"Apathy is so thick in Tennessee," the Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful said, "it can be cut with a knife."
The remark — by then-candidate Ray Blanton — was made ahead of the August state primary election 50 years ago this week, but it might have been made by a candidate in the state in 2022.
In a non-presidential year, the Volunteer State has no United States Senate election, it has a relatively popular Republican governor who has no primary opposition, and outside of the Nashville area's 5th District Republican congressional primary race it has few state contests to get excited about.
Locally, in 1972, it was predicted that 35,000-40,000 voters in Hamilton County would go to the polls.
Blanton, who would win his Senate primary but lose the November general election to then-U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, was in town a day ahead of the statewide vote for something that almost seems quaint today. Miller Brothers department store was sponsoring "Election Central," a meet-the- candidates gathering atop its downtown parking garage.
Both the local Republican and Democratic parties had booths, about 70% of the candidates in both parties on the ballot were present, and all were making a play for the votes of 18-year-olds, who could vote for the first time.
A day later, only about a quarter of Hamilton County voters — disappointing to election officials — went to the polls.
Fifty years later, it may not be that good.
With many races decided in the May primary, expected easy wins by the Republican Hamilton County mayoral and district attorney candidates, little state competition (except perhaps the Democratic gubernatorial nominee), many voters may decide to skip the election. We hope they won't.
Indeed, we would challenge voters to be better than we were in 1972. It won't be easy.
Four years ago, when the state had a hotly contested Republican gubernatorial primary and was electing a new U.S. senator for the first time in 12 years, a hair less than 29% of Hamilton County voters (28.99%) went to the polls. In the mid-term election before that, in 2014, it was 26%. And in 2010, it was 24.91%.
In May of this year, about 21% of voters cast a ballot in either the Republican or Democratic county primaries.
With early voting ending Saturday, and Election Day next Thursday, if you've thought about sitting this one out, may we offer you a few morsels to entice you to vote:
> With no public polling done, will the Democratic nominee for governor be Dr. Jason Martin, a Nashville physician, who would be favored by conventional wisdom? Or will it be Memphis attorney and Memphis City Council member J.B. Smiley Jr.? Remember, two years ago, conventional wisdom favored Democratic U.S. Senate candidate James Mackler, but he finished third to little known Memphis environmental activist Marquita Bradshaw.
> In the District 6 Hamilton County Commission race, one-term Democratic incumbent David Sharpe faces former Red Bank mayor and current Red Bank Commissioner Ruth Jeno. Since Sharpe was elected in 2018, the district has been reshaped and now includes all of Red Bank, plus the Lupton City, North Chattanooga, Riverview and Stuart Heights precincts. That may favor Sharpe, or it may favor Jeno, the Republican.
The Tennessee Republican Party at least must think Jeno has a chance in the race since it sent out scurrilous emails against Sharpe, but Jeno has blasted the emails and said neither she nor her campaign had anything to do with them.
> In the District 11 Hamilton County Commission race, traditional Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters, so the race might tend to favor Democrat Montrell Besley. But Republicans in the district go to the polls more regularly, so the race might tend to favor Republican Joe Graham, a two-term commissioner who represented the previous District 6 that included part of the area. In the May primary, far more voters cast ballots for Republicans than Democrats, so turnout on both sides may be the key.
> No fewer than five (almost half) of the seats on the Hamilton County Board of Education are up for grabs. With parents wanting to have an eye on what their children are being taught, what's in their curricula and what's in their libraries, the school board may never be more important.
Several of the races may be competitive, and, as if to prove that, the three candidates in the District 11 race took in a combined $25,800 in second-quarter contributions.
Even if you're not a Democrat, live in Districts 6 or 11, or have a school board race, we hope you'll vote. All the folks on the ballot are likely to have more influence on your day-to-day lives than any individual member of Congress or president. Let's vote in such numbers that no one can again say the apathy was so thick it could be cut with a knife.
Opinion: District 6 GOP commission challenger Ruth Jeno blasts state Republican Party for negative mailer against opponent