Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Polk County's History With Elections

I found the following Commercial Appeal article very interesting. It is always pretty neat to read stories like this.

Looks like Polk County will be a weather vain for the rest of the state this fall:

This hasn't been the best of years for Polk County, a kayaker's paradise set among the ridges and rapids of Tennessee's rugged southeastern corner.

Chris Newton, the kid from nearby Turtletown who grew up to be a state legislator, went to prison for taking $4,500 in bribes in the Tennessee Waltz scandal.

A bear killed a 6-year-old girl near the Chilhowee Campground, a playground for generations of Polk County families.

And last month came disturbing news that a body found in a burned car on a remote local road was linked to the notorious Salvadoran MS 13 gang, considered by the FBI to be the most dangerous gang in America.

Folks here have more on their minds than the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis and Republican Bob Corker of Chattanooga, no matter how historic and significant it might be.

"We're a little more focused on what's going on around here right now," said Jimmy McAbee, the local Democratic Party chief who sells guns and ammo at Benton Shooters Supply.

Ford and Corker might want to focus a little more on what's going on here in Polk County.

Their high-profile race to replace Republican Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, is generating a lot of national attention and financial contributions. Ford is seeking to become the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate from the South. Corker is trying to keep the seat in Republican hands, a seat once held by Democrats with storied names like Gore, Johnson and Jackson.

The winner could decide which party controls the Senate, and that winner will be determined in places like Polk County.

Most of Tennessee's 95 counties tend to vote Republican or Democrat no matter who's on the ballot. But there are a decisive dozen counties that have voted for every winning candidate for president, governor or U.S. senator -- Democrat or Republican, East, Middle or West Tennessean -- since 1986.

Polk County's winning streak goes back to 1980 when Georgia neighbor Jimmy Carter beat Ronald Reagan by 19 votes. But the county's 11,375 registered voters have made a habit of picking winners ever since.

They voted for George Bush in 1988 but not in 1992. They voted for Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992 and 1996 but not for Gore in 2000. They voted for Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2002 but not in 1994. They voted for Democrat Ned McWherter in 1986 and 1990, then for Republican Don Sundquist in 1994 and 1998.

"I can't explain it," said Marian Bailey Presswood, a retired schoolteacher and active Polk County historian. "Most everyone around here says they're a Democrat, but people here have always had a strong streak of independence."

Maybe it's because this was the last area to become part of the state of Tennessee. The state was founded in 1796, but Polk County wasn't established until 1839, the same year its Cherokee residents were forcibly evicted in the "Trail of Tears."

Maybe it's because Polk County seceded once from the United States (in 1860 by a vote of 738-316), and nearly once from Tennessee (in the late 1940s when the governor sent troops to oversee an election after three voters were killed in partisan violence at the polls).

Maybe it's because more than half the county (155,000 of 277,000 acres) is owned by the federal government. The Cherokee National Forest cuts the county in half and forces local officials to run two courthouses, one "above the mountain" in Ducktown and the other "below the mountain" in Benton.

Whatever the reason, Polk County clearly votes its conscience -- and its concerns.

Polk countians used to live on cotton and copper. The cotton fields have all but disappeared and the land-scraping, acid-rainmaking copper mines closed in 1987 -- but not before turning the Copper Basin into the world's largest manmade desert.

Nature is slowly reclaiming the hills and valleys, but the local economy is still struggling to adjust. Good-paying jobs with benefits have become scarce since the mines played out and the clothing factories moved to find even cheaper labor in other countries.

The county got a temporary boost in the mid-1990s when it was preparing the Ocoee River for kayak and canoe races in the 1996 Olympics. But most of the spectators and participants were bused in, and security made it difficult for nearby towns to get much business.

Today, the county's largest employers are the local medical center and the school system.

"We've lost the middle-class, the professional class," said Becky Mobbs, a Polk County native who teaches English and history at Copper Basin High, where the student body has declined from about 500 to about 250 since the mines closed.

"The people who are still here have a lot of insecurities, a lot of concerns."

