Off and Running 

Petitions are in; let the games begin

Petitions are in; let the games begin

Last week was the official filing deadline for candidates planning to be on the ballot for the August and November elections. The election year has officially begun.

The major office up for grabs is, of course, the presidency of the United States. But the list also includes Tennessee House District 52, where Bill Boner is running against three goo-goos. As of this moment, Boner is probably knocking on front door No. 3,428, where he’s convincing a housewife in shorts and curlers to put one of his campaign signs in her front yard.

In August, voters will be participating in a general election for local offices. At the same time, voters will be casting their ballots in the primary for state and national offices. November brings the general election for state and national offices. I’m sure there is some reason why we don’t hold local and state/national primaries and elections at the same time. As yet, nobody has explained it to me.

The small-fry elections include races for school board seats, positions on the Tennessee Republican Party executive committee, and a hotly contested Chancery Court judgeship. All nine of Tennessee’s congressional districts will be on the ballot. As for the U.S. Senate, count on seeing Fred Thompson and his red pickup truck driving down your neighborhood street very soon. Lorrie Morgan will not be riding shotgun.

As the election nears, questions abound. Theories are proliferating. Ned McWherter tells Bill Clinton, in a White House strategy meeting, “Move your butt to the center lane and park it.” Locally, Republicans convince Vic Varallo to join their party and run for the state Senate. And County Clerk Bill Covington, a likely candidate for Metro mayor in 1999, keeps people guessing as to what strings he’ll pull next.

Across Nashville, interest in the August elections is low. The electorate just went to the polls two weeks ago to determine the fate of the Oilers deal, and people can only give so much of their waking time to the business of democracy. The only people who really seem intrigued by the elections are the political reporters, the campaign operatives, and other individuals who don’t have anything better to do.

There may, however, be other reasons for this sense of political lassitude. As he looks to the election, Republican activist Forrest Shoaf sees a situation very different from the one he observed two years ago. “That swell of outrage isn’t going to be there,” he says. “I don’t see that undercurrent of rage that was there in ’94.”

If rage is not there, what will be?

“My sense is, we are in a sort of eye of the hurricane and we don’t know where the hurricane is going,” says local attorney and political power Harlan Dodson, who once again has several political campaigns in gear. “The August primary is going to be extremely dull, but the November election will be one of the most fascinating elections to watch in years.”

According to Dodson, “The voters as a group are trying to explain to the elected officials that they really are interested in common sense and not either party’s slogans. The Clinton group got elected saying they would make good sense. Then Newt Gingrich said he’d make good sense. Which means as you come down to it, you’ve got a fascinating November election.”

Starting at the top

The biggest election is the presidential race. Bob Dole, who will probably be the last World War II veteran to seek the presidency, and who possesses a limited political philosophy that suggests a gas tax repeal as a way to move the country forward, will face Bill Clinton, life’s eternal 16-year-old.

The election has promise. On one hand, Dole is trying to tug at the heartstrings of American voters by defining the election as a contest in personal character. After all, Dole has nothing to offer in terms of a vision for the country, so he’s left with talking about himself. And let’s face it: What’s there is pretty good. War hero. Son of Russell, Kan. The stone-faced embodiment of America’s bedrock values.

Dole can afford to talk about character when, let’s face it, Bill Clinton is a man with a moral Achilles’ heel. We’re talking about blond bimbos, Whitewater, and the fact that, as author James Stewart explained in his recent book, first lady Hillary Clinton’s character is tainted with greed, scheming and a sophisticated ability to shade the truth.

Clinton has managed thus far to define himself as a political centrist. In some White House meetings, Tennessee’s own former Gov. McWherter has advised Clinton to move to the right. The signs of the shifting are everywhere. This week, when the Supreme Court afforded significant protection to gay Americans, the Clinton White House tepidly offered a description of the ruling as “appropriate.” Not “great,” “wonderful” or “real progress for this nation”—just “appropriate.” In recent days, Clinton has also given approval to a Republican-engineered welfare plan in Wisconsin. He has also publicly opposed gay marriages.

Dole is behind in the polls, but the election is a long way off. It would be loony for anyone to suggest that Clinton has things sewn up. Clinton can count on bi-coastal anchors that can bring him big states on the East Coast, plus California on the west. In between, the Republicans will be strong in the South and in the far West. Meanwhile, the Midwest states, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania, come into play. The outcome in these states could be influenced by Dole’s vice-presidential choice.

The U.S. Senate

Houston Gordon is a Democrat in the rural, conservative Tennessee mold. He will serve as a decent enough sacrifice to U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, a nearly impregnable bulwark.

Gordon is close to Tennessee’s extant ruling class. Based in the hills of West Tennessee, the inner circle is known for its political conservatism; the power brokers include the likes of House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, Congressman John Tanner and old Ned McWherter hisself. When Gordon announced his race, he displayed the familiar, earthy relish common to West Tennessee Democrats. He described himself as Christian, a gun-owner and a Democrat. Like little David, he said, he is just looking for a few good stones with which to slay Fred “Goliath” Thompson.

Thompson has wads of cash. He shares Ronald Reagan’s gift for not knowing too much, not working too hard, and knowing how to address a television camera with the sincerity of Jimmy Stewart and the bravado of John Wayne. For a politician, these are awesome attributes.

