Close Calls: Notes From a Nail-Bitten Primary Election Night

Sixteen votes. That's what Madeline Rogero needed Tuesday night to put her over the 50 percent mark in the race for Knoxville mayor. Instead, she finished with 8,235 out of the 16,500 ballots cast in the primary—which comes out to 49.91 percent. That sets her up for a run-off in the November general election against Mark Padgett, whose well-funded campaign just edged out Ivan Harmon for second place. Padgett had 3,736 votes to Harmon's 3,683, a margin of 22.64 percent to 22.32 percent.

There are a few asterisks here: All of these numbers are unofficial until certified by the Knox County Election Commission. And there are still 29 provisional ballots to be considered by a special panel on Thursday afternoon. More on those in a moment.

But Rogero, taking the stage at her election night party at the Foundry, told a crowd of a few hundred supporters, "As of right now, we expect to have six more weeks of campaigning. And we are ready for it!" The crowd cheered, although there was palpable disappointment at having come so close to an outright majority. If Rogero had won enough votes to put her over 50 percent, she would now be mayor-elect.

That seemed likely for most of Tuesday evening, as returns dribbled in from the Election Commission. In early voting and absentee ballot totals announced shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m., Rogero had 53 percent of the vote. As precinct numbers came in, the percentages fluctuated, but Rogero regularly registered over 50 percent until the second-to-last update at about 9:30, when her percentage dropped to 49.98. It slipped a little more with the final returns.

Still, the partygoers came to life when Rogero entered the room, applauding loudly. And while Rogero looked tired, she sounded upbeat. "We had an outstanding showing, and let's not forget that," she said. "Today we have sent a very clear message about where we want to take our city over the next four years."

She noted that she and Padgett agree on priorities like job creation and environmental initiatives. But, she said, "Six weeks from today we will have to answer a simple question: Which of the two candidates has the experience and vision to get the right results for our city?"

Meanwhile, Across Town...

Padgett's election night fête at the Crown and Goose felt upscale, and not just because of the number of alarmingly thin blondes in short, stylish dresses. (Padgett's wife Katie included; despite being eight months pregnant, she strolled around the gathering in flesh-colored patent leather platform stilettos.)

The candidate had been rumored to arrive around 8:30, but he didn't show up until 9:50. When he finally entered the bar, it was to a deafening chorus of cheers and "wooooo!"s. Chants started soon after: "Mark! Mark! Mark!" and "Let's go, Padgett! Let's go, Padgett!"

The noise level only increased as the final numbers were tallied. Padgett had (likely) made the runoff.

"What a fantastic night," Padgett said as he addressed his supporters shortly thereafter. "We started from nowhere, and look at what we've done."

After his speech, Padgett said he felt excited, energized, and ready to take on the next six weeks. He said his last six weeks of fund-raising have been his best—"People have just begun to really get to know me," he said—and he expects the next six weeks will be even better. (As of last Friday, Padgett had $85,681 already on hand.) "We have the momentum, without a doubt," he said.

Those Provisional Ballots

More immediately, there is the matter of the provisional ballots. Election administrator Cliff Rodgers said Tuesday night that there are 29 ballots to be assessed. Provisional ballots are given in cases of uncertainty at the polling place, for example if somebody is sure they are registered but their name is not on the voter rolls. Rodgers says there are usually a small number of these in every election, but rarely enough for anyone to care about.

A three-person panel (currently made up of two Republicans and one Democrat) will meet at 2 p.m. Thursday in the Election Commission offices to consider each of the 29 ballots separately. In each case, they have to decide whether to count it.

Unfortunately for Rogero, 29 ballots isn't enough to put her over 50 percent, even if they are all allowed and she wins all of them. That would change the total vote to 16,529, which would mean she would need 8,265 to be over 50 percent. But adding 29 votes would leave her at 8,264. There also aren't enough ballots for Harmon to make up his 53-vote deficit to Padgett. Still, Thursday's provisional count will probably be better-attended than usual.

Council Roundup

There were no big surprises in the City Council races, only small ones. In the battle for At-Large Seat A, November's election will pit George Wallace against John Stancil. Wallace was the clear frontrunner in the race as far as fund-raising goes, and he's not likely to lose that edge, given that he garnered 51 percent of the vote. Stancil just edged out Paul Berney for second place, 20 percent to 18 percent, while the not-really-campaigning Michael McBath had 11 percent of the vote.

In At-Large Seat B, Marshall Stair trumped Bill Owen by a 10 percent margin, 50 percent to 40 percent. Buck Cochran had almost 6 percent and Tierney Bates, who had long since dropped out of the race but whose name remained on the ballot, garnered 5 percent.

