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Money talked in last week's elections, but what it said — or bought — isn't clear

Off to the Races

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For local Olympics viewers, the struggle in the arena took silver behind the attack-ad flame war waged on TV between incumbent U.S. Rep. Diane Black and her challenger Lou Ann Zelenik. Their grudge match was so heated that when Black won last week by a landslide, Zelenik evidently never even placed the traditional congratulations call.

But that proved to be one of the less eventful outcomes of last Thursday's primaries, which saw incumbents left and right going down in bitter defeat and unprecedented amounts of money pouring into Metro school board races, with mixed results.

In lieu of a horse's head in someone's bed, the National Rifle Association sent two stiff warnings to Tennessee's Republican leadership. The first was a billboard in the district of state Rep. Debra Maggart, the House's GOP caucus whip. The second was a salvo of cash that helped sweep Maggart's opponent Courtney Rogers to victory in the Aug. 2 House District 45 primary — a blow aimed at Maggart's boss, House Speaker Beth Harwell. (See Jonathan Meador's sidebar below.)

As the only member of the party leadership facing a viable challenger, Maggart bore the brunt of a costly gun-lobby offensive meant to send a message. Rogers' win was hardly complete on election night when political insiders started whispering about the torrent of pro-gun legislation sure to come from lawmakers hoping to make amends with the NRA. But the GOP leadership, which had called all hands on deck in support of Maggart, has been putting on a strong public face in the wake of her defeat.

"Keep in mind that Rep. Maggart did not act on her own," says House Speaker Beth Harwell. "She was reflecting the will of the caucus, in which there was a caucus vote taken on that issue, and the caucus overwhelmingly voted not to move forward on that issue. So I think we're willing to sit and discuss that issue, as we are all others — but I will also say that this Republican caucus will not be bullied by any special interest group. We are going to do what is the best public policy for the state of Tennessee."

In all, seven Republican incumbents lost their bids for re-election, including House Education Committee chairman Richard Montgomery. Speaking to the Scene by phone, Harwell says that's how it goes when you're the only game in town.

"We have always had a high turnover in the state House," says the Nashville Republican. "That's just always been the nature because it's a part-time General Assembly and a lot of people want the opportunity to serve. The bottom line is, if you want to serve in elected office in the state of Tennessee now, you're going to run as a Republican."

Four of the five ousted Democratic incumbents lost to fellow incumbents, forced into cannibalization by Republican-led redistricting. Among the fallen were the sponsors of Tennessee's closely watched medical-marijuana legislation: Memphis Democrats Jeanne Richardson, bested by John DeBerry, and liberal darling Beverly Marrero, defeated by Jim Kyle, the Senate minority leader who cut a deal to be placed in Marrero's district and avoid facing Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey.

In Davidson County, longtime state Rep. Mary Pruitt lost to Harold Love Jr. by just 41 votes. The son of civil rights leader and state Rep. Harold Love Sr., Love will not face an opponent in the general election.

General election races in House District 50 and Senate District 20 are sure to receive plenty of attention from both parties. Republican Charles Williamson will face Democratic Metro Councilman Bo Mitchell in the former, while two well-funded candidates, Democrat Phillip North and Republican Steve Dickerson, will face off in the latter.

A Republican win in District 20, a seat held by Democrat Sen. Joe Haynes for nearly three decades, would be particularly symbolic of the Democrats' decline in the state. Either way, Republicans feel confident they'll achieve their dream of "walk-out proof" two-thirds majorities in both chambers this November.

But in the state's capital, this was overshadowed on election night by the conclusion of the most expensive Metro school board elections in Nashville history. After much discussion about whether fundraising would prove to be the new determining factor, voters seemed to render a split decision.

In three of the five races, fundraising leaders ended up on top, with Sharon Gentry, Elissa Kim and Will Pinkston all winning their respective districts. And yet Amy Frogge and Jill Speering were heavily outspent but still victorious. No one constituency, whether unions or deep-pocketed pro-charter PACs, was completely successful.  

But two candidates who appeared to represent opposing approaches did seem to send a single message in victory. Kim, who raised $84,189 en route to unseating board chair Gracie Porter, and Frogge, who delivered the upset of the night when she overcame a 5-to-1 fundraising deficit to beat Margaret Dolan by a 2-to-1 margin, both attributed their success to the same thing: a relentless ground game.

"Of course, I don't presume to know exactly why I won," says Frogge, ferrying her children from one event to another when reached by phone. "But the lesson I try to teach my children is the lesson I choose to take from this campaign: Old-fashioned hard work and dedication can pay off. It helps to have money (I'm told), but in my opinion nothing can replace hard work, in this case the effort a candidate must put forth to personally meet voters and hear their concerns."

The landslide for Frogge, a public-school parent and heretofore political unknown, may also be a victory for independence on the school board. Along with just over $113,000 raised, Dolan's backers included Mayor Karl Dean, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the local teacher's union.

"I would say that I hope to keep politics and other agendas as far from our board work as possible," Frogge says. "I hope to focus only on meeting the needs of all children in our schools, particularly those facing the greatest challenges."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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