Politics is still local: a look at the local referenda and races impacting small towns across Tennessee

By: - November 5, 2020 5:30 am
A voter enters a polling site in Coffee County, Tennessee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A voter enters a polling site in Coffee County, Tennessee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

While all eyes remain on the as-yet undecided presidential race, voters in small towns across Tennessee went to the polls on Tuesday to cast ballots focused on hyperlocal issues and candidates and achieved historic results in some instances.

Here’s a look at some of those election outcomes and what they mean for Tennessee communities:


In several local races, alcohol served as the big ticket issue that galvanized voters.

In Medina, Tenn. — a town of just under 5,000 people in Gibson County — voters approved a referendum allowing wine sales at retail food stores inside the city’s limits by a margin of 77.9% to 22.1%.

In Blount County, a referendum allowing restaurants to serve liquor by the drink outside the cities of Alcoa, Maryville and Townsend also passed easily on Tuesday.

A similar measure was approved by voters in unincorporated areas of Rutherford County.

And in Sullivan County, voters outside incorporated cities approved liquor by the drink by a wide margin.

In each case, local restaurants had been able to serve beer but not alcohol. The measures go into effect as soon as votes are certified.

In Spring City, located in conservative Rhea County, voters approved a referendum allowing packaged liquor stores. Previously, liquor stores were prohibited within city limits. The city has a population of approximately 1,900.


Women achieved historic wins in several local and regional races.

Republican Diana Harshbarger, a Kingsport pharmacist, business owner and first-time candidate, easily defeated Democrat Blair Walsingham, also a woman, and independent Steve Holder to become the first woman elected to represent Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses a large swathe of 12 counties in northeast Tennessee.

Harshbager, who was publicly backed by President Donald Trump, will take the seat left by retiring Republican Rep. Phil Roe.

Congresswoman-elect Diana Harshbarger (Photo: votediana.com)
Congresswoman-elect Diana Harshbarger (Photo: votediana.com)

She won by 74.8% of the vote in a race whose outcome in the heavily Republican district was never really in question. To get there, however, she had to fight her way through a crowded primary field of 15 Republican candidates in August to earn her place in the general election.

In Blount County — near Knoxville — first-time candidate Sarah Herron also made history as the first woman ever to elected to the local council in Maryville, a suburban city near Knoxville that was established in 1795.

Herron, who served as chair of the Blount County Democratic Party, campaigned on nuts and bolts local issues like better management of bulk trash and bringing affordable high speed internet to the area. She promised voters she would offer the “fresh perspective of a woman, a mom and a working person with 17 years of digital experience,” according to her campaign website. Herron has served as a digital expert in music and nonprofit industries. She took 29.68% of the vote in a four-person race.

And in Clarksville, female candidates vied for all but one of seven open seats on the City Council, winning four.

“That’s historic for our community,” Karen Reynolds, who won the seat for Clarksville City Council Ward 9, told the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle.

An unexpected death

In Benton, Tenn. longtime Mayor Jerry Stephens died on Election Day. He was 80. He had served as mayor for 30 years.

Stephens was on the ballot, and voters in the small east Tennessee community re-elected him on Tuesday by a vote of 455 to 220.

On Tuesday, local officials mourned the loss while telling the public they were still trying to establish who would take over.

City Commissioner Joe Jenkins will serve as interim mayor while officials determine the next steps.

A partisan Mayor’s fight

Tennessee Code Annotated specifies municipal elections shall be nonpartisan but both the state and Sumner County Republican Party worked on behalf of incumbent Mayor Jamie Clary in Hendersonville.

Mail piece sent by the Tennessee Republican Party attacking candidate Brenda Payne in the Hendersonville Mayor's race.
Mail piece sent by the Tennessee Republican Party attacking candidate Brenda Payne in the Hendersonville Mayor’s race.

A campaign flyer paid for by the Tennessee Republican Party sent to residents suggested that independent candidate for mayor, Brenda Payne, endorsed “big city ideas” such as rioting, looting and “attacking our police.”

Clary, who had signed a “pledge encouraging candidates to run a positive campaign” was criticized by some residents for the flier and for another in which he equated himself with President Donald Trump.

Clary ultimately succeeded in defeating Payne to win re-election on Tuesday.



This wasn’t a Tennessee election, but a voter-approval of referendum paving the way for the establishment of the Hard Rock Casino & Resort in Bristol, Va was keenly anticipated by residents in the same-named twin city across state lines.

Voters in Bristol voted widely in favor of a plan that will allow for a $400 gambling casino to be built in a former mall in Bristol just a few miles from the Tennessee border.

The plan calls for a two-story casino along with an outdoor entertainment venue with capacity to hold 20,000 people, a 3,200-seat indoor theater, multiple restaurants and bars, retail shopping and a 350-room hotel with potential to grow. While tax revenue would accrue to Virginia, proponents touted the indirect benefits to Northeast Tennessee from employment and visitor spending and tourism to the site, just across the border.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.