On the last day of early voting in the city elections, campaign operatives Sara Burklin and Chris Barber were preparing for a last minute get-out-the-vote phone banking blitz. Although they shared the same concerns about voter turnout (way too low), they’d be working the phones from different locations, because their candidates are running against each other.
Burklin (Sewanee ’16) and Barber (University of Tennessee ’13) are recent college graduates and committed Democrats who became friends last year when both worked for state House candidate Gloria Johnson. This year finds them employed by opposing District 4 city council candidates – Burklin’s boss is first-time candidate Lauren Rider, Barber’s is seasoned political pro Harry Tindell – but they say they’ll still be friends when the campaign is over.
“Campaigns are not war, and I don’t hate my opponent,” Burklin said.
“The likelihood of us working together again is pretty high,” Barber said. “I’m not going to ruin a relationship because of one campaign.”
Barber, who finished college in 2016, majored in political science, which he says he saw as an avenue to act on his “inflated sense of justice.”
Burklin was graduated in 2016, and majored in politics, which she describes as less theoretical and more hands-on than poly sci, because she saw it as a way to help people who didn’t know what she knew about the way the system works.
Barber came of age, politically speaking, during the George W. Bush years; Burklin during Barack Obama’s first term. Barber remembers that his first chance to vote came in 2008 when he couldn’t figure out where to go to cast his ballot.
“It was the most raucous emotional time. I was living in Hess Hall, and ended up voting at a Montessori school out near Ijams Park.
He was recruited into political work by former Knox County Democratic Party chair Cameron Brooks, who asked him to help county commission candidate Marleen Davis, who was running from West Knoxville. He has had a steady succession of political jobs since then, and is battle hardened and knowledgeable. He says his current client, who served 27 years as a state legislator, is a “different” kind of candidate.
“Harry represents a style of politics that rarely exists any more. He’s wonky, nuanced, moderate and thoughtful. I love to sit down and listen to him talk.”
Burklin describes her candidate as “a real active person who can’t say no when people ask her for help, from traffic calming 12 years ago to forming an LLC with her neighbors to make sure a blighted property wasn’t torn down by the city on the taxpayers’ dime. She worked hands-on to renovate that site.”
They share intense frustration over voter apathy, something they see as a bigger opponent than any rival candidate.
“I drag myself out canvassing door-to-door, spend months doing it in sweltering heat,” Barber said. “But it’s like a slow trickle, looking at the early voting numbers…”
“That’s why they call it knock and drag,” Burklin said. “Knock on their door and drag them to the polls. And half of them wait until Election Day to do it!”
Barber nodded in agreement.
“I think we should move the polling place to, like, a Kroger. I’d love it if these city council elections had tens of thousands of voters. People are confused about how early voting works, even though the campaigns touch these people at least four or five times. It’s like, what else can you do?
They are in agreement that city politics are different, and the issues they hear about when they’re working the doors – zoning, sidewalks, garbage pickup and pensions – are not ideological.
Barber is also for District 2 candidate Andrew Roberto, and says he hears the same concerns in affluent west Knoxville as in the more blue collar fourth district, with one telling twist.
“They’re concerned about pensions, too, but they’re wondering how we can fund them and whether they are too high. There are a lot of city employees in the fourth district who are worried about their pensions being cut, or going away.”
Note: Rider and Tindell are not the only candidates in the fourth district city council race. Also running are Amelia Parker, Dan Davis and Jack Knoxville. The top two finishers in Tuesday’s district elections will square off in the November general election, and will run citywide.