We've had over a decade to observe the effects of term limits on Knoxville city government. For the previous decade, incumbent City Council members and Mayor Victor Ashe rarely had any serious opposition. It sometimes appeared that no one wanted to serve but the people in office.
As longtime members left, some people stepped up to run and the City Council, overall, has been a body of good stewards and generally sensible. The new mayor, Bill Haslam, got himself elected governor. But in the Council race four years ago, incumbents were generally unopposed. And the turnout two years ago for district races and no mayor's race was dismal. (Of course Council benefited greatly being compared to the Knox County Commission, which handled its term limits as the biggest debacle since Cas Walker was punching out fellow City Council members.)
Low turnout has always led to calls for holding city elections along with county and state elections. Critics say even less attention would be paid to city races if they got lost in races for trustee, sheriff, and other county offices. Is it better to have a lot of people voting in city races who came to the polls to vote for other people? Or people who are determined to go and vote in a city-only election, though the numbers are smaller? I sometimes think the people who vote in city elections are people who have a voting fetish. Or people who don't want to mar their perfect voting record. I love these people; they are the backbone of democracy.
Reports on early voting say the turnout may be smaller than the last city race with an open mayoral seat. But it's early yet, and it may pick up. Oddly, (at least to me) the mayoral candidates waited until the week before early voting to go up with TV ads. Perhaps the ads during early voting will prompt more participation.
So what are the prospects for city government going forward? I have been impressed with the quality of the candidates for Council. You have candidates like veteran community leader and former county commissioner Finbarr Saunders; former state Sen. Bill Owen, a member of the Democratic National Committee. Developer George Wallace has come out of nowhere and evidently gives good interview, winning newspaper endorsements. John Stancil is a downtown booster and well regarded.
You have young candidates getting involved. Marshall Stair and Mark Padgett are personable guys who likely will have a good future in local politics.
Mayoral candidate Madeline Rogero is feared by some, but no one can dispute she has had more experience serving in local government than the last two mayors when they arrived. Ivan Harmon is also a veteran of local government, on City Council and County Commission. If elected, he could set a record by being term limited out of three offices.
I don't know all the candidates, but it seems to me we have a pretty good group of people from which to choose. I think the city will be in good hands going forward. One hopes the turnout will pick up and match the turnout in 2003.
It will be interesting, given the current crop of candidates, what happens in four years. Will anyone challenge the incumbents? Or is the smart play now to wait two terms and run for an open seat? That's one thing I think is a drawback to term limits. The other is that an officeholder who doesn't have to face the voters again might vote for potentially dangerous or onerous things—like huge tax increases or reckless spending.
But we have had a good bit of turnover in the last decade, some good people have served and moved on, and some good people are working really hard to step up.
I think the quality of a thoughtful vote is more important than big numbers. Voter apathy is usually a symptom of contentment with the status quo. The people who will vote in this city election will be the people who really care who runs city government. And that's a good thing.