Jason Davis: Concerning trend in local politics has caught my eye

May. 05, 2014 @ 12:30 AM

There’s a growing trend in Sevier County which, as an independent thinker, sort of bothers me.

The May 6 sample ballot, as supplied by the Sevier County Election Commission, reveals a startling fact — there’s little, if any, dissent in our local politics.

Let me start off right away by saying this: I don’t have an allegiance to either of the two ruling political parties. My internal wiring makes me too autonomous to really fit inside the box of either camp.

Sure, like everyone, I have certain political leanings and beliefs. In my younger days I would have been a straight-ticket voter.

But now I see too many chinks in the armor of both the Democrats and the GOP to feel comfortable calling myself a member of either group.

And that’s why the fact that there are 76 Republican candidates on Tuesday’s primary ballot and zero Democrats is very startling.

Of course Sevier County is a Republican stronghold, I’m not too dense to get that. Mitt Romney won the 2012 Presidential race locally by a 77 percent to 22 percent margin over incumbent President Barack Obama.

But who would have expected zero — not one single Democrat candidate — would run for local office in 2014?

While Republicans may be happy with that, it’s only logical that less competition means less critical thought and fewer opportunities for public debate on issues that are key to our county — it’s an argument even Republicans, at their core, believe.

Former President Ronald Reagan said it best, “Excellence demands competition. Without a race there can be no champion, no records broken, no excellence — in education or in any other walk of life.”

Without competition, in other words, ideas get stale. Innovation begins to flag. People begin to accept the status quo.

We see that, now more than ever, in local government.

Contested votes on ordinances and other agenda items are almost as rare as hen’s teeth, to borrow an old Appalachian phrase. While we have seen citizens at meetings question municipal boards about specific issues, it’s exceeding unusual for those officials to disagree in public meetings.

While some may say that means everyone’s simply “on the same page” or that we have harmony in the direction things should go, it makes for an equally concerning thought: With no lively debate to question the direction the bus is going, who’s going to raise a warning if it’s headed toward a cliff?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I think an injection of Democrat candidates is exactly what we need. I’m saying the absence of challengers to widely-accepted thought isn’t healthy in a democratic and independent society. 

Perhaps my concern comes from the fact that I cut my teeth as a reporter in a county with non-partisan local elections.

There was almost always competition in every race. And, once elected, officials always engaged in rigorous debate.

Obviously Campbell County can’t hold a candle to Sevier County in terms of infrastructure, economics and services provided to its citizens. But there are things I miss about the county and municipal governments I covered years ago. The top item on the list is those spirited discussions that always arose before any even semi-controversial decision. Commissioners and councilmen there could debate over the time to start a meeting, before even considering the actual agenda items themselves.

In a way it was frustrating, but in another way it was refreshing to know that officials thought independently and would fight, mercilessly if needed, to defend their position.

Here — with partisan local politics and separate seats in districts further stifling meaningful dialogue — we’re beginning to miss something vital to the process that makes government work: competing thought.