Another dropout, Terry Milligan, got over 8 percent of the votes cast in the At-Large Seat C race. That was just a little over 3 percent fewer votes than active candidate Ron Peabody got. Peabody came to public attention last year as the leading voice in opposition to the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, and he tried to continue that theme in this campaign by excoriating the work of the citizens' task force Compassion Knoxville. (Peabody actually co-chaired the group until he resigned to run for office.) But neither that nor his complaints about red-light cameras seemed to resonate, and he picked up just 1,671 votes, finishing third. His campaign website had already disappeared by 11 p.m. Tuesday. Fund-raising frontrunner Finbarr Saunders finished an easy first, with 7,752 votes—the most of any candidate on Tuesday except Rogero. In the November general election, Saunders will face the only woman in any of the Council races, pastor Sharon Welch. She had 3,591 votes.

A Slam Dunc

At the beginning of the night, it looked like the state Senate District 6 Republican primary race would go down to the wire between Becky Duncan Massey and Marilyn Roddy, with Victoria DeFreese a distant third. But after early results showed Roddy with 43 percent of the vote, her totals only went downhill. Massey also topped Roddy in almost every precinct. Even in Roddy's own Sequoyah Hills, she managed only 51 percent of the vote.

In November, Massey will face Gloria Johnson, who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. Given the district's Republican leanings and Massey's name recognition, Johnson has an uphill battle. But she might be helped by the fact that two Democrats will still be vying for mayor on the same ticket.

Precinct by Precinct

Local-politics geeks will be spending the next several days sorting through the precinct vote totals around town (as will campaign operatives for the surviving candidates). But a few things jump out from a quick scan through the numbers. Rogero had strong support in the North Knoxville territory she used to represent on County Commission, taking 77 percent of the vote at the polling station in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood, and she also had strong showings in several East Knoxville precincts, as well as Sequoyah Hills and Bearden. She easily won precincts in South Knoxville, where she now lives, although by smaller margins (and sometimes with less than 50 percent of the vote).

Padgett, meanwhile, had his best turnouts in the near-west low-income neighborhoods he has cited repeatedly as his home turf. Apparently if you produce a campaign ad called "Lonsdale," Lonsdale will repay the favor. Padgett took 60 percent of the vote at the polling station on Connecticut Avenue, and also beat Rogero in Beaumont.

And Harmon, as expected, was strongest in the northwest neighborhoods that he at various times represented on both City Council and County Commission. From Inskip to Norwood to Pleasant Ridge and West Haven, Harmon beat Rogero by anywhere from 4 to 19 percent. Those will presumably be areas where Padgett will focus his efforts to attract Harmon's voters in the general election—but his third-place finishes in most of them suggest he will have some work to do.

The Hultquist Effect

In our Ear to the Ground column last week, we wrote, "The greatest threat to Rogero's winning at this point is… Joe Hultquist. Hultquist is from Rogero's South Knoxville area and has served with her in city government, and his voters might have been Rogero voters. If Rogero falls 3 to 5 percent short of getting to 50 percent, the Hultquist voters are likely the reason."

Of course, there is no sure way to gauge the effect of a candidate being in a race. It is not necessarily true that all of Hultquist's votes would have gone to Rogero if he weren't on the ballot. But with Hultquist pulling 698 votes, there was no shortage of ill will directed his way among Rogero supporters. (At one point, before the final precincts came in, Hultquist's vote count stood at 666—leading to a lot of grim jokes among the anxious crowd at the Foundry.)

Hultquist did perform best in the South Knoxville precincts that he used to represent on City Council, taking 12 to 16 percent of the vote in some of them. But his candidacy failed to generate any widespread enthusiasm, leaving him with just 4 percent of the vote overall.

High Tech/No Tech

Times have changed since the days when reporters and campaign operatives would camp out all night at the Election Commission office waiting for results. Now the Commission just posts everything straight to its website, and anyone with a computer or a smart phone can get the information immediately. At least, that's the idea. The weakness in the system was exposed Tuesday night, when for 15 or 20 minutes the website froze up. New precinct totals were being added, but they weren't showing up. At the Foundry, and presumably in newsrooms across town, the result was a mounting sense of suspense and frustration as people stood around, glowering at glowing screens and fruitlessly pushing the "Refresh" button.

And About That Turnout

All year, local pundits have been predicting low turnouts in the city elections. They were proven right, and then some. The 16,500 ballots cast in the mayor's race represented 16.6 percent of Knoxville's 99,171 registered voters. It's a big drop from the 29,883 who voted in 2003, when Bill Haslam beat Rogero. (Rogero herself got 13,864 votes in that race.)

Rogero and Padgett both have money left to spend toward the Nov. 8 general election, and it's possible that narrowing the field of candidates for mayor and Council will generate more interest in the races between now and November. It is also, of course, possible that anyone who has managed to ignore the campaigns all year will manage to continue to do so.