2002 ought to be a momentous year in our state and local governmental scheme of things. Tennessee will be electing a new governor. Knox County will be electing a new county executive. And numerous legislative seats will be on the ballot, including all 19 on County Commission as well as five of the nine seats on the school board.
If ever there was a year when new directions needed to be set, especially at the state level, this is it. The financial hole into which the state has dug itself is only going to get deeper until new sources of revenue are tapped to start funding education, in particular, more decently.
Yet Tennessee didn't get to be the state with the lowest taxes as a percentage of personal income by accident. And now, both of the front-running candidates for governor are pandering to electoral taxophobia rather than propounding any credible solutions to the state's fiscal crisis.
The Republican front-runner, U.S. Rep Van Hilleary, has made his opposition to any new taxes while in Congress a campaign rallying cry and purports to believe that reforming TennCare is the cure to the state's ailments.
The Democratic leader, former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, also opposes a state income tax and claims he can balance the state budget through better management. This posture plays to his managerial skills as a mayor and previously as head of a successful health care company, but it's also playing games.
Both in terms of fund raising and name recognition, Hilleary and Bredesen have a huge leg up on their respective opponents in next August's gubernatorial primaries. But in terms of facing up to the state's fiscal realities and recognizing its needs, any of the dark horses looks preferable to the front runners.
On the Republican side, former state Rep. Jim Henry demonstrated both a progressive and non-partisan approach to legislative issues during his years as House minority leader. (He's now the CEO of a Nashville-based child placement agency.) While Henry steers clear of supporting a state income tax, he's also careful not to rule one out.
Two of the three other Democratic candidates have tax positions similar to Henry's, while branding Bredesen as irresponsible for closing the door to any potential sources of new revenue. One of them, Charles Smith, clearly has the most experience to offer in the state's area of greatest need: education. Smith has served both as chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents and as commissioner of education.
The other, former state Sen. Andy Womack, also has strong credentials in the education field gained during his years as chairman of the senate's education committee.
The only candidate to come right out and say an income tax is needed is Knox County Attorney General Randy Nichols. He is the darkest of the dark horses at this point, but many people also thought he was tilting at windmills in his eventually-successful campaign to prevent construction of a new Knox County jail that he deemed unneeded.
When this year's session of the state Legislature begins to grapple with the huge deficit that's staring it in the face, the dynamics of the governor's race could change. But for any of Bredesen's three opponents to stand a chance, two of them probably have to drop out well ahead of the August primary, given that a plurality is sufficient to win it.
In Knox County, County Executive Tommy Schumpert is retiring at age 64 after eight years of diligent but uninspiring service. For better or worse, voters aren't likely to have much—if any—choice as to his successor.
The heir apparent is former County Commissioner Mike Ragsdale, who commands the support of both of the Republican party's feuding wings, which we like to refer to as the Haslamites and the Hutchisonites. The reported $150,000 he's already got in his campaign coffers was clearly among the factors that prompted a prospective Democratic opponent, former County Commissioner Madeline Rogero, to drop out of the race.
While we weren't enamored of Ragsdale's conservative voting record while on Commission, he sounds much more progressive now. We're also impressed by his executive and sales skills as evidenced in his present post as chief administrator and marketeer for architects Barber & McMurry. Above all else, though, we're impressed by the fresh energy he will bring to the post, with his emphasis on economic development and strengthened schools.
At this point, we're only aware of contests for four of the 19 county commission seats. The closest races would appear to be in the westerly Third District, where former city councilman Ivan Harmon is challenging incumbent Pat Medley, and in the center city First District where the city's director of community relations, Thomas "Tank" Strickland is taking on incumbent Frank Bowden. Challengers to veterans Leo Cooper and Mary Lou Horner in the Seventh District (encompassing Fountain City, Halls, and other points north) would appear to face uphill races for its two seats. But these and other seats could yet produce spirited contests in either the May primaries or August general election.
The most interesting elections locally are for the five seats on the school board that are on the ballot this year. (The other four seats are on a different electoral cycle.) Incumbents Diane Dozier, Diane Jablonski, and Margaret Maddox, all of whom are backers of Superintendent Charles Lindsey, are drawing spirited challenges from opponents who are critical of the school hierarchy's confrontational approach toward County Commission. In a fourth district from which the board's chairman, Jim McClain, is retiring, his likely successor, former County Commissioner Robert Bratton, is like-minded.
Only one of the challengers, Gina Oster, goes so far as to point a finger straight at Lindsey when she says, "I think we're past the point of no return with Lindsey. A lot of damage has been done." But Maddox's challenger, UT accounting professor Dan Murphy, is highly critical of the school system's financial management. And Dozier's challenger, Donnie Ellis, observes that "the way in which they came up with $9 million in budget cuts within 24 hours when they had to suggests there was some fat there."
If the school board gets as much fresh blood as it could, Lindsey may start shedding some.