gov
  • School Board Districts

School Board District 2: Edward Arnold, Jo Ann Brannon (I), Bernie Driscoll

Jo Ann Brannon, a retired teacher and school principal who's maintained a quiet eight-year presence on the school board, is running for re-election. She's a fan of the school district's leadership (although she wants more support for English language learners) but avoids making waves.

Bernie Driscoll is looking to trouble the waters. An IT consultant for Lexmark, Driscoll is a newcomer to school board elections and is running on a message that the district needs more rigor. He points to low graduation rates and pressure on teachers to pass students who aren't ready to advance. Driscoll enjoys support from some who want to see more charter schools, but not all.

A third name on the ballot belongs to Edward Arnold, who works in IT for the state. He says the biggest hurdle is to get parents more involved in their children's education, although his presence in the race has been minimal.

School Board District 4: Rhonda Dixon, Anna Shepherd (I), Pam Swoner

This is a three-woman race, with two active challengers taking on the incumbent. Rhonda Dixon, who tests software for Hospital Corporation of America, is a cheerleader for charter schools after sending her academically struggling granddaughter to one. Dixon's message is driven largely by inequities among the district's schools and a support for school choice. She too is backed by the charter community.

A second challenger, Pam Swooner, is a small-business owner and master gardener who works with children. The district is losing good teachers, spending too much time and money on student testing and losing families who cross the county line to send their children elsewhere, she says.

Both women are looking to unseat Anna Shepherd, a payroll manager and one-term school board member. Shepherd firmly supports the district's direction, particularly related to improvements at McGavock High School. She is VP of the school board and has said she'd support a charter school in the McGavock cluster if it can pass muster with the district.

School Board District 6: Tyese Hunter, Cheryl Mayes (I)

School board chair Mayes is facing a challenger backed by Nashville's charter community. The clinical supervisor of speech pathology at Tennessee State University, Hunter has two children in traditional public schools and one in a charter school. Running on a "no excuses" platform, she's attracted support from charter backers throughout the city.

She's hoping to take out the one-term incumbent, who is finishing a two-year tour of duty as school board chairwoman. As head of the board, she's found herself immersed in friction between members of the board and district management. Mayes, like the other incumbents, is a strong supporter of Director of Schools Jesse Register and favors keeping him around after his contract expires next year. While she has approved multiple charter schools, she's said the district's future ability to do so will depend on the district's long-term ability to pay — a sticky conversation the school board has yet to resolve.

School Board District 8: Mary Pierce, Becky Sharpe

Welcome to the hottest school board race in Nashville. This contest is over an open seat, throwing the advantages of incumbency out the window. The two candidates don't differ all that much, except when it comes to where they send their own children to school.

Mary Pierce, mother of four, sends two children to traditional MNPS schools, another one to a private institution and a fourth to a charter school. She says it gives her a valuable perspective, given that many Nashville families struggle with whether to keep their children in public schools or seek out private ones. She's heavily supported by charter advocates and those who want to see more of the publicly funded, privately run schools.

Becky Sharpe, a mother of three children who have all been educated in traditional public schools, says she supports charter school growth but wants to make sure there's a way to fund it. Sharpe has owned and run two companies that focus on education information. She is supported by the city's major labor groups, including SEIU and the teachers union.

Both candidates are former PTO presidents.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.


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