It’s just a few days until the election, and Davidson County airwaves are growing increasingly contentious. At least in some parts of the county, mailboxes are bursting with negative political mailings. Meanwhile, the battle between state Sen. Joe Haynes and Metro Council member Vic Varallo, one of the races that shouldn’t have turned ugly, has emerged as a bloody slugfest. Locally, it’s emerging as the race to watch.
Tennessee GOP mailings on behalf of the now Republican Varallo are casting Haynes, a Democrat, as a money-grubbing, criminal-loving liberal. Apparently, they’ve gotten to the soft-spoken senator from Goodlettsville. Haynes has begun radio advertising that strikes back, defending his record on crime and pointing out that, over the years, Varallo has had a string of bad debts that eventually led to a bankruptcy 18 years ago.
“I’ve never had to do this before,” Haynes says. “But every time he opens the door, we’ve got to step through it.”
Varallo’s mailings have included one that asks voters, “Why is Sen. Joe Haynes laughing all the way to the bank?” The brochure goes on to list the amounts that political action committees (PACs) have contributed to the Haynes campaign, and it lists some of Haynes’ earnings from his law practice. Portions of those earnings, the mailing charges, can be attributed to government contracts. Another mailing reads, “Senator says killer should be released as soon as possible?” and provides the text of a letter Haynes wrote to a parole board in 1992 on behalf of a man convicted of second-degree murder.
Varallo campaign manager David Spady says the effort to unseat Haynes will focus on crime in the final days of the campaign. “That’s basically what we’re going to continue to do throughout the rest of this electiontalk about crime and the difference between the two candidates on that issue,” Spady says.
The crime mailing charges, among other things, that Haynes supported “liberal” Supreme Court Justice Penny White, who was unseated by voters in August. It also says Haynes voted to allow convicts to work on the grounds of public schools.
Haynes is now retaliating against the man who most days can be found behind the cash register at Varallo’s chili restaurant on Church Street. The senator’s new radio spot accuses the Council member of being a party switcher who can’t handle his own finances. The party-switching accusation is not that significant. Haynes, after all, used to be a Republican.
But the financial accusation has been backed up with documentation. “When Varallo’s string of bad debts caught up to him, he declared bankruptcy and was sued for fraud by his own bank,” the radio spot says.
Haynes supporters are spinning the bankruptcy news this way: They concede that it happened a long time ago, but they say that Varallo’s business savvy and understanding of financial principles have not changed. They question whether voters should send Varallo to the Legislature, where he would be voting on the state’s multibillion dollar budget, as well as other important fiscal matters.
On the other hand, Varallo’s campaign questions the relevance of the bankruptcy. Spady says no one lost any money in the deal.
“We’re not going to respond to it or defend it. Part of [Haynes’] newest ad is an outright lie,” Spady says. “That’s the part where they say the Republican bosses promised to give Varallo $100,000. Haynes is throwing out a lot of hearsay and mixing that with something that he does have legal documentation on.”
A look at Varallo’s bankruptcy document from 1978, as filed in federal court, contains some pretty harsh words from Bankruptcy Judge Ruth Kinnard.
In her findings in the case, Kinnard wrote that Varallo “appears to be a high school coach and sometime water-skier who is not well-versed in matters of business, who is ignorant of basic accounting and business principles and the subtleties of property law.”
The document goes on to state, “[Varallo] appears to be a compulsive person who signed his name to so many legal documents within a short period of time that his attorney cautioned him not to sign anything personally. In disregard of this sound legal directive, [Varallo] admitted that he did not always follow his attorney’s advice. This attitude again indicates the bankrupt’s disorganized and non-businesslike approach throughout this course of dealing.”
The judge dismissed the Commerce Union Bank suit against Varallo, which argued Varallo had been fraudulent, by saying, “The court is of the opinion that the bankrupt cannot, in fact, be charged with intent to deceive. He can be charged with ignorance and naiveté. He can be charged with immature business conduct and a lack of responsibility.”
The tit-for-tat negative campaigning in the 20th District race probably means that Haynes’ lead is not as wide as was originally thought. Still, the district, which encompasses northeast Davidson County, is a relatively safe Democratic enclave and an area where Haynes is immensely popular. Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen received 59 percent of the vote there in his gubernatorial bid in 1994, and President Bill Clinton got 52 percent to George Bush’s 38 percent in 1992. Still, Haynes says he’s taking nothing for granted.
