Earlier this year, during the run-up to county primaries, almost all of the ugly, internecine fighting seemed concentrated in the Republican realm. After all, you didn’t hear any Democrats describing each other as a “rat in a barn,” which is what Mike Brown, Republican commissioner from the 9th District, had to say of his colleague, Paul Pinkston.
That’s chiefly because, save the mayor’s race, the four Democratic candidates running for County Commission didn’t have any competition for their party’s blessing, and thus could avoid attacking those with common beliefs, benefactors, and constituents. But now, former Democratic party chair Don Daugherty is running as an independent against incumbent Democrat Amy Broyles for the 2nd District Commission seat. In doing so, he is bringing some of the awkwardness of the primary season over to the general election, and in the process highlighting a fissure within the Democratic Party between some old-guard members and the rest of the party—all at a time when the question of whether Knoxville is becoming a one-party town is being raised (most vocally by Daugherty and his supporters).
The race for the 2nd District is significant not only for what it does or doesn’t say about the state of the local Democratic Party, but for at least one other reason: If Broyles, the only woman still in the running for a Commission seat, should lose in August, Commission will become one giant sausage fest.
Located entirely within city limits, the 2nd District contains a great wealth of economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, from gentrifying neighborhoods like Fourth and Gill to the Broadway Corridor, where much of the homeless population congregates.
The 2nd has generally been an island of Democratic support in a sea of Republican voters, although it has elected Republicans like David Collins, who was unseated by Mark Harmon in 2006. Broyles says her district is trending more and more Republican, noting a slim majority of Democrats who vote in the district, and that bipartisan support is important.
Broyles moved from West Knoxville to the 2nd District in 1997. Since 2008, she has been one of two 2nd District commissioners, elected to replace Billy Tindell, a Democrat who served as the 2nd District’s commissioner for 37 years before being term-limited by the state Supreme Court. In that race, Broyles beat out Cortney Piper in the primary and Chuck Bolos in the general, winning a majority in every ward in the district in both races. The 2008 experience is relevant because, according to Broyles, those supporting her opponent now are the same as those who supported Piper and Bolos in 2008, and Tindell in 2006. “It is true that the people who were upset with me for running against Billy Tindell are the same people who supported Cortney, and then Chuck, and now Don,” Broyles says.
Broyles is referring to some bad blood between her and this small coterie of Democrats, comprising Daugherty, Tindell, and District Attorney Randy Nichols, among others. She says it dates back to 2006, when she ran as a write-in candidate against Tindell in the primary, lost, and then ran against him in the general as a write-in independent. She says she did this to ensure that someone could serve if Tindell were removed as a result of term limits—the risk being that if Tindell were disqualified or later removed, the GOP-dominated Commission would appoint a Republican to fill the seat. But she says some members of the old guard thought she was stepping out of line. “There were a lot of entrenched, older Democrats who really saw it as betrayal and were very upset,” Broyles says. While she doesn’t regret her decision, she says she understands their feeling.
Asked what she’s accomplished during her tenure, Broyles mentions a law requiring a fiscal impact study be completed for any new ordinances, as well as her work with a vacant homes task force, which seeks to deal with blighted properties in the city and county. She also recalls her service on the justice task force and co-sponsorship of the Public Safety Center, a recently approved resolution to build a facility to hold and treat the mentally ill jail population.
Regarding her campaign, Broyles says she has raised “well over $10,000” and that money is coming in fast. She’s confident that her support in 2008 will carry over to this year, and she says she isn’t worried about the challenge from Daugherty and his camp. “I have a lot of support in my district, and this is just the same old people doing the same old stuff. And it’s unfortunate, but it’s politics,” Broyles says.
Enter the Daugherty
In a political twist, the same group so incensed over Broyles’ run as an independent against Tindell, the incumbent Democrat, is now supporting Daugherty, running as an independent against Broyles, the incumbent Democrat.
Daugherty is a legal writer with Ball & Scott, a firm that deals with class action lawsuits, and served as party chairman from March 2007 to June 2008. He resigned before completing his term, and in the midst of elections at nearly every level of government. He says he did so because he couldn’t unite competing factions within the party, and decided it was time to let someone else try. Sylvia Woods, a long-time Democratic activist, stepped in and was elected by a narrow margin to finish out his term. She says there was a great deal of controversy when Daugherty left, mentioning specifically that while Daugherty said he left the party coffers with $25,000, an audit she commissioned showed there was about half that amount, around $12,000. “If there was $25,000, it was never on the books,” Woods says. She also says that while Daugherty claimed to make $14,000 on a Truman Day dinner featuring Democratic advisor and author James Carville, the sum was actually little more than $3,000. Gloria Johnson, the current chair, took over the position in 2009.
