A calm election season

Published 11:26 am Saturday, April 17, 2010

Compared with two years ago, this year’s municipal election cycle in Franklin is positively quiet.

But for a sprinkling of yard signs, you wouldn’t know there’s an election two weeks from Tuesday. By this time in 2008, aggressive candidates and energized voters were fully engaged in three hotly contested races that ultimately would overhaul the Franklin City Council. One incumbent lost badly, a pro-change challenger stormed to victory in the race for a vacant Ward 1 seat, and two pesky but underfunded challengers together outpolled the incumbent mayor, who limped back into office with an unimpressive plurality.

Why the diminished electoral enthusiasm in two years? Two reasons come to mind:

■ The political rehabilitation of Jim Councill. It wasn’t so much that voters wanted the incumbent mayor to lose in 2008; rather, they wanted to send him a message. That he nearly lost anyway was an unintended consequence. Many voters resented Councill’s strong management style on a City Council where the mayor is intended, by design of the city’s charter, to be weak.

Councill and his “posse” of male colleagues on the council constituted a rock-solid majority of four votes that could impose its will at any time — and often did. In the minds of voters, the foursome bore responsibility for a decade of rising spending, indebtedness and taxes.

Council candidates Barry Cheatham and Benny Burgess rode that frustration to easy wins in Wards 1 and 2 and very quickly teamed with Councilwomen Raystine Johnson, Mary Hilliard and Rosa Lawrence to radically shift the council’s balance of power. The mayor went overnight from three allies to one and was relegated to the roles that many believe to be his most effective: cheerleader, ambassador and passionate advocate for Franklin throughout the region and state. The paper mill’s closure has put Councill back in another element in which he is outstanding: comforter-in-chief.

In short, the anti-Councill fervor has subsided.

■ Priorities. Voters are distracted, rightfully, by the traumatic loss of our community’s anchor employer and economic identity. Though one might argue correctly that electing good leadership is more important now than ever, people simply aren’t in a mood for politics.

Still, the May 4 elections will be fun to watch. A couple of forums next week will give voters a look at the candidates in two races. The Tidewater News and WLQM-FM will co-sponsor a Tuesday forum featuring Councill and his mayoral challenger, James Riddick Sr. The 6:30 p.m. forum at Paul D. Camp Community College’s Regional Workforce Development Center will be broadcast live on 101.7 FM. A second forum sponsored by the newspaper at the same time and place Thursday will feature council candidates in Ward 6.

I’ve never found a reliable correlation between yard signs and outcomes, but if there is one, Don Blythe has the momentum in Ward 6, where incumbent Mark Fetherolf is not seeking re-election.

Blythe, who once managed to lose to a write-in candidate, seemingly has tapped the anti-establishment sentiment that boosted Burgess and Cheatham in 2008. Some voters believe that Burgess and Cheatham, after making an early splash on the council, have lost their own passion for significant reform of municipal government and that Blythe is needed to further shake things up. Others believe that Blythe is a loose cannon who must be defeated.

We’ll soon find out if the yard-sign advantage means anything at the ballot box.

Keep an eye as well on Ward 3, where incumbent Lawrence made a risky political decision this week in declining the newspaper’s invitation to participate in a forum with challenger Greg McLemore.

McLemore will make political hay of it, as he should. Incumbents should face the voters with confidence and make the case for their re-election. Voters will perceive Lawrence as either cocky or scared. Neither looks good on an incumbent.