By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ
COOKEVILLE – Integrity and electing someone who represents your values were recurring themes during the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber’s Meet the Candidates event held last Tuesday night and sponsored by the Upper Cumberland Business Journal. Those issues, along with economic development, election integrity and privilege of voting highlighted the evening.
Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber President/CEO Amy New served as the host for the evening, welcoming the crowd and introducing Mike McCloud, owner of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal, the sponsor of the evening.
McCloud reflected on past campaigns he has worked on, such as the “restaurant referendum” that brought liquor-by-the-drink to Cookeville in the early 1990s.
“Often times, economic prosperity is directly tied to political leadership,” said McCloud, as he reflected on past discussions with former Chamber Presidents Eldon Leslie and George Halford, as well as New.
“Everyone should run for political office at least one time in their life,” said McCloud in thanking all the candidates who were undertaking that challenge. “That way you know how it feels to be a goldfish, to swim around with everyone looking at you, at all parts of you, and places you might not even know exist. It is one of the most absorbing and self-reflective, anxious things you can do in life.”
New agreed and stressed, “It’s not just the candidate that’s in the fishbowl, it’s also their kids, speaking from experience.”
Several unopposed officials took the opportunity to encourage candidates and voters to look deeply at the responsibilities of elected office.
Criminal Court Judge Part 1 Gary McKenzie is running unopposed. He has served as judge for eight years and previously served as assistant district attorney for 14 years.
“A lot of people come into my courtroom and they argue about constitutional rights, and I listen to those because it’s very important,” McKenzie said. “But it’s not just about rights in this country, it’s about responsibility, and it’s something that we seem to forget a little bit about. Because with those rights come responsibility. It’s your responsibility in the electorate as voters to come out and choose your leaders.
“Those leaders you choose make a difference in the life of your community. It’s extremely important,” McKenzie stressed. “I challenge you to do your research, and I challenge you to look at these candidates. Take a look at them, because in judicial elections, it’s about good judgement, and that’s important. It’s imperative that you do that because these elections only come about every eight years.”
District Attorney General Bryant C. Dunaway has served in his position for eight years.
He recognized that he, along with Judge McKenzie and Judge Wesley Bray, were unopposed for their offices and assured those in attendance that he felt blessed and did not take his position and responsibility for granted. “It is a position that the people place you in and you only borrow it for a time,” said Dunaway. “We don’t deserve it. It’s not an entitlement, it’s a service position, and I don’t take this position lightly, nor do I take it for granted. You have placed me here, and I will continue to honor this position.
“Do look closely at your contested races,” Dunaway advised. “It’s important who serves your community.”
Incumbent Public Defender Craig Fickling is also running unopposed. He stressed that there are a lot of things people don’t tell you when you run for office and that there are things he didn’t know when he first ran in 2014 that he knows now – what it means to serve the community as a public servant.
“One of the things they don’t tell you is that no matter what office you hold, you are a representative of this community,” shared Fickling. “You have to conduct yourself properly with integrity, because the focus of the community is on you and the office you hold. And if you don’t do that, and if you bring shame to yourself, or dishonor to yourself or act in a way that is not virtuous, you insult the community and bring shame on the community. That’s one of the things they should tell you when you run for office because it’s a very high standard.”
The seven offices of Circuit Court Judge Part I, Circuit Court Judge Part II, Chancellor, Criminal Court Judge Part I, Criminal Court Judge Part II, District Attorney General and Public Defender are district-wide offices and serve the 13th Judicial District, a seven-county district composed of Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Overton, Pickett, Putnam and White counties.
Circuit Court Judge Part I 13th Judicial District
This office will be decided in August with two candidates, incumbent Amy Hollars running as an Independent and challenger William T. Will” Ridley running as a Republican.
Hollars has served in this office for 13.5 years and has held a law license for 27 years.
Ridley has served as the Crossville city attorney for eight years and in private practice. He also was recently appointed as the Cumberland County General Sessions Judge.
Circuit Court Judge Part II 13th Judicial District
The office of Circuit Court Judge Part II will be decided in the May election as both incumbent Jonathan Young and challenger Caroline E. Knight are running as Republicans with no other challengers.
Knight has both been in private practice and worked in the District Attorney’s office. She currently has the special assignment of prosecuting crimes against children.
Young has served in this office for almost eight years. He has served in private practice practicing civil law.
The remaining 13th Judicial District positions are running unopposed: Chancellor – Ronald Thurman (R), District Attorney General – Bryant Dunaway (R), Public Defender – Craig P. Fickling Jr. (R), Criminal Court Judge Part I – Gary S. McKenzie and Criminal Court Judge Part II – Wesley Bray.
Putnam County offices
The Trustee’s office handles over $200 million each year. This race will be decided in May with incumbent Freddie G. Nelson and challenger Jane Sadler both running on the Republican ticket.
Nelson has served as Trustee for almost 12 years. Previously he served as a teacher for 30 years.
Sadler has previously served in human resources director for a large company. She also has worked in banking and in a law office.
General Sessions Judge Part II
Aside from Trustee, General Sessions Judge Part II is the only other contested county-wide office. This office will be determined in May with R. Steven Randolph and Laurie Ann Seber both running on the Republican ballot to fill the seat vacated by retiring Judge John Hudson.
Randolph has been an attorney for 22 years where he has practiced all types of law. He served as the Algood city attorney for six years and served as the legal counsel for the HOPE Center Family Adoption Services for three years.
Seber began her law practice in Virginia and moved back to the area in 2009. She served as the attorney for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services for four years. She has been in private practice in Cookeville since 2013.
In the remaining county-wide offices, the incumbents are unopposed: County Mayor – Randy Porter, Sheriff – Eddie Farris, Circuit Court Clerk – Jennifer Wilkerson, County Clerk – Wayne Nabors, Register of Deeds – Harold Burris, Road Supervisor – Randy Jones and General Sessions Judge Part I – Steve Qualls.
Three elections will be held in Putnam County this year. There will be a May 3 Primary, an Aug. 4 General Election and state races will be determined on Nov. 8.
Putnam County Election Administrator Michelle Honeycutt has worked in the office since 1998 and said that it has never been so hard to find a balanced number of election workers. Tennessee state law requires that there be an even number of Democrat and Republican poll workers during the election. She encouraged anyone who wants to be a poll worker to contact her office and complete an application.
Honeycutt stressed “none of that stuff that happened in the other states can happen here.” Absentee ballots have to be requested, and signatures are verified before the ballot is counted. If there is a question about the signature, the office reaches out to the voter to ascertain if the signature is correct, updating it in the system, if necessary, in an attempt to count every vote.
“I’m going to encourage you to vote,” said Putnam County Mayor Randy Porter. “One of the most important things that you can do, and one of the most important freedoms we have, besides free speech and the Second Amendment, is the right to go vote and select the people who are going to make the decisions that are going to affect you the most.
The local offices will affect you much more in your day-to-day lives than the federal offices will, or the state offices will,” Porter continued. “Please go vote.”