frank_talk (2007-09)

Defining Election

The next go gives Democrats a chance for serious moves

by Frank Cagle

The major players in the Knox County Democratic Party are lawyers, which may explain why countywide electoral success for Democrats seems to be concentrated in the district attorney's office and with judgeships. Not that there hasn't been success by Democrats in running for other offices: The popular Tommy Schumpert got elected county executive, and Mike Padgett has been county clerk. There are also Democratic districts that elect county commissioners, city council people and state representatives.

But Knox County as a whole remains a Republican majority and Democrats are an exception rather than the rule. The recent turmoil in county government may signal a chance for local Democrats to make some major gains--emphasis on the "may."

Since the majority of county officeholders are Republicans, most of the bad publicity over the issue of term limits has tainted a lot of Republican officeholders.

In recent years, entrenched officeholders have paid very little attention to the county political parties, preferring to run their own political campaigns. Why look for volunteers when you have county employees to campaign for you? The employees have a lot more incentive, since it means keeping their jobs. But the playing field has been realigned. Both county parties should receive a lot more attention in the coming year and play a more vital role in electing candidates.

Several Republican officeholders who might be considered favorites to succeed County Mayor Mike Ragsdale have been caught up in the controversy over appointments to replace term-limited officeholders. The hang-ups are nepotism and clinging to office in defiance of the expressed will of the people to impose term limits. County Trustee Mike Lowe might have been a good candidate for mayor before he went to work in the office he was removed from. Commission Chair Scott Moore isn't likely to seek the mayor's office, though he may try for one of the fee office jobs.

It now appears that Democrat Mike Padgett, the county clerk, will be a strong candidate for county mayor. Padgett has not been identified with the anti-term limits effort; he did not resist leaving office. When he runs for county mayor he will be a strong candidate.

Most of the commissioners who are under attack for the term limits fiasco are Republicans, simply because most of the commissioners are Republicans. If the Democrats are able to field a strong slate of candidates, some of the seats could be picked off. The Republicans are somewhat handicapped in their natural reluctance to run candidates in the Republican primary against incumbents. Should the Republicans keep the current officeholders, it presents a target of opportunity for Democrats to run a "throw the rascals out" campaign.

That is not to say Republican officeholders won't have opposition in the primary. But an individual running against an incumbent faces an uphill battle and will not receive support from the Republican establishment. Unless the Republicans "cowboy up" and make some tough decisions about its slate of candidates.

The Democrats in Knox County are like Democrats across the country. They are split between the moderate wing, which elects people to office, and the firebrand energized group that put principle above electoral success. The Moveon.org group--the Deaniacs--is named after the passionate Howard Dean. That movement is epitomized by former county party chairman Jim Gray, who led a group of vigorous insurgents that were all about energy, indignation and righteousness, but lost most every race last year. Remember the Orange ballot? There was public outrage over the term-limits issue and an opportunity to pick up some seats. But the Orange ballot went down to defeat, and most term-limited officeholders were re-elected.

The Democrats and the Republicans are electing new party chairs this month. It will be interesting to see whether the "grownups" in either party will put in someone to prepare for the election in 2008 and go full out in a battle for the future or whether they will fragment into ineffectual splinter groups.

The election next year will be a defining moment in Knox County politics. The city of Knoxville is already majority Democrat. The election will be about whether the Republicans can clean up their act and restore public confidence. It will also be about whether the Democrats can show themselves to be a party that can put forth sensible, viable candidates or whether they will support marginal candidates who are not likely to win.

It is a challenge for Republicans and for Democrats. It is an underlying theme of the coming elections unlikely to get much attention, but it is vitally important nonetheless.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .