For Democrats, what happens tomorrow?

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Deadline closed in on this column before Democrat Gloria Johnson’s election challenge played out, but her legal action plus Monday’s scheduled counting of nearly 600 provisional ballots from all over the county were unlikely to produce enough votes in her District 13 House race for her to overcome her Republican opponent, Eddie Smith’s, 153-vote lead.

Johnson’s smart. She knew she was unlikely to win this battle.

So why did she do it?

Because she’s a fighter. She wanted contact information for some 50 voters who ran afoul of the photo ID law when they went to vote. These would-be voters had 48 hours to get down to the courthouse and “cure” the deficiency by presenting the required credentials. This process was impeded by the Veterans Day holiday Friday.

“We wanted the list so we could contact those people and make sure they understood what they had to do,” Johnson said Friday night. “The election commission refused to extend its hours, so it’s looking like the Democratic vote was suppressed. We wanted to make sure they understood the process they had to complete to get their vote to count.”

If there aren’t enough provisional votes to change the outcome in District 13, Rick Staples – who won the District 15 House seat left vacant when incumbent Joe Armstrong was convicted in August of filing a false income tax return – becomes the only Democrat in the Knox County legislative delegation.

Staples beat Independent Pete Drew (a former legislator and perennial candidate) 9,241 to 4,958. A third opponent, Rhonda “Mousie” Gallman, picked up 517 write-in votes.

Staples, who is heading to Nashville this week for an orientation session, has a lot to think about, and not just finding a place to live three days a week in Nashville when the legislative session begins in January. The sole Democrat in the delegation will have the opportunity to choose two members of the election commission in the spring.

Under the state’s hyper-partisan election laws, county legislative delegations appoint five board members to oversee the county election commissions. The majority party gets three appointments, the minority, two. This means that Staples, the junior member of the delegation, outnumbered 10-1 by his Republican colleagues, will get to choose two election commissioners.

Staples said he will probably reappoint incumbent commissioner Cassandra McGee Stuart because he thinks her experience there is a valuable asset. The other Democrat, Andrew Roberto, has signaled that he will step down from the election commission and prepare to run for the District 2 City Council seat, now occupied by Duane Grieve, who is term limited.

(Democrats fare well inside the city, and given the difficulties facing Democrats running in districts outside the city limits, nonpartisan city races have a lot of appeal to members of the minority party).

Staples is likely to fill Roberto’s seat with sitting party chair Cameron Brooks, a former election commissioner who last week told party leaders that he will step down as chair when his term ends in the spring.

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