WHEN BLACK AND WHITE IS NOT BLACK AND WHITE

8 09 2007

 

 

I walked into the candidate forum at Joelton Church of Christ thinking I had already made a pretty clear choice about who to vote for, but, by the time I walked out, I was no longer so certain. I am impressed by Ken Jakes’ passion and commitment, while I still appreciate Lonnel Matthews, Jr.’s grasp of the wider picture and his youthful enthusiasm.

 

The meeting began with a prayer, with the Church of Christ host proudly announcing that both candidates are “saved in Christ,” and so, happily, that was not an issue. Gee, when Christians talk about elections in Islamic countries in which both candidates vow to uphold sha’ria, they question the diversity of the electoral field; but they see conformity to their values as an asset. Cultural relativity, anyone? So, my original thought that Lonnell, as a music promoter and a “Beattles” fan, was a more secular candidate than Ken was, if not wrong, at least not as right as I had thought.

 

The crowd of about seventy was mostly white, and a little lost in the vast basketball court on which we were meeting. At the beginning, there were a number of at-large council runoff candidates in the crowd, and I had hopes we might be hearing from them, but after introducing themselves and shaking a few hands, they faded away. (Megan Barry did not seek me out; I guess she figured she had my vote and didn’t need to be seen in public with the likes of me—I understand, Megan, and you’re forgiven!)

 

The structure of the forum was that the candidates introduced themselves, took turns answering pre-submitted questions, and then took questions from the audience. It quickly became apparent to me that there was not a lot of disagreement on the issues. The main question was which candidate would do a better job of representing the community, but underlying that I heard several subtexts, things that weren’t talked about directly but only referred to, or perhaps mentioned in passing but not gone into deeply on the spot because that wasn’t what we had gathered to discuss.

 

One major issue was trust. Brenda Gilmore had been the council rep for this area, and although she originally won in spite of being a black in a predominantly white district, the people of Joelton were no longer so happy with her, for two major reasons that I have been able to uncover. First, she advocated an unpopular redistricting after the 2000 census; and second, as one of her last acts before leaving for the state legislature, she had pushed through rezoning for a subdivision in Joelton that went against the town plan, the metro planning commission’s recommendation, and the wishes of local residents. Ken Jakes had gotten active in the struggle (apparently successful) to reverse this decision, and that was what had led him to run for the council seat.

 

The redistricting plan was pushed as a way to create a “minority/majority” (i.e., black majority) council district, but many people in Joelton saw it as a gerrymander that eviscerated a citizen coalition that had been successfully keeping development down, if not out, in the northwest quadrant. White’s Creek, between Joelton and Bordeaux, is now part of the third district, which is predominantly centered in Madison, which is not part of our neighborhood. White’s Creek has been opened up for development.

 

Another aspect of the trust issue is the question of endorsements and allegiances. I discovered at this meeting than Ken Jake’s lack of civic group (i.e., PAC) endorsements was intentional on his part. These endorsements come with financial donations, and we all know that with financial donations comes the expectation of access. Ken Jakes wanted to make it clear that his only allegiance was to the people of his district, and he claimed at one point in the debate that 90% of Lonnell Matthews’ contributions had come from outside the district. “People tend to vote to please their campaign contributors,” he said, implying that Matthews would put the Nashville Business Roundtable and other pro-development groups ahead of the wishes of the people of the district. Not taking corporate money is a fundamental plank of the Green Party, and here Ken Jakes had sussed it out it all by himself. I was impressed.

 

Lonnell said in his defense that he had made it clear to the donors that his first allegiance was to the people he would represent, and also said that he had discovered that campaigning was a lot more expensive than he had expected. He has rented several prominent billboards in the district to remind people to vote in the runoff election. There are 10,000 voters in this district; only about 3500 of them participated in the first election, and the odds are that fewer will vote in the runoff, so pumping up turnout is essential to winning the election.

