Metro Councilman Eric Crafton was surely rooting for incumbent Vic Lineweaver to come out on top during last week’s Democratic primary for Juvenile Court Clerk.
It didn’t happen. Not even close.
When Crafton began to hint that he might run as a Republican for the Juvenile Court Clerk job, observers began to think through the oft-controversial Bellevue councilman’s strategy. (Filing papers for a separate Republican primary for a local election is a rarity for Davidson County.)
Most Nashville politicos figured Crafton had hoped for a dream, but seemingly practical, scenario to play out: With the multitude of candidates challenging Lineweaver — a Metro councilwoman, a school board member and a well-connected General Sessions Court officer — contenders would take their piece of the electoral pie, leaving Lineweaver on top. After all, didn’t Lineweaver have an army of loyalists who would vote for him once again, no matter what, just as they did in 2002, 2006 and during his stint as a council member?
In a Lineweaver-Crafton match-up, the thinking went, voters — even Yellow Dog Democrats — would have second thoughts about pushing the button for Lineweaver, who’s accumulated a string of negative, sometimes bizarre, headlines in recent years, including an arrest after being found in contempt in court for failing to produce various documents. Before last week, the scenario didn’t seem so far-fetched. In the end, though, Lineweaver’s exploits led to his defeat in the first round, not the second, at least temporarily ending the political career of a longtime staple of Metro government.
In Davidson County’s most closely watched race, Lineweaver was crushed, receiving votes from only 12 percent of the 18,512 Nashvillians who took park in the May 18 primary. Lineweaver finished fourth, behind Councilwoman Vivian Wilhoite, school board member Karen Johnson, and way behind General
Sessions Court officer David Smith, who raked in an impressive 50 percent of the vote.
Last week’s outcome sets up an Aug. 5 contest between Crafton, known as one of Metro’s most outspoken council members, and Smith, a candidate who’s demonstrated the ability to raise big-time cash, get out the vote and, most noticeably, attract significant support from the downtown legal community.
Once an aide in former Mayor Bill Boner’s administration, Smith and his family have been a part of Nashville’s political scene for a while. His father, Mack Smith, a Goodlettsville liquor storeowner, was part of the old East Nashville political crowd during the 1970s and ’80s.
“There’s no secret that he’s the courthouse crowd’s pick,” Crafton said. “But it’s like I’ve said before: I’m interested in being the people’s pick for this position. And basically now that we’re past the partisan stage of this election, it’s now just an interview process for a job.”
During his two-year run at the office, Smith acknowledged he’s heard opponents call him the “good ol’ boy” candidate.
“We’ve talked, and he and I both decided we’re going to run on the issues, and try to keep it clean,” Smith said of his conversations with Crafton. “But you can go to his website, and he’s already called me a courthouse insider and said I’m gonna have plenty of money funneled to me, and things like that. I don’t know how clean that is.”
Smith may have a strong coalition of supporters, but Crafton has his as well. And Crafton doesn’t accept the tag of underdog.
In a body of 40, Crafton is one of the few council members who has garnered countywide name recognition after taking on an array of controversial issues. He’s led the effort to preserve the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, stood in firm opposition to the construction of Nashville’s new convention center and, most memorably, pushed for the English-only referendum, an unsuccessful attempt to make English the official language of Metro government. Still, even among his adversaries, Crafton has built a reputation for being smart and thoughtful, although his stances have often ruffled feathers.
“This shouldn’t be a political job,” Crafton said. “It should be strictly about qualifications.”
Crafton’s candidacy shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially considering the dynamics of August’s election. Davidson County leans Democratic. But most voters won’t be heading to the polls in August thinking about the Juvenile Court race. The big contest will be the state’s Republican primary for governor.
When former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan ended her gubernatorial bid in March, businessman Mike McWherter remained the only Democrat in the primary. Meanwhile, three Republicans — Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp — will be on the ballot.
With a competitive gubernatorial GOP primary, Davidson County Republicans may be more energized than Democrats to hit the polls, and those voters could be inclined to choose the Juvenile Court Clerk candidate with an “R” next to his name.
“I think that’s a very good possibility,” Crafton said. “The Democratic primary is already decided. I want every vote I can get, but that’s a good assessment.”
Smith added, “There are also Democratic races being held on the state level with the state Senate and state House primaries. And I feel comfortable saying that I feel like I have a good base of GOP support.”
Whether the governor’s race becomes a factor or not, there’s already one person in Nashville probably eager for either candidate to assume office.
Juvenile Court Judge Betty Adams Green has made no bones about her displeasure with Lineweaver’s management of the clerk’s office. In the weeks leading up to the primary, a David Smith yard sign appeared in the front yard of her East Nashville home. She said it reveals the inclinations of her husband, not her.
Under the rules of judicial conduct, Green can’t endorse either candidate. Nonetheless, as of Friday, the Smith yard sign hadn’t moved.