The Tennessee Democratic Party announced on Thursday it will begin taking an active role in nonpartisan elections and will endorse candidates who run as independents in partisan races.
“In the 2022 cycle, we had a lot of candidates running in nonpartisan races or running as independents we couldn’t support,” said TNDP Chair Hendrell Remus. “We knew a lot of them were bona fide Democrats who bleed blue, but we left a lot of them out on their own because the party has a longstanding practice of not being involved in nonpartisan races and a lot of those candidates lost.”
But a local political expert said injecting partisan politics into nonpartisan races isn’t a good idea.
“I’ve said this before when Republicans have tried to make all elections partisan: If you want your local governments to perform as well as Washington, just keep getting more partisan,” said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Syler served as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, a Democrat, for more than 20 years.
But, Syler added, the move by Democrats is likely a response to Republican legislation to increase the role of partisan elections. In 2021, lawmakers passed a bill to authorize partisan school board races for the first time. More than half of Tennessee’s counties held partisan primaries in the Aug. 4, 2022 election.
This year, a bill sponsored by Sen. Adam Lowe, R-Calhoun, and Rep. Bryan Richey, R-Maryville, calls for closed primaries — which would require all voters to declare their party affiliation before voting. Tennessee currently has an open primary system, which does not require registration by party.
Another Richey-sponsored bill, HB262 would require all state and local elections to be partisan, as well as requiring Tennessee Supreme Court judges to declare a party affiliation.
Both bills have passed in the Senate on first consideration and been referred to the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
“It’s a partisan arms race,” Syler said. “What’s going on in Washington is already dominating what’s going on in state and local governments. You vote for your property assessor because they have an ‘R’ by their name because you like Donald Trump or you don’t like Joe Biden.”
But Remus said the move is necessary.
“Mayoral and city council races are coming up, and in light of what happened in Memphis it’s’ going to be crucial to have leaders in place who understand the importance of reforming police departments, and re-imagining inner cities,” he said, referring Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Memphis man who died after videos released publicly showed he was savagely beaten by police officers.
Rupa Blackwell, a former Tullahoma alderman, will serve as chair of the TNDP Non-Partisan/Municipal Endorsement Committee.
Scott Golden, chair of the Tennessee Republican Party, did not respond to a request for comment about whether his party would undertake a similar step.
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