Term-limits decision creates political winners and losers
by Frank Cagle
Losers: In the annals of jurisprudence, I’m sure there has been a more irresponsible act than the one perpetrated by the Tennessee Supreme Court last week, but nothing comes to mind. Instead of taking the term-limits case last year, settling it, and providing for an orderly transition, the court waited until after qualifying deadline and two weeks before early voting in the May primary to say that 12 names on the ballot in Knox County are ineligible to serve. The ostensible reasoning in ruling for term limits, and indeed the rational for enacting them, is to increase participation in the democratic process. What the state Supreme Court has done, instead, is deliver selection of several members of the Knox County Commission to a small group of party officials and disenfranchise the majority of Knox County voters.
Losers: The election process. We are discovering how ill-suited local and even state election commissions are to control the ballot process. Just who has the authority to remove people from an election that the court has said are unqualified? There is also no flexibility to adjust the dates of primary elections to accommodate special circumstances like the ones resulting from the Supreme Court decision.
Winners: The little-noticed, often powerless, local political parties and their delegates. The people who work polling places, go to the meetings, get out the vote and do all the thankless chores involved in running elections will now get to pick some new county commissioners. Those delegates have been in place since the last party reorganization, and they will suddenly discover that they have a lot of new friends. In races where an incumbent wins, but is precluded from serving by the Supreme Court decision, party delegates will gather and pick a candidate. In some races, where there is no opponent from the opposing party, they will be picking the new commissioner.
Losers: The voters. Instead of having a field of candidates to pick from, had the Supreme Court done its job last year, they are left with a few contested races and the opportunity to ratify candidates picked by political parties.
Losers: Anti-wheel tax candidates, who are by definition outsiders and anti-establishment. Should Commissioner John Mills win the primary, delegates will pick a Republican nominee to replace him. They are under no obligation to pick one of his opponents in the primary, like Gary Sellers, who led the anti-wheel tax effort. Kay Frazier, another candidate in the primary, has been active in the party for many years and might be more likely to get the nod. But it could be anybody in the district who is popular enough to win delegate votes. Over in the district represented by Commissioner John Schmid, delegates do not have to pick his primary opponent, Mike Alford, another anti-wheel tax activist.
Losers: Democrats. The Democrats will be able to handpick new commissioners to replace Diane Jordan, Mark Cawood and Billy Tindell. But they are unlikely to find anyone with the political skills, popularity and experience of Jordan and Tindell. And they will be hard-pressed to find a Democrat who can replace long-time Commissioner Cawood and win in heavily Republican northwest Knox County. Whoever they pick has to run against either school board member Chuck James or Scott Russell, from the Republican primary. (Mrs. Mark Cawood?)
Winners: The Republican Party establishment. County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, Sheriff Tim Hutchison and Republican Chair Brian Hornback have a great deal of influence with the rank and file delegates to these Republican conventions. Hornback will have to negotiate between Hutchison and Ragsdale to find candidates both can support.
Losers: Other elected county officeholders. They can fight a rear-guard action, tie it up in court and possibly stall through this election, but it appears that the Supreme Court decision says their days are numbered. There is a section of the Constitution that identifies officeholders. There’s “a legislative body, a county executive, a sheriff, a trustee, a register, a county clerk and an assessor of property.” If the Supreme Court says term limits apply to that legislative body, how can one avoid the conclusion that it applies to everybody else on the list? The question of whether those officials who have served at least two terms serve another term turns on the speed, efficiency and the courage of the court system. The officeholders have that in their favor to survive this election.
Losers: Local attorney/lobbyists, developers and home builders will have to make some new friends, create new alliances and secure a new 10-vote majority on a re-constituted County Commission.
Winners: Political columnists.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .