It’s a staggering statistic: Only about 36 Nashville voters have voted in all five of the most recent Republican primaries here, according to the Davidson County Election Commission.
More, of course, have voted in one or several of those primaries, which include both presidential and local elections. But only three dozen voted every single time.
There are a couple of pretty good reasons for this state of affairs: Republicans only run infrequently in local races, and when they do run, there is typically only one candidate on the GOP side. As a result, Republicans often vote in the Democratic primaries for local races because it’s the only way their votes can have any real impact. That may be a special problem this time around, since there are no Republican candidates in any of the important, hotly contested judicial races.
There are more than 70 candidates running for 36 positions, including important judicial posts, in the upcoming May 5 primaries. But only one postregister of deeds, the job being vacated by Felix Wilsonwill require both Democratic and Republican primaries, which also means it will be the only countywide race decided in the August general election.
What all this forecasts is truly anemic voter turnout for the May 5 GOP primary. The lucky candidate in that race may well be the one with the largest extended familypreferably including plenty of people age 18 or older. That could literally be the deciding factor among the field of six Republican candidates for the register of deeds job.
“In some respects, it’s really encouraging that the Republican Party has mounted a race for a constitutional office, but it’s discouraging they’re mounting a race for just one office,” says Marbut Glenn Gaston Jr., a longtime real-estate attorney and broker and one of the six GOP contenders.
Gaston estimates that between 1,500 and 5,000 of Davidson County’s 307,000 registered voters will turn out for the GOP primary. But there’s no way to know for sure.
“That’s probably the central, most important question of this whole primary,” Gaston says. “There’s exactly one race in this Republican primary, and there are so many contested races on the Democratic side. People tend to be saying that’s where everybody’s going to vote.”
Pat Sanderson, an assistant broker for Forest Hills Realtors and another Republican running for register of deeds, says she’s having a difficult time convincing even her closest friends to vote in the race. “Even people I’ve been associated with for a number of years are telling me they can’t vote in my primary because they’re saying it’s very important they be able to vote for the people who are going to be sitting on the bench,” she says. “Even to get the hard-core Republican people to come out and vote is going to be difficult because this is the only race Republicans are involved in.”
The six pack
It’s a noteworthy moment when six Republicans are running in any one race in Davidson County, which has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold. But there are plenty of reasons why conservatives have chosen to run for the register of deeds office, which records property transfers and other real estate-related data. It also collects recording fees and taxes.
First, 1998 is one of those rare local election years when an incumbent is actually giving up his job. Wilson, the current register of deeds, has held the job for 36 years. Members of his family have held it for a total of 52 years.
Vacant positions almost always attract scads of politically ambitious candidates. In this case, 14 of them have joined in the free-for-allsix Democrats, six Republicans, and two independents, both of whom will turn up on the ballot in the August general election.
Gaston attributes the Republican interest in the race, quite simply, to the “lack of an incumbent for a constitutional office.”
But that’s only one factor. Other Republican candidates and GOP leaders cite former Mayor Bill Boner’s candidacy in the Democratic primary as another reason for the crowded field of GOP candidacies. “This is definitely one [political race] that we view as being important,” says Jim Burnett, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. “It becomes a greater opportunity if Bill Boner becomes the Democratic nominee.”
Burnett says, “There’s a great deal of anti-Boner sentiment out there that transcends party lines,” with the possible result that both Democrats and Republicans might rally behind the former mayor’s GOP opponent.
Anti-Boner constituencies have asked what qualifies Boner, who now represents East Nashville in the state Legislature, to be register of deeds. His supporters respond that Boner has run an entire city. Why couldn’t he handle being register of deeds?
In fact, Boner lore in Nashville is oftenand perhaps understandablypreoccupied with the former mayor’s predilection for stormy marriages. Typically forgotten are the high marks Boner earned for managing the city under less than ideal circumstances during his one term as mayor of Metro.
Mayor Phil Bredesen, who’s known for his fiscal aptitude, even told the Scene early last year that Boner did a good job managing the city’s money. At the same time, Boner recalled that “nobody ever really criticized what we did in government.” It was the “mistakes” in his personal life that got all the attention, he said.
The anti-Boner sentiment notwithstanding, the local Republican Party is just happy to have itself represented in an election in traditionally Democratic Nashville. “We want to have a viable two-party system in Davidson County,” says Linda Knight, chairwoman of the Davidson County Republican Party. “That makes government better for everybody.”
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