 

 

A key perception that cropped up in many forms through the debate was the view that northwest Nashville is pretty much ignored by the city. Bordeaux has the landfill, and Joelton is in the general services district, which by law does not receive the same attention from Metro that more centrally located parts of the county attract. Joelton doesn’t have a community center building or city trash pickup, and its water distribution system is straining to keep up with what development is occurring, but there hasn’t been enough development for this to crop up on Metro’s “to-do” list. Meanwhile, because it is part of metro Nashville, tax rates have gotten high enough to effectively prohibit anyone from farming for a living, residents told me after the meeting. I agree that there is something wrong with a tax structure that makes it difficult for an individual of average income to own a large tract of undeveloped land.

 

The general sentiment of those attending the meeting seemed to be that Joelton and the other rural parts of NW Davidson County should have their own council seat, and that Bordeaux should be merged into a more urban district that shares its concerns. Lonnell Matthews defended the diverse nature of the district, saying that this made it a microcosm of the city and that we ought to work it out here to show the rest of the city how it could be done. It’s three years until redistricting time, so we’re going to have to make the best of it.

 

One subtext of this officially nonpartisan race is that national politics are not an issue, although what is happening locally is not separate from the rest of the world. I tried to bridge this gap with a question that went something like, “How do you see this district fitting into the greater context of Tennessee, the United States, and the world?” Ken replied that global warming is a fact and we are going to have to deal with it, but we should not get stampeded into doing things that do not make good business sense.

Lonnell was more expansive on the topic. He promoted ideas like local farmers’ markets, (not to mention local farms!) and better public transportation, and concluded by saying “we have to be smart about the earth. If we don’t pay attention, it might not be here much longer.” I liked that.

 

Mauna Crabtree of Joelton.com came at my concerns from a different angle when she asked the candidates their vision of the first district in twenty-five years. Ken Jakes said he was concerned that there would be nothing recognizable left, that the whole thing would be paved and developed and be indistinguishable from the rest of Nashville. Lonnell reiterated points he had made earlier in the evening about making sure developers bear the cost of any infrastructure upgrades they incur in the community—wider roads, bigger water lines, more schools, for example—and said he would do his best to make sure there were no loopholes in planning documents.

 

My own opinion is that what will be going on twenty-five years in the future is as incomprehensible to us as a butterfly’s wings are to a caterpillar. I can only pray that the change we go through is that positive, aesthetically speaking, but I’m not sanguine on it. It could be more like the change from a maggot into a fly, or—to be direct, the transition of a culture into chaos, and I’m scarcely more prepared to deal with that than either of the two candidates who are asking for my vote.

 

So, I’m back up in the air again. Ken Jakes says he never wants to be considered a politician, and I like that sentiment. Lonnell Matthews, Jr., on the other hand, may be aiming for a career in politics. He was a student co-ordinator for the Dems during his years at TSU, and helped get a record number of students to vote in the 2000 election—not, alas, that it did any good. But I’m not that strongly prejudiced against career politicians, as long as they truly serve the interests of their communities and not the special interests who all too frequently bait and hook them. Sorry, Lonnell, but that PAC money thing kinda bothers me.  It may be innocent on your part, but it clashes with my principles.

I’m not up in the air on the other elections coming up next week. Non-politician Karl Dean is being badly battered by a desperate career politician and will need all the help he can get to win his campaign. Bob Clement never had an original idea in the whole time he served in the US Congress, and has shown me no reason to believe he’s got any now—his campaign even admitted that his “original ideas” gambit was intended to take “ideas” out of the campaign. He’s running for office because he doesn’t know what else to do, and I hope the people of Nashville have the sense to give him time and space to figure out what else to do, instead of turning our city over to him. I think he needs to go cold turkey on the public trough. And I’m still gonna “plunk” for Megan Barry and Jerry Maynard, but hey, you make up your own mind, OK?

 

The only other comment I have on this race is that we would not be going to the considerable expense of having this runoff election if Nashville had adopted instant runoff voting. a system in which voters rank candidates in a multicandidate race in order of preference. F’rinstance, in the Mayor’s race last month, I would have voted for David Briley first, then Karl Dean, then Howard Gentry. Since Briley came in last,more or less, my vote would then go to Karl Dean. If there were no clear winner from the first round, the candidate who came in last in the second round (Buck Dozier, for example) would be eliminated, and the second choices of those who voted for him would be counted. And I have a feeling that would have handed the election to Bob Clement. Oh, well.