“That’s the reason you fight negative with negative,” he says.
Digging up Boner
The other race to watch is the East Nashville state legislative matchup between Mr. Love-’Em-and-Leave-’Em, Bill Boner, and the GOP darkhorse, Metro Council member Roy Dale.
Dale’s campaign has gotten a bit of a lift in recent days as the state Republican Party has come up with new negative mail pieces that chastise Boner for his controversial 1987-1991 tenure as Nashville mayor.
Dale’s pieces come down on Boner for his past private lifewhich actually became very publicand for a 1990 sales-tax increase proposal that Boner, at the time, called a “cold, hard reality...what I think the public can, and should, be willing to pay.”
Nevertheless, Boner’s zero-loss record probably won’t be shattered. Wonder how he’ll celebrate?
Chartering a new course
The Davidson County ballot includes four proposed amendments to the Metro Charter, which was drafted when Nashville’s city government merged with Davidson County’s government in 1963.
The most important of the three amendments is a term-limits question that would extend from two to three the number of consecutive terms the vice mayor and members of Metro Council can serve.
After voters first approved a two-term limit in 1994, there was some question as to whether or not that limit applied to the mayor’s office. The ballot question would clarify that confusion and allow three consecutive four-year terms for the city’s highest office.
Plus ça chaeeg
Tennessee’s congressional races are not expected to cause any really dramatic change in the way the two major parties are represented in the state’s delegation of five Republicans and four Democrats. While Republican U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson’s race looks like a lock-up, so do those of most congressmen running for re-election. The congressmen who aren’t up for re-electionRepublican James Quillen in East Tennessee and Democrat Harold Ford Sr. in West Tennesseeare expected to have same-party successors.
In Nashville’s Fifth District, there’s not much to say. If you’re a moderate Democrat, you re-elect Bob Clement. If you’re a pro-life conservative, you vote for schoolteacher Steve Edmondson. If you’re an independent, there’s one of those on the ballot tooLibertarian Mike Childers.
Democrats have a couple of decent shots at gaining back the two seats they lost in 1994. Republican Van Hilleary is fighting hard against Democrat Mark Stewart, an attorney, in the Fourth District, which cuts a long diagonal swath running from Hardin County in the southwest up north and east to Claiborne County. Still, the freshman Hilleary is favored.
In the Third District, southeast of Nashville, Democrat Chuck Jolly is challenging freshman GOP Congressman Zach Wamp. Again, Wamp is favored, but Jolly has been active in fund-raising. The New York Times listed him among 20 U.S. House challengers nationwide with the strongest financial backing.
But the most talked-about racethe one talked about ad nauseamin Tennessee and nationally is the Sixth District race between six-term Democratic incumbent Bart Gordon and Republican Steve Gill. The two have been trading barbs in their efforts to win representation for the district that includes 15 counties south and east of Nashville.
If Gill and Gordon each had a nickel for every time local newspapersincluding the Scenehad reminded voters that there was only a 2,000-vote margin between the two in 1994, they could probably afford still another television advertising buy.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about this race, though, is one that has yet to be pointed up. Williamson County is the most Republican county in the Sixth District. Since Gordon’s 1994 victory, 12,000 new people have registered to vote there.
Election Commission Registrar Debbie McMillan says the county had 53,010 registered voters in November 1994. Now it has 65,058. She says most of those were walk-ins rather than people registering to vote under the new “motor voter” law. That’s significant because motor voter registrants are not expected to turn out in significant numbers.
“I think it’s just the growth of this county,” McMillan says. “I used to know every street in this county, everybody in this county. I don’t anymore.”
Conventional wisdom has held that Democratic turnout for President Clinton would offset any gains Gill has made since 1994. But if very many of those 12,000 new voters, very likely Republicans, make it to the polls, conventional wisdom may go down the tubes.
The charges and countercharges being leveled in the Sixth District race illustrate what’s at stake in Congress this year. Democrats want to put a dent in the GOP’s 19-member majority in the U.S. House, and Republicans are fighting to keep their lead. Talking heads are predicting that the Democrats will pick up a dozen or more of those seats, which their party lost two years ago, even though the party makeup of the U.S. Senate is not expected to change much.
If Democrats do as well as expected, Republicans will only have a technical majority of a few seats in the House, which meansGod forbidthat the parties will actually have to rely on bipartisan consensus rather than mere partisan sportsmanship.