Look for brushfires in Jimmy Naifeh’s race as a result of Gordon’s challenge to Thompson. Naifeh was instrumental in getting Gordon into the race, so a vengeful Thompson may try to help Naifeh’s Republican opponent. The skirmishes will be interesting.

The U.S. House

Big changes have taken place this year in Tennessee’s congressional delegation.

On the far eastern side of the state, in the First District, Republican Jimmy Quillen has stepped aside, as has Ninth District Congressman Harold Ford. Don’t expect Ford and Quillen to phone each other and start setting up golf games. The two were about as far apart ideologically as they are geographically. The only thing they shared was an ability to break arms.

A Republican will almost assuredly win the First District. In the Ninth, Ford is trying to make certain his son succeeds him. If he doesn’t, the district will still stay Democratic. In the congressional races, the big question is whether the Republicans will be able to retain their majority following the landslide ’94 election.

The congressional race that may be the tightest is in the Sixth District, where Steve Gill, Republican, faces incumbent Bart Gordon. Gill will not have all that voter rage to assist him this time. (He lost by only about 1 percent in 1994.) New voters, however, most of whom are Republican, continue to pour into the district. So the race comes down to Gordon’s ability to tend to his knitting in his district, making sure that people know what he’s up to, and Gill’s ability to inspire all those new Republican suburbanites to head to the polls on his behalf.

Another close race is expected in the Third District. There, first-term Republican Zach Wamp will probably face Democrat Chuck Jolly. As a result of the personal problems Wamp has experienced earlier in life—they fall in the wine, women and song category—things may get a little hairy.

Two other district races are worth watching. In the Fourth, first-term Republican Van Hilleary faces Winchester Democrat Mark Stewart. In the Seventh District, once held by Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, first-term Republican Ed Bryant faces Clarksville Mayor Don Trotter.

As of this writing, a strong case can be made that nothing is going to change. In these races, however, much depends on national themes, economic dips and mood swings—the sort of phenomena beyond the control of mortal men and women.

The state Legislature

Two local races for the General Assembly are consuming lots of the attention in Davidson County. One is the state Senate contest between incumbent Joe Haynes and Democrat Vic Varallo. The other involves the resurgence of Bill Boner and his race for House District 52.

Keep in mind the backdrop of these legislative contests. The Republicans, for the first time in a century, are in control of Tennessee’s state Senate. The state House, meanwhile, is still Democratic. As a matter of fact, the state House of Representatives remains the last strategic refuge for Democrats in the entire state.

On the Haynes-Varallo front, Republicans can at least take credit for finding a candidate of county-wide stature to run against Haynes. On the other hand, their judgment is questionable. Varallo is not likely to provide a particularly spirited contrast to Haynes. When you’re a local underdog, as Republicans are in Davidson County, you gotta have the energy, drive and ambition to draw a real distinction between yourself and your opponent. Enuff said.

Haynes has tended to his district pretty well over the years, and his wife, Judge Barbara Haynes, is a clear asset. Haynes is well-funded and, with assistance from political consultant Bill Fletcher, will be well-organized. The race takes place in an unusual political climate: Joe Haynes is a much-touted mayoral candidate in 1999, and some are viewing this race as a prelude to bigger things. As a result, some interesting opponents have come into the picture.

Meanwhile, in another local legislative contest, Bill Boner, the city’s favorite punching bag, is back in the ring. Boner is trying to get elected to the same position he won nearly three decades ago, a state legislative seat concentrated in East Nashville. Boner has three Democratic Primary opponents, all of whom are likely to split the district’s civilized vote. They are lawyer Mike Stewart, flack Lamar Jackson and activist Brian McGuire.

The winner of the primary must then run against the winner of the Republican Primary. The Republican will likely be Metro Councilman Roy Dale.

In a recent book, James Fallows strongly criticized the practice of reporters making predictions about political races. According to Fallows, such predictions are often wrong, they fail to illuminate what the races are all about, and they sidestep the more important questions that are on voters’ minds.

As far as House District 52 goes, Fallows can shove it. Bill Boner is driving a steamroller through the district, and his political prowess is nothing short of mind-blowing.

Elsewhere on the state Legislature map, it’s worth mentioning that state Rep. Gary Odom has both Republican and independent opposition. His independent opponent is Red McClary, who helped spearhead the Oilers opposition.

Chancery Court Judge

In a race that is attracting lots of attention, Ellen Hobbs Lyle, Republican, will be facing Carol McCoy, Democrat, for a Chancery Court judgeship. This is a rare opportunity for a Republican to do well county-wide, and if anyone is going to do it, it’s Lyle.

She has received plaudits from numerous attorneys, some of whom are Democrats. She has raised a lot of money, and her yard signs popped up around town last weekend.

The school board

The local good-government crowd has made it a point to get involved in Metro Council races over the years, but school board seems to hold little interest for most progressives. This year again, the good government folks tried to get various individuals of decent intelligence and high morals to run for school board posts, but the results were mixed.

In District Three, Nikki Meyer may fill the bill as a progressive; she will attempt to unseat incumbent Mack Hargis. Her candidacy may be the sign of better things to come on the school board, where the membership is as often ignored as it is criticized.

Meanwhile, in the school board’s 7th District, former Metro Councilman Ludye Wallace has attempted to get on the ballot. When he submitted his filing petition, however, Wallace was told that he had failed to obtain enough signatures.

1996 may turn out to be a lot different from 1994. The candidates, however, are looking pretty much the same.

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