 

music: James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” free download of song here

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5 responses

9 09 2007
Clay Shentrup

You should know the facts about IRV. Some estimates say it would actually increase costs.
http://rangevoting.org/VermontIrvCost.html

It is also suicidal for the Green Party to support IRV. IRV has produced two-party domination in all four countries where it has been substantially used; namely Australia, Ireland, Malta, and Fiji. Australianpolitics.com says IRV “promotes a two-party system to the detriment of minor parties and independents.” Since Ireland’s presidential post began, in 1938, the Fianna Fáil Party has won all but once, when the Labour Party’s Mary Robinson won in a phenomenal fluke; so IRV has produced a virtual party monopoly there.
http://rangevoting.org/IRV.html

An explanation of why it is not safe to “vote your hopes” with IRV is here:
http://rangevoting.org/TarrIrv.html

But we can have a much simpler and better voting method than IRV by simply changing the “vote for one” rule to “vote for one or more”. This system, called “Approval Voting”, is better for voters (produces a better average voter happiness based on extensive social utility efficiency calculations), and its improvement relative to IRV and plurality voting actually increases the more strategic the electorate is – so it is more resistant to strategic voting. And unlike IRV, it leaves voters safe to ALWAYS support their favorite candidate, whether he is electable or not – hence it can plausibly break up two-party duopoly.

See the open letter to the IRV community, from the Center for Range Voting, here:
http://rangevoting.org/CFERlet.html

Third parties have got to wake up and smell the coffee. IRV is not the answer.

Clay Shentrup
San Francisco, CA
clay@electopia.org
415.240.1973

9 09 2007
Arlene Montemarano

Many people are complaining of voter apathy. Who would not be apathetic to a system that seems to pre-decide for us. Make voting a more meaningful activity, and I believe people would be eager to vote. Instant Runoff Voting would do that. And it can be done while voting on paper ballots with citizens doing the counting instead of computers. (Who knows what those secretive machines really do with our votes.) Having citizens count the vote would really prime the pump of citizen pride and hopefulness. It seems likely in that event, that participation in the right to cast our votes would rise considerably.

9 09 2007
brothermartin

Thanks for pointing out a possibly better option, Clay. I’m not necessarily advocating IRV-and-only-IRV, just saying we need more nuanced voting options in this country. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll be the one who gets to decide!

12 09 2007
Patrick O'Rourke

Brother Martin,
I guess I’m somewhat confused about a lot of things said in this post. First of all, the PAC money mentioned as coming to Candidate Lonell Matthews Jr. all comes from local groups within Nashville. School teachers, plumbers, pipefitters, government employees etc. It’s not like he was supported by AT&T, Colt Arms, Blue Cross etc. We’re talking working people who get together to promote a little justice in our local society by supporting like-minded people.

And as regards Karl Dean, I’m stunned that you have chosen a millionaire Belle Meade lawyer whose huge personal fortune comes from strip mining in West Virginia and Wyoming. I’m speechless.

13 09 2007
brothermartin

One of the major sources of political bankroll in Nashville is the business community, specifically big players like Gaylord, who, according to Ken Jakes (who as far as I can tell has no reason to lie about this) use their influence to circumvent zoning and environmental laws. So, when he accepted money from the Nashville Business Council, Lonnell WAS accepting money from big corporate players.

As far as Karl Dean goes, the question is not where his money comes from, which he has little control over, but what he’s going to do with it. And no, he’s certainly not perfect, but my call is that he’s less imperfect than Bob Clement.

To me, there’s an underlying issue here, the populist/progressive divide, and questions like why so many politicians who start out somewhat progressive but mainly populist end up being demagogues like Huey Long. I plan to write on this topic for my show next month.

Thanks for caring enough to say something
mh

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