Friday, January 23, 2009
English-only fails; lopsided vote ends heated campaign
By Chris Echegaray • THE TENNESSEAN • January 23, 2009 Nashville listened to its leaders — the governor, the mayor, and a vast coalition of churches, businesses and universities — and defeated an English-only measure by nearly 10,000 votes in Thursday's special election. No one predicted the massive turnout on the special election, one that inspired strong emotion from voters on either side. Ultimately, opponents said, the message that diversity is a good thing came through. "With the defeat of this amendment, the citizens of Nashville tell the rest of the country that we are an incredibly warm city with an entrepreneurial spirit," said Tom Oreck, a vacuum cleaner company owner who worked to defeat the measure. The final was 32,144 for English only and 41,752 against — at about 19 percent, the largest turnout for a special election in a decade. Opponents were well ahead when early voting totals came out just after the polls closed at 7 p.m. and never trailed. The measure would have forced all Metro Nashville government business to be done in English, with the council allowed to vote on exceptions. The city's legal department contended early on that conflicts with federal law would enmesh Nashville in litigation for years to come. By defeating the measure, Nashville will not be the largest city in the nation with an English-only rule in its charter despite dogged efforts by Metro Councilman Eric Crafton, who spearheaded the amendment. The city's size attracted the attention of national media. Crafton's arguments Crafton and his Nashville English First group argued that the city would save money in translation services and become unified as the result of more immigrants learning English. But even Crafton said he is glad the special election is over. He has been trying to get the charter amended for two years, first failing after former Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed a council vote on the issue and then failing to get it on the November ballot over a technicality in timing. "Like Roberto Duran said after his fight, 'No mas,'" Crafton said. "I think our community benefited from this debate, and I'm glad to have it behind us. We may have been on different sides, but we have to work to improve the education system, work through the budget crisis. Now, we have to be cooperative and work together." After the final tallies, Mayor Karl Dean also called for the city to move on from this chapter. "The results of this special election reaffirm Nashville's identity as a welcoming and friendly city and our ability to come together as a community — from all walks of life and perspectives — to work together for a common cause for the good of our city," he said. Election costs Even some who voted for the measure complained about the expense of holding a special election for it — nearly $280,000. Others didn't like the expense or the measure. "This is a waste of taxpayer money," said Ruth Hall, who voted at DuPont Tyler Middle School. "It's wrong, and I voted against it. "If I travel somewhere, I don't want the government telling me what I should be speaking and when." But those who went to the polls had ideas as diverse as Nashville itself. Julie Lopez, who is married to a Cuban immigrant and adopted a daughter from Colombia, voted in favor of the measure. "I just feel that it's fine to have government business to be in one language, an official language," said Lopez, who voted at the Central Pike Church of Christ. "I think, with changing demographics, there should be changing policies." Overall, the "o ne country, one language" sentiment pushed by Crafton to galvanize voters didn't resonate because Nashville is becoming cosmopolitan and comfortable with its diversity, said University of Illinois professor Dennis Baron, who has written extensively on English-only measures. "Nashville refused to be alarmed by unwarranted language endangerment," he said. "This is a good sign. As I've said, these things tend to pass. The forces against the measure worked very hard." Baron said English-only measures are often veiled attempts against immigrants and non-English speaking groups. The argument over English-only found itself framed around Latinos and illegal immigration, but it also would have affected the thousands of refugees the federal government resettles in Nashville. The defeat of English-only is a sign that voters recognize bad policy, said Maria Rodriguez, director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition who has fought against similar measures in that state. "Voters are not duped anymore," she said. "They know when they see bad policy that is going to be costly and that's not progressive. … I guess brown can stick around in Nashville." What are your feelings about this issue?
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