Voters in Nashville/Davidson County go to the polls today to elect a new mayor to serve out the remaining one year and three months of the term of former Mayor Megan Barry, who resigned in disgrace on March 6 after pleading guilty to a felony earlier that day.
If none of the 13 candidates on the ballot receive more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff between the two candidates who receive the highest vote totals will be held on June 28.
Though Acting Mayor David Briley, who was sworn in on March 6, the day disgraced former Mayor Megan Barry resigned after pleading guilty to a felony earlier in the day, is considered the front runner, this special mayoral election has been so unusual anything could happen today.
The long odyssey that shocked Nashville and caused the need for today’s special election began when former Mayor Barry admitted at a press conference on January 31 that she had conducted an almost two year long affair with her bodyguard, former Metro Nashville Police Department Sergeant Rob Forrest.
After five weeks of investigations, stonewalling, and lurid details, Barry finally and mercifully resigned on March 6. Though she pleaded guilty to a felony charge, her record will be expunged after three years.
Two days after he was sworn in as Acting Mayor, Briley announced that he was a candidate for the upcoming special mayoral election, and the Nashville Business Coalition quickly jumped in that same day, telling all other potential candidates to stay out of the race, because only Briley could provide the city the “continuity” it so desperately needed.
“Continuity” for the Nashville Business Coalition, Acting Mayor Briley, and the developers, lobbyists, lawyers, architects, and engineers who have been part of the inner Dean-Barry-Briley inner circle for more than a decade meant continued support for and passage by the voters in the May 1 special referendum election of the $9 billion transit plan that former Mayor Barry had launched to much acclaim from former Mayor Phil Bredesen, former Mayor Karl Dean, and then-Vice Mayor Briley in the fall of 2017.
Eager to separate that particular element of “continuity” from the mayoral election, the establishment Republican controlled Davidson County Election Commission–aligned with Briley and the Metro Legal Department–made the purely political decision on March 9 to set the date for the special mayoral election at August 2, contravening what, as attorney Jamie Hollin said, “any fourth grader who could read knew,” that the law required the special election to be held in May.
As the legal challenge to the Davidson County Election Commission’s very bad decision wound its way quickly through Tennessee’s judicial system, several well known candidates who would have been formidable challengers to a weak Acting Mayor Briley chose not to run for the office in the special election.
A plethora of unknown and underfunded candidates stepped into the competitive void.
Ultimately, 12 challengers to Briley qualified to be on the special election ballot, of which only four have been able to raise more than $15,000 for their campaigns.
Briley has raised over $720,000 for his campaign since he announced March 8. Former Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain has raised $115,000. Metro Council Member-At-Large Erica Gilmore has raised a little more than $40,000. State Rep. Harold Love (R-Nashville) raised a little more than $20,000, and jeff obafemi carr raised $17,000.
The famous saying, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” attributed to the late former California State Treasurer Jess Unruh back in the 1960s, is equally applicable to the Nashville special mayoral race of 2018, though the special twist voters of Nashville/Davidson County delivered to the current race on May 1 may prove that money is not the only determinant of voting behavior in contemporary American politics.
On April 10, the Tennessee State Supreme Court resoundingly asserted the supremacy of the rule of law here in the Volunteer State, throwing out the politicized decision by the Davidson County Election Commission to set the special mayoral election date at August 2, and instructing them to set it in May.
Chastened by the decisive clarity of the State Supreme Court’s decision, the Davidson County Election Commission did the only thing it could do it that time and comply with the Court’s order–it set the date for the special mayoral election at May 24, today.
Lest we overlook this important point, this special election–assuming there is no runoff on June 28–will cost the taxpayers of Nashville/Davidson County an additional $2 million, an expense that was totally avoidable had the Davidson County Election Commission simply done their job as they knew they should have in the first place.
For the underfunded challengers, the bad decision making by the Davidson County Election Commission, the legal stonewalling by the commission and by Metro Nashville/Davidson County Government to string out the final decision by the Tennessee State Supreme Court to the latest date possible, all ultimately had the effect of creating conditions for “a perfect storm” in which an upset of Acting Mayor Briley might actually be a possibility today.
The short three and a half month race to August 2 suddenly became a six week 40-yard sprint to May 24, which made Briley’s huge financial advantage less important, and heightened the importance of the ability for challengers to raise money quickly and get an effective campaign team in the field quickly.
The first indication that trouble was brewing for Briley and the political status quo came when voters overwhelmingly rejected the $9 billion transit plan in the May 1 transit plan referendum by a 64 percent to 36 percent vote.
Briley was the only mayoral candidate who supported the transit plan. All the other candidates opposed it.
And they did so emphatically, with more than 123,000 residents of Nashville/Davidson County casting their ballots in the referendum, about 59,000 of which were cast during early voting.
Three days later, the voters of Nashville/Davidson County were asked to do it all over again, and they responded with a long yawn.
Early voting for the special mayoral election began on May 4, and for the first eleven days, it looked like the turnout would be abysmal.
Only 15,000 early votes were cast during that 11 day period. But then, on Thursday, the voters of Nashville/Davidson County woke up, and more than 19,000 voted in the last three days, bringing the early voting total to just a little over 34,500.
That turnout was still just a little more than half of the 59,000 who had early voted just weeks earlier in the May 1 transit referendum, but it was an indication that Nashville/Davidson County voters were beginning to become engaged in the special mayoral election.
Polls at 160 voting locations across Davidson County will open at 7 am and will remain open until 7 pm.
It is unclear if the three day surge that closed out the early voting period is an indication that a bump in turnout will continue today.
Typically, in recent Metro Nashville mayoral elections, election day turnout is about 105 percent of early voting. If that pattern holds today, we can expect to see about 36,200 voters turn out today, bringing the total turnout to just over 70,000.
That final three day surge, however, adds another layer of uncertainty to a special mayoral election that is already filled with uncertainties. A further uptick in election day turnout is entirely possible.
As for the final outcome, that remains anyone’s guess.
Our first sign of what’s in store for residents of Nashville/Davidson County will come around 7:15 pm tonight, when the Davidson County Election Commission releases the results of the 34,500 plus early voter ballots.
The early voting margins in the May 1 transit plan referendum were virtually identical to the final results, which showed the transit plan losing 64 percent to 36 percent.