Think Locally

City elections are the foundation for a better political future

Everyone complains about politicians, but no one does anything about them. The Knoxville city elections going on right now are the perfect opportunity to do something. It is a non-partisan election for the least powerful seats around, so the politicians come in their purest form: mere citizens without ties to larger political forces. There are no Goliaths, and candidates can win without getting the stink of big donors on them.

At the same time, power-seeking creeps and paid-off puppets usually get their start in local offices as well, so voters in local elections are the first line of defense against politicians who will become a lobbyist's best friend. Entry-level political offices lack the glamor that draws voters to the polls, but that same glamor makes the cost of campaigning for higher office prohibitive to those lacking the connections political parties and incumbency provide. Those high costs are the main reason we have a government that is more responsive to monied interests than to citizens. Changing that fact starts with more of us acting locally.

Nearly every member of the Haslam family donates the maximum amount to state and federal Republican candidates. Their clout in East Tennessee is unrivaled, but Bill Haslam still needed a local platform from which to launch his run for governor next year. In 2003, it took every penny of the thousands he spent to defeat widely respected Madeline Rogero, but Haslam has lived up to the non-partisan nature of city politics as an inclusive and pragmatic mayor. It will be interesting to watch him transition to partisan politics in the increasingly rigid and reactionary Republican party.

Other Republicans transitioning upward include Stacey Campfield, who has announced that he will seek Tim Burchett's State Senate seat as Burchett runs for Knox County Mayor. Campfield's ideology may appeal to the white-flight suburbs where he got his start, but his narrow views do not reflect the broader base of a Senate district. Councilman Steve Hall is rumored to have his eyes on Campfield's seat. His two terms on City Council were marked mainly by muted dissent from decisions that helped revive Knoxville. Both men are relying not so much on achievements, but incumbency and name recognition to carry them to greater power. Entry-level politics has consequences.

If we are to move beyond the partisanship and big-money domination of state and federal politics, local elections are the crucial battlefield from which better politicians will emerge. Fortunately, nine voters out of 10 ignore city elections, so your vote, enlightened and good-hearted reader, is potent. What's more, the city ballot is as simple as it can be. There is only one contest on Tuesday's ballot, so depending on which district you live in, you have just two, three, or four candidates to choose among.

With an election so straightforward, you don't need endorsements and analysis, just the information with which to make up your own mind. Metro Pulse's Charles Maldonado asked every City Council candidate a series of revealing questions, and their answers have been published in the paper and online. Randy Neal also interviewed the candidates for his website. The county Election Commission has made campaign financial forms available on their website for the first time ever, so you can see which candidates are getting money from developers and power players. These forms can be found at, which is also the place to start if you are unsure whether you are registered, which district you live in, or who is running to represent you.

At the local level, our democracy still feels like it is of, by, and for the people—except for the abysmal turnout. City elections are often won and lost by margins of just a few dozen votes. When you look at the results in the newspaper on Wednesday, you will feel like you made a difference, and it will not be an illusion.