When longtime political analyst Pat Nolan tapped out his ballot during early voting last weekend, he noticed something strange at the bottom: the wrong two Metro Council candidates.
Everything else on this year's ballot is a countywide matter, from deciding the mayor's ultimate margin of victory to the fairgrounds referendum and distilling the five at-large seats. The only ballot-to-ballot difference is the final item, the district council race. Had it so happened that the voter that morning was not the host of Inside Politics and a perennial Election Day go-to for Middle Tennessee media, he or she could've missed the mistake, cast a bad ballot and fouled a process that's already more confusing than usual this year, thanks to redistricting that carved new boundaries across Davidson County a few months ago.
But the beleaguered poll worker who botched Nolan's machine can probably be forgiven for dozing at the wheel. With a bottom-heavy ballot, a mayor halfway running for re-election against a field of unknowns, and a referendum that appeals to a targeted crowd, the 2011 campaign season is light on general interest and fueled by platitudes.
In other words, it's a snoozer that's left a vacuum of intrigue for district races, those ghettos of political interest where zoning know-how buys more credibility than broadside mailers.
Still, district races generally don't get the people to the polls. If early voting figures are indicative, turnout could end up being less than 20 percent of registered voters and somewhere around half of the 2007 vote (which, to be fair, featured a hotly contested mayor's race). When all the Bud-in-a-can voter has to go on are names, smiling photos and vague proclamations of support for things like education and public safety, it doesn't take long for the thousand-yard stare to kick in.
"You normally don't get a big turnout in [elections] like this," Nolan says. "In fact, it would be interesting to wonder what the turnout would be if you didn't have the countywide fairgrounds thing — it's the only thing on a countywide basis that's of great contention."
Even that might be a stretch. Nolan says the Dean administration is already posturing for a defeat on the referendum, which would amend the 1963 Metro Charter so that any change to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds would require a 27-vote supermajority of the council. The mayor recently told The City Paper he didn't think a higher threshold would be a problem, leaving aside the fact that his administration lost a 21-19 vote on the matter earlier this year.
For whatever they're worth, though, referendums draw attention — in part because they offer voters a fleeting moment of direct control. They're easy to get on the ballot in Davidson County because of a 2005 exemption from state law that says petitioners here must gather signatures in a number equivalent to just 10 percent of the number of voters who cast ballots in the last countywide election.
That low threshold cleared the way for the 2006 property tax measure, English Only and the fairgrounds referendum. In theory, it also means that a motivated sect of believers — a mega-church, for instance — could gather enough signatures to get something really batty on the ballot (especially if only 50,000 people vote this year).
George Barrett, the veteran Nashville attorney who this summer worked pro bono for Neighbors for Progress, a group that opposes the fairgrounds measure, says the ease with which voters can change the city's constitution could breed chaos.
"We're not California," he says. "Every time an issue comes up, we don't need to amend the constitution."
With the exception of those few who are running as a reaction to Dean's fairgrounds redevelopment plan, though, candidates aren't saying much about the fairgrounds — other than pointing out the general civic province of a referendum. Nolan says it's no surprise: Historically, candidates running countywide tend to avoid specific positions, regardless of past support. Note the absence of the Music City Center, Dean's biggest first-term victory, in campaign literature. Or the fact that no at-large incumbent has an "issue" listed on his or her campaign website, even those with specific "issues" pages.
Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, says the fairgrounds referendum is generating intensity for a certain set of voters, but not so much the broad top-ticket interest that propels high turnout. And with a dearth of actual content in the bigger campaigns, there's not much to look at outside the districts.
"It's probably turnout at the bottom that's going to drive the top," Oppenheimer says. "The [district] council races are the only thing in town."
Fewer than 10 of the 35 district races are competitive. Those include three in East Nashville and two in the Antioch area, both of which pit the council's most overbearing social conservatives against progressive newcomers on whose behalf Dean has recently circulated mailers bearing his face and his basic message. Surprisingly, the mayor paid for the mailers.
With no serious opponent, Dean has the luxury of dabbling in whichever races he prefers — a tradition of Nashville mayors who are all but guaranteed second terms, Nolan says. The mayor's campaign last week issued cut-and-paste mailers in Districts 28 and 33 that refer to the "progress in our neighborhood" during the first mayoral term. Each bears the same message; the only difference is the candidate with whom the mayor is pictured: challenger Tanaka Vercher in District 28, Page Turner in District 33.
Councilmen Duane Dominy and Robert Duvall, who represent 28 and 33 respectively, have shouted back at Dean for meddling in their races. But Nolan isn't all that surprised, as the two have been consistent opponents of the mayor — and not only on big issues.
"Obviously this mayor is interested in building strength and support for the next term, whatever issues he wants to have in there," he says, adding that Dean is "among the most active [incumbent mayors] I can remember."
That activity began a couple months ago in District 24, in the Sylvan Park-West Nashville area. That race, which pits incumbent Jason Holleman against Sarah Lodge Tally, has been the dirtiest and most contentious, with Team Dean amassing supporters early and often for Tally, an attorney whose family connections trace through at least the past two generations of Tennessee Democratic politics.
Dean finally planted his stake officially a couple weeks ago, when he appeared on a mailer next to Tally touting a spirit of "collaboration" — the implication, of course, being that Holleman was uncooperative. Whether Dean and his advisers are still angry over Holleman's opposition to the convention center, or his late-game compromise that allowed for a "master plan" to decide the future of the fairgrounds, isn't so much the question as it is the dark joke of the whole thing: After all, Holleman has voted for Dean initiatives more than 80 percent of the time.
"This is a pretty surprising recharacterization of Jason as someone who doesn't collaborate with the mayor," says outgoing District 6 Councilman Mike Jameson, who's worked with the Holleman campaign. "I never once got a single phone call from the mayor's office during the convention center debate. With all due respect, it's in my district. It was the same phenomenon, I think, for other people who were expressing concerns, and all of us were 'bellyaching.' Who was the one person who was proactively calling the mayor's office? Jason."
While Tally has lined up big names like Dean, former Gov. Phil Bredesen and attorney Jeff Yarbro — the young Democrat who nearly knocked off state Sen. Douglas Henry in last year's primary — Holleman has issued mailers listing endorsements from neighborhood leaders and groups, and a Web video touting (a bit oddly) the support of his family. He's pointed to knowledge of land-use issues while Tally has parroted Dean's "education, public safety and economic development" triumvirate of governing interests. Tally is showing a little green, to be sure, but she's smartly staying loyal to a popular mayor.
As the Dean Machine chugs on in 24, a district where it has no inherent interest other than to antagonize the incumbent, Holleman's supporters are beginning to use words like "vindictive" to describe a mayor whose lawyerly countenance has, for the past four years, ably substituted for charisma. With his direct involvement in three high-profile races, Dean has a genuine opportunity to flex political muscle after an embarrassing defeat on the fairgrounds initiative.
If he loses, well, at least voter turnout was low.
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