Concerns about the price of gas. Nearly half the people who live in Polk County have jobs, but most of those jobs are in neighboring counties, some as far away as Atlanta or Knoxville, and the daily commutes are getting more costly.

Concerns about the war. Military service once seemed like a wide road out of rural Polk County, but now it just seems like a one-way ticket to Iraq.

Concerns about illegal immigration. In a county of 16,000, a few hundred "illegal aliens" put a lot of pressure on the job base.

Concerns about crime. The county is building a new and bigger jail, in part to make money by taking in some state prisoners. But local arrests are going up each year, and the news about the MS 13 gang means that bears might not be the only predators in these hills.

Concerns about health and the cost of health care.

"There are a lot of good people here, but a lot of them are having a very hard time, physically, emotionally and spiritually," said Jane Sines, a nurse and Seventh-Day Adventist missionary. Sines and her husband, Dr. John Sines, a dentist, recently started a public health ministry in Polk County that includes a dental office, a counseling and wellness center and a vegetarian restaurant.

"There are a lot of people here who are just barely getting by, and they're not taking care of themselves because they can't afford to."

Meanwhile, officials are hoping the county's natural resources can revive the local economy.

Crystal Geyser recently opened a water bottling plant just north of here, touting its "protected source" in the Cherokee National Forest.

Developers are building four high-end subdivisions near the Hiawasee and Ocoee rivers, hoping to draw outsiders looking to buy second or retirement homes in the mountains.

When Curtis Belk went to give blood not long ago, he told the nurse to be especially careful.

"I've got some of the rarest blood around," he said. "Polk County Republican."

"We don't hold it against him," joked McAbee, who often holds court with Belk and others in the nonpartisan aisles of Benton Shooters Supply.

Local Republican candidates don't do well in this county named for a Democrat, 19th century governor and president James K. Polk.

Eleven Republicans were on the county general election ballot in August; only one prevailed -- Fred Wilcoxen who was re-elected to the county commission by 14 votes. The last Republican to win a countywide office was Sheriff Frank Payne in 1986.

But local Republicans often turn the tables here in state and national elections. For example, Republican presidential candidates have won Polk County in 11 of the past 15 elections. Republicans represent Polk County in the state House and Senate as well as Congress.

Mobbs, whose grandfather was the county's last Republican trustee and whose Republican father was county judge for 20 years, tends to vote Democratic. She believes either Senate candidate can win Polk County -- Corker because he's more conservative and Ford because he's a Democrat.

She also thinks each candidate faces at least one major obstacle here.

For Ford, it's an issue of race.

"This county is 99.9 percent white and it has a reputation for not being particularly hospitable to blacks," Mobbs said. "I don't think the reputation is accurate anymore, but there are a lot of black folks who won't even come to Polk County."

For Corker, it's an issue of class.

"He's too rich. He's a wealthy man, a millionaire. That will work against him here," Mobbs said.

Ford visited several local businesses in March, which made Page 3 of the Polk County News. He did well here in the August primaries, but he could have done better. He got 1,245 votes to win his Senate primary, but Gov. Phil Bredesen got 1,635 votes and local Democrat Mike Stinnett, who was elected county executive, got 2,162.

Corker, former mayor of nearby Chattanooga, has yet to visit Polk County. He also could have done better here. He got 541 votes locally, but Republican Rep. Zach Wamp got 735. Two years ago, President Bush got 3,924.

How do Republicans win a county that's overwhelmingly Democratic?

"Most Democrats here are old, conservative Southern Democrats," McAbee explained.

"Most Democrats here are really Republicans," Belk retorted.

McAbee laughed. "Well, we might disagree on local issues like roads and schools, but we all tend to agree on the bigger issues like abortion and gun control.

"When a Democrat like Al Gore loses Polk County, it's because we didn't feel like he represented our values, which tend to be conservative."

"And when a Republican loses," Belk added, "it's because he wasn't a Democrat."

For those of you living in Polk County, get out there and work! Lets once agian make Polk County right by voting for Harold Ford Jr. this fall!