With this morning's endorsement of Rep. Gary Odom in the House District 55 Democratic primary, The Tennessean's editorial board has done a disservice to voters, further diminished its already-shrunken significance, and confused the hell out of us.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. The daily would be better off replacing its opinion pages with more imported content from USA Today. They don't matter. They had a columnist who was provoking discussion and debate in pieces people read instead of reacting to it in pieces people ignored. Now he writes for us. Getting Frank Daniels to spend more time on local issues and less on Wikipedia-like 'Teachable Moments' columns is a start, though.
But so strong is our desire for this town to have a daily paper with a voice that's worth listening to that we retain the ability to be let down. And so we were this morning, when the Leading Leaders at 1100 Broadway endorsed a candidate who couldn't even be bothered to seek the endorsement, and made a weak case in doing so.
"Odom has shirked interviews with local reporters profiling the race and declined events where he would face his opponent," the paper notes.
This is true. Odom cancelled an interview with our Andrea Zelinski because — and he admitted this — he had been warned about the potential direction of the article by Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Roy Herron, whom Zelinski had already interviewed. A few days later, Odom skipped a meeting with The Tennessean's editorial board where he and his opponent John Ray Clemmons were to answer questions that would, presumably, inform the paper's decision on who to endorse.
Odom would ultimately receive this bizarre stamp of approval from the people he refused to talk to:
We think Rep. Gary Odom should serve another term, but he needs to re-establish a strong working relationship with Metro leaders and improve his communication with district residents.
One of the knocks on Odom, as it is on most incumbents who have been around a while, is that he has become complacent over the years, accustomed to coasting to re-election no matter what he actually accomplishes on the Hill. The Tennessean seems to acknowledge this in a sentence that seems to be missing some words or something.
Perhaps it is the fact that Odom has faced little local opposition that he has been a poor campaigner in the face of Clemmons' charges.
We get what they're trying to say. And yet we still don't understand it. Odom has shirked interviews with the press, and avoided answering his opponents claims in an arena he can't control (he prefers mailers). The paper says he has been a poor campaigner. And yet it endorses him on the premise that "his experience is still needed" and that the district needs "influence and the ability to work with Republicans more."
So, despite failing to work for his constituents' votes, and refusing to speak with their representatives in the press, Odom deserves to return to the legislature because he has been at the legislature for a long time. Surely they know they've just reinforced what is perhaps the chief complaint about politicians.
But OK, says the reader, they must have some good reasons. Lets see what they have to say about this Odom guy. His credentials must be easy to show, since he didn't even have to talk to the paper to get its endorsement.
Nope. Here's the case for Odom:
Clemmons criticizes Odom for collaborating with his "Tea Party colleagues," but the reality is that the legislature's Democrats must find ways to work with and influence the supermajority that sits astride the state to effectively represent their districts. Odom's efforts to find ways to address the legislative block on Medicaid expansion are one example.
Nashville deserves committed and vigorous representation, which Clemmons would provide, but it needs influence and the ability to work with Republicans more.
If you're only going to share one example of the benefits of an incumbent's experience and influence and ability to reach across the aisle, it's probably going to be something good, right? Something at the top of their list of accomplishments. What example do we get of why Odom's "influence and ability to work with Republicans" is a good reason to vote for him? His "efforts to find ways to address the legislative block on Medicaid expansion."
The editorial board didn't speak to Odom. It spoke to Clemmons. So, it would seem, this is more a rejection of Clemmons than an endorsement of Odom. Anyone who actually looks to these endorsements for guidance would surely have been better served by an explanation of why they shouldn't vote for Clemmons.
It's not that The Tennessean endorsed the wrong candidate, per se. Vote for Odom if you like. But by endorsing the candidate that refused to speak with them, they undermine the supposed value their endorsement and the process by which it is earned. Having done that, they failed to even approach a compelling case for why Odom should receive their endorsement without even bothering to ask for it.
Odom wasn't the only one to get a free endorsement, either. None of the three Metro school board candidates for District 2 made it to headquarters for a meeting, and the paper still endorsed Bernie Driscoll. On Twitter this morning, Brandon Puttbrese, who's challenging Democratic incumbent Sen. Thelma Harper in the Senate District 19 primary, suggested Harper was making it impossible to schedule a meeting with the editorial board about that race. Will The Tennessean endorse Harper anyway?
Maybe The Tennessean still does endorsements, no matter what, because in these trying times for the industry, endorsements make a newspaper feel like a newspaper. The Scene doesn't do them these days because we don't have the time or resources to do them the way we believe they should be done. We're feeling pretty good about that decision.
With that said, here's our guide to next week's elections.