Looking at city elections, waiting for county elections
by Frank Cagle
Suppose they had an election and no one came?
Some 6,500 people turned out for the Knoxville mayorâ’s election last week, but it may look like a landslide compared to the number of people who will vote in the general election come Nov. 6.
It has always been a challenge to get high voter turnout for a city electionâ"except in those rare occasions in which there is a tight mayoral race. Off-year elections have dismal turnouts, as in this year, when the incumbent mayor does not have a serious challenger. The general election next month has one contested Council seat.
Former Mayor Victor Ashe always argued against putting city elections on the same cycle as county or state elections. It would â“diminishâ” the importance and significance of elections to select people to run city government. Itâ’s probably true. There might be even be less interest in city races this year, when the distraction has been a Sunshine Law trial, audits of the county mayorâ’s office and threatened hearings on inappropriate spending. Many county races for 2008 have already started.
This is Joe Baileyâ’s nightmare. The incumbent city councilman benefited in last weekâ’s election from Mayor Bill Haslamâ’s advertising campaign, his encouraging people to vote in the city election and his efforts to get people to the polls. Haslam won reelection, so one assumes he will not feel the need to run an advertising campaign to gin up voting in the Nov. 6 election.
Ray Abbas is running against Bailey. No one expected him to win the primary against Bailey, but he did not meet expectations. His supporters hoped he would break 40 percent but he came in at 34. Bailey is a fairly popular member of Council and one would not expect him to be beaten by a newcomer. But Bailey has the uphill fight to make his supporters realize they need to come out and vote in the general election.
Abbas has attracted a hardcore group of activists who like his style and gave him three times the vote Haslamâ’s opponent received in the primary. One assumes Abbasâ’ strategy will be to get his supporters to the polls Nov. 6 and hope people who might vote for Bailey will stay home. City elections are supposedly non-partisan, though it is usually fairly obvious which label a candidate would prefer. Abbas has a lot of support from Democrats who are raising money for him. Bailey is a proud â“Reagan Republican.â”
With a low-turnout election, Abbas should do better than his primary number, and even if he doesnâ’t win he will have established himself for a possible future race. And given the quirky nature of low-turnout city elections, if you occasionally like to take a flyer on a long shot this is your bet.
For a long time, low turnouts in city elections could be blamed on the longevity of incumbents and the reluctance to challenge them. One irony of term limits seems to be a new attitude of waiting until the incumbent has to leave and then running. One effect of term limits has been to leave incumbents a free ride to reelection. There were three other Council races on the ballot last weekâ"not one of them had an opponent.
The city of Knoxville governs half the people in Knox County. It provides services and collects taxes from virtually all the retail businesses in the county. If the area is to grow and prosper, the governance of the largest city in East Tennessee has to be in good hands. Perhaps someone ought to study ways to get more city residents involved in governmentâ"or at least the election of its leaders. I have no idea how to do it, and I know just about everything. Perhaps a shocking loss by a popular incumbent will spur more interest.
Like the neighbors who have to look Joe Bailey in the eye and answer whether they voted on Nov. 6.
(As interesting as this issue is, I have to go and turn this column in, so I can continue to monitor jury deliberations in the Sunshine Law suit.)
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