If ever there were a state legislative district that defied the basic principles of political theory, it’s Nashville’s 52nd House District. The lopsided race between the supposedly reformed Bill Bonerthe Democrat who, despite his life mistakes, has more friends than he can countand Metro Council member Roy Dale, who’s running as a Republican in a district that is not fertile ground for the GOP, has all the plot twists of a Hollywood thriller. The combination of Boner’s past Republican connections and Dale’s convenient, if occasional, alignment with the local GOP has served Boner well. Meanwhile, Dale is feeling dazed and rejected.
The race to succeed retiring House Majority Leader Bill Purcell is more than the simple story of a lovable if misdirected guy returning to his old neighborhood and charming old people on their front porches. Boner’s likability goes a long way. But he isn’t working alone. Like a kindly child secretly feeding the rat under the house, some state Republican Party operatives are, albeit passively, helping Boner.
The former mayor’s ties with Gov. Don Sundquist go back to the days when Boner and Sundquist served together in Congress. As two of 11 members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, Boner and Sundquist became friendly, even though they had widely divergent political ideologies and personal convictions.
“We are personal friends,” Boner says of Sundquist. “We get along pretty well.”
There is no evidence that Sundquist is supporting Boner in any tangible way. But the governor’s relationship with his former colleague may dissuade Sundquist from openly campaigning against Boner. Earlier this year, to prevent aggravating Democratic lawmakers whose support he knew he would need, Sundquist pledged to avoid campaigning against Democratic incumbents. But that vow would have no effect on the campaign to fill Purcell’s vacant seat.
What’s more, Sundquist’s Chief of Staff and Deputy Gov. Peaches Simpkins, a Democrat, has reportedly been heard to say that, if Boner were to be elected to the Legislature, she would be able to work quite well with him. And that’s not all. Justin Wilson, the well-heeled local lawyer who is temporarily serving as commissioner of the state Department of Environment and Conservation, is also an old friend of Boner’s. While hefty contributions from Wilson’s family have been showing up on recent campaign finance disclosures of other local Republican candidatesincluding a collective $8,000 for Metro Council Member Vic Varallo, who’s running against Democratic Sen. Joe Haynesthe Wilson name is conspicuously absent from the most recent contributors’ list of Dale’s campaign.
But Boner’s ties with Republican big shots is only part of what makes this legislative race a curiosity.
Boner has been asking aloud the question that may well be troubling some Republican powerbrokers: “If you were the party, would you go out of your way to support somebody who runs around telling everybody he’s not a Republican?”
Dale counters that he is “more of an independent than anything else.” He even admits, “I’d rather have run as a Democrat than as a Republican, but there were so many Democrats in the primary I knew I couldn’t win.”
Perhaps because he’s a long shot and perhaps as a result of his disavowal of the Republican Party, Dale has received very little support from the GOP. His latest disclosure shows no cash or in-kind contributions from the party or from any of its high-profile contributors. As a result, Dale is in a state of virtual panic. “I’m not going to win this without the Republican Party support,” he says.
In another quirky turn of events, Boner has helped Varallo, who has something of a personal reputation for political ineptitude. Boner still calls the Council member-at-large “Coach,” a holdover from the days when Varallo coached Boner as a high schooler.
Boner is running for a House district that overlaps the Senate district Varallo hopes to fill. As a result, the two are invited to many of the same gatherings that make good campaign stops for legislative candidates. On occasion, Boner has helped steer the otherwise clueless Varallo in the right direction and, at times, has given him advice about what to say and when.
“Bill has told me where he’s going to be and what he’s going to do,” Varallo says. “We’re friends and we’re always going to be friends. You don’t give up on your friends.”
The GOP establishment finds Varallo’s repeated refusals to align himself with the partyhe says he’s trying to maintain his independencecharming. Meanwhile, Dale is seemingly being punished for doing the same thing. The unequal treatment seems curious, but it may have an explanation. Sundquist himself recruited Varallo to run against Haynes. Dale didn’t wait for the gubernatorial thumbs-up. Dale made his decision on his own.
For better or worse, both political parties are known for their clubbiness. Traditionally, they’ve gone behind closed doors to tap their candidates and to make their promises of financial support. They don’t take kindly to surprises, nor do they appreciate candidates who take matters into their own hands, only to come around later asking for handouts.
Maybe the GOP just doesn’t see that much difference between Boner, whose most notorious weaknesses involve his past romantic philanderings, and Dale, who’s allegedly had a few woman problems of his own.
The two candidates have already had it out over a woman Dale dated. Dale says the woman harassed him, and Boner was accused of trying to use her as a source for information about Dale. The woman was actually arrested on charges of harassing Dale, but the incident still raises questions about Dale’s innocence in the affair. Boner seized the opportunity to characterize his opponent as a man who, like Boner himself, has some skeletons in the closet.
Meanwhile, the leaves are falling, and election dayNov. 5is near. Given Boner’s advantages, Dale would have plenty to worry abouteven if this weren’t such a screwball competition.
For the umpteenth time this year, Vice President Al Gore is scheduled for a trip to Nashville. This week he is to speak to a gathering at the “Walk to End Domestic Violence,” an event sponsored in part by the Nashville Scene.
The walk is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Saturday. Opening ceremonies take place on the Legislative Plaza downtown. Gore is expected to speak before the walk and leave immediately after he finishes his remarks.
President Clinton and Gore have been making frequent appearances in Tennessee this campaign season, as have Republican nominee Bob Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp. The polls indicate that Clinton and Gore have an approximate 10-point lead in the state, but, with that small advantage, Tennessee remains a “battleground” state. The dueling appearances are intended to achieve a record voter turnout.
At stake for the Democrats is Gore’s strength in Tennessee. If anything goes wrong and his ticket fumbles this year, the scars will still be there when he wages what is expected to be his own presidential race in 2000.
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