Thursday, September 18, 2008

When Votes Don't Count

Kurita’s win officially voided

Democratic leaders in state Senate district nominate Barnes

By THEO EMERY • Staff Writer • September 18, 2008

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Tim Barnes speaks to the crowd Wednesday after being selected as the Democratic nominee for the 22nd District of the state Senate.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn.Democratic Party officials from Montgomery, Cheatham and Houston counties overwhelmingly handed a primary victory to attorney Tim Barnes on Wednesday evening, overturning Sen. Rosalind Kurita's 19-vote primary victory for the contested Senate District 22 seat.

The crowd packed into a Clarksville hotel meeting room erupted into applause and cheers as party officials tallied the 61-4 vote of executive committee members from the three counties, making Barnes the nominee for the seat.

Afterward, supporters chanted "Time for Tim!" as they crowded around a podium, waiting for him to make a statement. With an enormous campaign sign behind him, Barnes said the vote was a vindication for his campaign.

"I'm proud of the fact that I'm standing here today because I think this is proof that you can avoid the negative political mudslinging, the political dirty tricks, and you can take the political high road and still succeed, and I think that's what my being here shows," he said.

The fight for the seat has seized the state's political spotlight in large part because of Barnes' challenge to the nail-biting margin, but also because Kurita played a key role in electing the Republican Senate leadership. Whichever candidate gains the seat could determine that again.

Kurita's vote last year to hand the speaker's gavel to Ron Ramsey, a Blountville Republican, earned her deep enmity from Democrats in her district, and that anger was widely seen as fueling Barnes' run.

Although Kurita was nominated at the Wednesday party gathering, she was not present at the hotel, choosing instead to huddle with supporters at her home. She said she chose not to be at the meeting because "I knew that my being there or not would not make any difference."

"It is an injustice, and in America, we expect that our elections will not be stolen. I think most people are still in disbelief that this has happened," she said. "Tonight is chapter two in a sad story."

Next step pondered

Kurita, who was expecting a lopsided vote by the executive committee members, has refused to give in. On Monday, she declared herself a write-in candidate in the three counties, and is also considering challenging the outcome in federal court, her only legal recourse.

There is no Republican candidate for the seat.

With the primary stretching into a general election fight leading up to Nov. 4, both sides pledged to campaign hard. Kurita, who sent out a fundraising letter this week, said she is "working on giving people in my district who voted for me the opportunity to vote for me again."

Barnes, for his part, pledged a full-throttle race, saying "I'm going to take about 12 to 14 hours to rest, and then we'll be back on the campaign trail."

Many in Nashville's political establishment saw Barnes' run as an underdog campaign and expected a handy victory for Kurita. But that calculus apparently failed to account for the anger with Kurita, named speaker pro tem — the number two Senate post — by Ramsey after she threw her vote to him.

After losing by 19 votes, Barnes challenged the outcome, alleging that Kurita won her slim victory because of crossover voting by Republicans, which is legal under the state's open primary system that allows any voter to cast a ballot in either party's primary.

Barnes also alleged that Kurita broke state law by entering a polling place — which her attorneys acknowledged but derided as "pottygate" — and used dirty tricks to secure her victory.

Last Saturday, the executive committee of the state party met all day to hear arguments by attorneys on both sides. Executive committee members ended up invalidating the primary result 33-11 as "incurably uncertain" and sent it back to be decided by party officials in the three counties.

State party officials scrambled to set up Wednesday's meeting, facing a tight deadline to get the nominee onto overseas absentee ballots the state Division of Elections must mail on Saturday under state law.

After the vote, Democratic Party spokesman Wade Munday said that, Kurita's refusal to quit notwithstanding, "we will support our nominee."

"We have our nominee, and we're certainly unified with the overwhelming vote that was cast tonight on behalf of Tim Barnes."

Meeting was festive

The meeting room began filling long before the start of the convention. In front of the hotel, enormous campaign signs for Barnes flanked the entrance where party executives entered the building. Inside, the atmosphere was more festive than combative in the convention room, where party members chatted and visited as executive committee members arrived.

Unlike last Saturday's all-day meeting, Wednesday's vote lasted only about 30 minutes.

When the meeting chairman asked for nominations, Linda Swindle jumped to her feet and nominated Kurita, saying "residents of the district were deprived of the right to have their vote heard."

Barnes was nominated next. When the chairman called on Kurita to address party executives, he was met with silence, and a murmur swept through the crowd. Barnes then delivered a campaign-type speech.

One by one, the party executives cast their votes. Afterward, one of those who voted for Kurita, Cheatham County Executive Martha Wettemann, said the only way to decide the vote would have been a new primary.

"I don't think it's fair not to redo the election," she said.

But Terry McMoore, a Barnes supporter, was pleased with the outcome. Milling in the crowd of Barnes supporters afterward, he said "never have I seen a process work so well as today."

"I really think there shouldn't be any sour grapes. I think she should come on board as a private citizen and support this ticket because that's what this is all about if she's the Democrat she claims to be."

Contact Theo Emery at 615-726-4889 or temery@tennessean.com.

Source: http://tennessean.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080918/NEWS0206/809180373

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