A month ago, Jennifer Owen messaged me to ask what I was hearing about her election. (Yes, candidates and reporters sometimes have off-the-record conversations, so spare me your shocked comments.)
I told her I wasn’t hearing a thing about the District 2 school board race, where she was running for a second term. She’d scored a surprising upset victory over a better-funded opponent four years ago, but the talk was even worse this time.
So, I told one of those white-lie thingies that we used to employ back in the pre-Twitter days when we were loath to hurt one another’s feelings. (What was I supposed to do, tell her that she’d annoyed so many powerful people that she didn’t have a chance in hell of being re-elected?)
Owen had taken principled, unpopular stands, made people mad and was being out-spent, out-endorsed and outright attacked on social media, where one prominent detractor pronounced her the dumbest school board member in 50 years, detracting from his point by spelling her name “Owin.”
Sure, she had devoted volunteers and steady support from educators, but her opponent, John Meade, co-president of the Central High School Foundation, was rocking big ticket contributions from the top tier of the local GOP donor base and dispatching bales of direct mail to district mailboxes while Owen only sent out two mailers, one of which she paid for with $2,000 borrowed from her husband, Robert. Her only other large contribution was $2,500 from the K-PACE, the Knox County Education Association political action committee. She volunteered the information that Robert was probably going to forgive the loan.
Owen relied on shoe leather and elbow grease donated by a cadre of volunteers who did the grunt work of phone banking, knocking on doors, putting out signs and working the polls.
District 2 stretches from Republican-dominated Inskip and Fountain City south to the bright blue trolley burbs on the outskirts of downtown. Technically-speaking, this shouldn’t impact a non-partisan school board race, but anybody who is paying attention knows how the candidates align, and when early voting closed down in late February, the numbers showed a huge surge on the Democratic side. It’s no secret that Owen is a Democrat and Meade is a Republican.
Come election night, Meade won his two home precincts in Shannondale, one 637-430, the other 387-370. Owen blew him out everywhere else and won the district 57/42 percent.
She didn’t have a lot of time to chat the day after the election as she prowled the district looking for stray campaign signs, but I needed to confess that I’d lied to her. She was cool about it and said she’d also suspected things were not going well until a friend who is good at number-crunching and map reading showed her how the district demographics worked.
“I did a lot of math after that,” she said. “I made a spreadsheet for every precinct, how the Ds and the Rs voted in 2016, in early voting and on election day, and then made another spreadsheet of numbers for this year, and then compared them. I could tell things were not as dismal as I had thought.”
She felt even better when she studied her opponent’s massive endorsement list – “I didn’t want to waste 30 cents mailing something to people who aren’t going to vote for me, so I started pulling those names out and couldn’t find some of them, because they don’t live in my district. It was math that saved me.”
And now she was ready to get back on task.
“Only losers leave their signs behind,” she said.
Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.