Running for a countywide office has never been easy. Now try running with 21 opponents and asking voters to remember enough to make you one of their five picks. In the final week of early voting, at-large candidates for Metro Council are working overtime to get votes.
In an already crowded election season, the race for at-large slots occupies an awkward middle ground between the mayoral race and the district council races. For an at-large, their campaigning must cover the entire city, similar to a mayoral campaign, but with funding that is more comparable to that of someone running for a district council seat. They need to be just as knowledgeable as the mayoral candidates even though they’ll have dramatically less authority.
All of these issues were compounded this year by the legislature’s attempt to cut the council in half, which for a short period left the city in limbo, unsure whether we would be electing the typical five at-large councilmembers, a smaller number or even none at all. Both at-large and mayoral candidates say that the potential changes froze some donors for a time, particularly at the grassroots level.
Going into the final stretch, only seven at-large candidates had more than $50,000 on hand, with a steep drop to under $15,000 for the eighth person. Of those seven candidates, five are either incumbent at-large councilmembers (Burkley Allen and Zulfat Suara) or district councilmembers vying for a promotion (District 15 CM Jeff Syracuse, District 29 CM Delishia Porterfield and District 25 CM Russ Pulley).
The tactical side of spending money weighs on the campaigns. It’s likely that only one or two candidates have a shot at earning enough votes to avoid a runoff, which would mean needing to fund another countywide campaign for six weeks. Do you spend every last penny? Do you keep some back? Direct mail campaigns can cost as much as $1 per voter reached, meaning that communicating to enough voters to win a seat in the runoff costs $35,000-$40,000 per mailing.
But while funds and name recognition will go a long way, there’s one thing that levels the playing field, and could possibly allow even a surprise candidate with less funding to secure a spot: hustle.
“There’s a few people out there that have out-fundraised me but there’s nobody gonna outwork me,” says candidate Olivia Hill. “I work seven days a week and I’m trying to show up to every single event that I could possibly show up to.”
Candidates have taken various tacks to get their names to voters. Allen could be seen at nearly every forum and event of the season, with a giant button pinned to her shirt asking for the vote of whoever she was greeting. If you frequently park in public spaces, you’ve likely come back to your car at least once to find a flier for repeat candidate Howard Jones tucked into your door handle. In the time it’s taken to read this article, chances are high that you’ve received an email from Syracuse asking for money. And not only has Hill been at many of the same events as Allen, she also hopes her reputation as a trans activist will secure her some ever-coveted name ID and even mobilize members of the LGBT community.
“I don’t see us having the challenges that some of these others are having, because a lot of the district seats are very popular in their districts, and not necessarily popular in the entire county,” says Hill. “They have just as much uphill battles as I think I do.”
While Hill says she didn’t notice the state’s attempt to cut the council in half having much of an effect on her campaign, for Porterfield, who was on the front lines in the battle with the state, the name ID she was afforded by being visible on Capitol Hill also meant she couldn’t kick off her campaign until well after many of her peers.
“Between [issues with the state] and fighting the Titans’ stadium, I got in really, really, really late and it was one of those things where I could not in good conscience launch my campaign and really dig deep into this side of it until I felt comfortable that we had finished the session,” says Porterfield.
Election Day falls on Aug. 3. For an at-large candidate to win a seat outright, they must secure 10 percent of the vote. For any seats that remain open after election day, a runoff will be held among double the number of available seats. That means that going into this final week before election day, while candidates would ideally like to secure a seat, getting in the top eight or nine could be enough to push them into the runoff.
Quin Evans-Segall and a gaggle of volunteers have been working the polls, hitting three to six polling spots a day. While this last-second form of campaigning might only give her exposure to people who have already decided to get out and vote and isn’t exactly mobilizing new voters, for an undecided voter who doesn’t know much about the at-large race, being greeted by the smiling face of someone wearing a t-shirt with “Quin” in all caps could be just what she needs to secure some last second votes.
“That’s one of my favorite things to do,” says Evans-Segall. “And it’s not always the best use of my time, but it’s really fun to work.”