Opinion: Goodbye to double dippers? Bill in Tennessee legislature would put an end to people holding two elected offices at once

Associated Press File Photo/George Walker IV / Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, announces her candidacy to run for the U.S. Senate during an event on Sept. 5, 2023, in Nashville.
Associated Press File Photo/George Walker IV / Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, announces her candidacy to run for the U.S. Senate during an event on Sept. 5, 2023, in Nashville.

A bill making its way through the Tennessee legislature would end the day of dual office-holders in the state.

In Hamilton County, that would affect Ken Smith, who is both a Chattanooga City councilman and a Hamilton County commissioner; Esther Helton-Haynes, who is a state representative and vice mayor of East Ridge; and Gene-o Shipley, who is a Hamilton County commissioner and Soddy-Daisy commissioner.

It also would prevent state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, from doing what she did Wednesday — announcing she would run for re-election to her current seat while also running for the Democratic nomination to face U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, in November.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, would change state law to allow candidates to only submit one qualifying petition to run in a race and prohibit county election commissions from accepting more than one petition per person. Currently, candidates are only barred from running for two state offices at the same time.

However, it would allow persons holding more than one office to continue holding those offices until their terms expire.

If the two offices do not end at the same time, presumably the office-holder would continue to hold the office in which their term had not expired.

The measure also noted that the two-office rule would not apply to qualifying or nominating petitions for state executive committee, presidential delegates, or qualifying as a candidate for a special session.

Johnson, who gained notoriety last spring as one of the "Tennessee Three" who exhorted protesters from the floor of the state House chamber during a break in discussions, made clear on Wednesday she believed the bill, filed two weeks before she said she would run for re-election to the House, was about her.

"Now, I know that some of my Republican colleagues feel threatened by this," she said in a statement, "because I stand up to their bullying. That is why they have been working on a bill this week to prevent a state official from running for two offices. But let me say this: I will not be silenced, and I will never be intimidated. The people of District 90, as well as the people of Tennessee, have the right to decide who represents them, and I'm committed to earning their votes in November."

We have said before that we prefer people not to hold two offices, not because they don't have the wherewithal to do so but because we believe the more people who are elected bring more ideas, different viewpoints and new perspectives.

Briggs told WATE-TV the same person holding two offices is not beneficial to any community.

"You're giving an awful lot of power to just one person if they start to hold too many duties and, also, there's inevitable conflicts," he said.

In Johnson's case, a Knoxville City Council member who had declared her candidacy for Johnson's seat after Johnson said she would run for U.S. Senate in October, said she would suspend her campaign Wednesday and endorsed Johnson.

"When Gloria wins both races," Seema Singh said in a statement, "I am fully prepared to run in the special election for State Representative #90."

In Hamilton County, evidently voters have little problem with the double dippers.

Smith, for instance, was appointed to the county commission in January 2023 after the resignation of state Rep. Greg Martin, who had been re-elected to the commission in August 2022 but in the meantime had been appointed to the state House. Smith is also in his third term as a Chattanooga city councilman.

He is on the ballot in the March Republican primary and the August general election to finish out Martin's term, and no one qualified to oppose him in either election.

Shipley has been a fixture on the Soddy-Daisy commission for many years, and for several of those years served as the city's mayor.

He is in his first term as a Hamilton County commissioner, having defeated two-term incumbent Randy Fairbanks in 2022.

Helton-Haynes was elected to the East Ridge City Council in 2016 and was elected as state representative for District 30 in 2018, re-elected in 2020 and re-elected without primary or general-election opposition in 2022.

Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah among the 50 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, seem to have the most similar election laws to what Briggs hopes to pass.

His bill passed the Senate State & Local Government Committee Tuesday and next goes to the Calendar Committee. It is scheduled to be heard in the House Elections & Campaign Finance Subcommittee next week.

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