No independent has been elected to County Commission in recent memory (and possibly ever), and with his involvement with the party, it would seem that the Democratic primary would have been the likely place for Daugherty to run. He gives a few reasons to explain his decision, and they seem to have far more to do with election strategy than with political apostasy.
He says one is that some of his Democratic supporters planned to vote against Tim Hutchison—not necessarily for Tim Burchett—in the mayoral primary, so they would not have been able to vote as Democrats for him. Another, he says, is that turnout for a 2nd District primary would have been low, giving too few the power to elect the district’s next representative as there was no Republican challenger. Related to that, he sees great potential for turnout for the Aug. 5 election, in which Bill Haslam will be on the ballot for the GOP primary for governor, and thinks running as an independent might allow him to attract moderates in the district while piggybacking on interest in that race. Last, but certainly not least, he concedes he might have lost a primary race against Broyles.
One question that continues to resurface is why Daugherty is running in the 2nd District and not somewhere else. “Don doesn’t live here,” Broyles says. “He doesn’t own a house here. He’s not involved in any of the communities here. It is curious why he is deciding to run here instead of in his own district. I think that’s what the Democratic Party would have preferred.”
Daugherty has lived in Knoxville for 43 years, but of late has called the 5th District, in West Knoxville, home. He says he’s been trying to sell his house there for a year, but the poor real estate market has made that difficult. Earlier in the political season, Daugherty named treasurers for races in both the 2nd and 3rd districts. He says there was a period in the fall when he wasn’t sure where he would live but wanted to make his intention to run for Commission known. He owns another house with his brother, Michael Leon Daugherty, in the 3rd District. For this race, he gave still a third address, in the 2nd, which is a house he’s leasing from his nephew.
His uncertainty about where he’ll live has apparently been resolved. Daugherty says his fiancée—whose name he chose not to disclose for this article—has long lived in the 2nd District, and that he plans to move there once he sells his house and “spend the rest of my life in the 2nd.”
It may be politically problematic for Daugherty, but it’s legally above board. According to Greg MacKay, the Knox County administrator of elections, the residency requirement does not apply to this election because it is the first general election following a reapportioning of Commission seats.
Daugherty says he’s running against Broyles because she is too combative and has “alienated” other lawmakers, both on Commission and in the City Council when she made endorsements in competitive races. He also characterizes himself as the more moderate choice, calling Broyles too liberal for her early support of Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary. Besides his support from Nichols and Tindell, two prominent Democrats, Steve Eldridge, president of the North Hills Area Association, is supporting Daugherty, too. “The current election will give all of the 2nd District a chance to vote for the same old thing or to vote for new beginnings with an independent candidate who is very experienced, has a law background, understands the concerns of the 2nd District and is willing to actually communicate with neighborhood associations about concerns in their areas,” Eldridge wrote in an e-mail.
A broader theme of the race, at least as far as Daugherty and his supporters are concerned, is dissatisfaction with the local Democratic Party’s current state. “I mean, literally, we have no Democratic opposition in most of these Commission seats,” Daugherty says. “Our county-wide Democrats that are on the ballot are, at most, nominal competition, if you look at the money that’s being raised, if you look at the numbers.” Nichols, one of the few remaining Democrats in a prominent position, is also critical. “There’s no doubt that it’s lost some of its momentum,” Nichols says. “Democrats can win elections in Knox County. It’s been proven that Democrats can win in Knox County. But you’ve got to have candidates that the people will take to. And we’ve not been as good of late at attracting those kinds of people to run as Democrats.”
But many now serving in the party say Nichols and Daugherty have lost touch with the work the party’s now engaged in. Kim Webber is a district representative in the party who works regularly at the party headquarters. “I wish he’d darken our door,” Webber says, of Nichols. Woods, who has been involved with the party since the early 1980s, agrees. “I don’t think Randy has a sense of what the party is today,” Woods says. “They’ve not been there to see the work that Gloria has generated.”
Johnson, the party chair, says she’s also disappointed by the low number of candidates in this year’s Commission races, but that the party is in a building phase. She says the dearth now can be partly explained by a lack of support for candidates in the past. “I’ll be honest and I’ll be blunt. They didn’t feel supported in the past,” Johnson says. “I don’t want to ever hear that the party didn’t support them. So we are working really hard to work for every candidate.” Johnson says they’re now on the ground, making phone calls and knocking on doors, to find and train candidates and get out the vote for future races, and in the next election the party will field a full slate, or close to it.