JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — When the ballroom at the Carnegie Hotel broke out into applause around 10 p.m. Thursday, it ended a tense, quiet hour that had seen incumbent Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy barely hold his early lead over challenger James Reeves.
But hold it Grandy had, squeaking by with a 141-vote victory (unofficial) after early votes and all 23 precincts had reported. The turnout was extremely low, less than 13% of registered voters, and Grandy had captured 50.6% of them to Reeves’s 49.2% (write-ins accounted for 0.2%).
It marked his second general election victory over Reeves, whom he’d beaten by a slightly higher margin (51.8%-48.2%) in 2018, when nearly 18,000 votes were cast in the mayor’s contest. On Thursday, only 10,786 votes were cast in the race.
Grandy’s victory came at the end of a couple weeks that saw both candidates trade barbs with each other, with Grandy accusing Reeves of outright lies about him regarding, among other things, his involvement in an application for a beer garden at the Appalachian Fair.
“This is not a landslide,” he said with a slight chuckle. “But it is, I think, clearly truth over lies.”
Grandy said his next four years working in county government would involve “continuing a policy of transparency and truth and honesty in the work that we do and so we look forward to four great years.”
“We’re looking forward to getting education as a top priority,” he said. “Our teachers are great, we have a real unique opportunity for some students to get professional training in job skills so when they graduate they’ll be ready to hit the market. A lot of great things going on down in the industrial park and we’re focused on getting drinking water to most of our citizens in Washington County. So plenty to do.”
In a nod to recent movement forward toward greater regionalism, Grandy mentioned the elections of Richard Venable and Patty Woodby as mayors of Sullivan and Carter counties.
“There’s so much positive in Washington County, there’s so much positive in the region,” Grandy said.
“That Venable was re-elected and Woodby was re-elected. We have a very close relationship with the mayors and the governments in our adjoining counties and I think we are really poised to have a fabulous four years of managed growth and great opportunities for the citizens here and for all the new citizens that are coming in.”
The tone was much different at Quantum Leap, just over a mile from the Carnegie in downtown Johnson City where Reeves acknowledged feeling “demoralized” after falling just short of victory.
“You guys deserve what you got,” Reeves said, apparently in reference to a second Grandy term. “You didn’t vote, he’s yours for four more years.”
Reeves said he wasn’t sure about his political future but said he was a good prognosticator.
“I can pretty much say the future of what’s going to go in that courthouse if he stays, so we’ll see how it goes,” Reeves said without providing any specifics. “I would like to be wrong.”
Asked about the declining turnout, Reeves mentioned the lack of paper ballots, and also said people may “know the country’s bankrupt and we’re starting to worry about ourselves.”
He then mentioned a couple themes he’d communicated in his campaign that he had said point to some type of “insider” system — a controversial Bitcoin mine in Limestone and a proposed meat-packing facility to be partially funded by American Rescue Plan Act monies.
“With the Bitcoin, with the slaughterhouse and all that stuff that you can easily hang around his neck, and his group, they didn’t vote,” Reeves said. “Can’t hold their hand. I don’t want to hold their hand.”
Back at the Carnegie, newly re-elected (without opposition) County Commissioner Jim Wheeler had a much different outlook.
Jim Wheeler has been serving as the commission’s vice chairman and said he thought low voter turnout was definitely a contributing factor to Grandy’s razor-thin victory margin – but thinks there’s more to it.
“I think for some reason we’re not getting enough information out to people about the issues,” Wheeler said. “I think people are hearing the campaign talk from both sides, and they’re believing what they hear and we’re ending up with sort of a 50/50.”
Wheeler said that the split among county voters that has led to close countywide elections the past several cycles is hard to figure out. Reeves and some of Grandy’s other challengers have made noises about “the establishment” and “developers” having too much power, but Wheeler said that’s not what he encounters door to door when campaigning.
“I find that voters across every range of the economic spectrum don’t look at it that way,” he said. “I think most people when you’re locating a school understand that development around that school is a good thing and you want that.
“You don’t want to favor one (developer) over the other, and they don’t want to see that, but development itself is not the enemy and I think most people understand that.”
Wheeler said he sees the next four years as an opportunity for Grandy and the commission to work together on some ongoing projects and some new areas of focus. He said the effort to extend utility water has found a groove and is proceeding without requiring too much time by the commission or mayor’s office.
“We’ve got to go back to the drawing board on communication and do a better job communicating. I think we’ve got to continue to focus on workforce development – I think that will be one of our biggest challenges as we go forward.”
As to Grandy’s comment about growth management as Washington County appears on the cusp of significant population growth, Wheeler said it will present a choice the county hasn’t typically faced.
“It’ll be interesting to see whether the county has a taste for further restriction on how we develop and how we grow,” he said. “Traditionally, the county has not had that taste.
“I think a lot of it will depend on how the voters feel and the feedback they give not only commissioners but planning commission members and the mayor and our city counterparts about how much regulation are they up for.”