State Sen. Tim Burchett remains a popular political figure in Knox County, if recent polling is to be believed, and remains the favorite to become the next Knox County mayor. But a couple of recent issues have elected county officeholders angry, and whether this translates into problems with the rank and file is the central question in next year's mayoral primary.
Burchett, as leader of the Knox County legislative delegation, convened a secret-ballot meeting in Nashville (not Knoxville, which some legislators wanted) to select the Republican members of the county election commission. Some party people think Burchett should have secured a pledge from these three commissioners to replace Democratic Election Administrator Greg Mackay with a Republican. But Mackay is popular with some Republicans, the press, and, of course, Democrats. It is an explosive issue that Burchett really didn't need on his way to campaigning for county mayor.
County Republican chair Ray Jenkins Jr. has been hammering the election commission in e-mails to party members calling for Mackay to be replaced. He has encouraged contact with election commissioners to express the party's displeasure with the lack of action on firing Mackay. Many county officeholders, especially the countywide constitutional officers, support the idea of a Republican election administrator. Regardless of the outcome on this issue, Burchett is going to get blamed for A) keeping Mackay or B) firing Mackay.
Then over-eager sheriff's deputy Chad Faulkner, who represents Union and Campbell counties, introduced a bill to define the constitutional officers and stop Knox County Commission from controlling the offices through the county charter. When the bill reached the Senate, a Burchett colleague opened a closed committee to hear the matter and Burchett sat silently. He neither amended the proposed bill nor supported it, thus angering the constitutional officeholders once again.
The central question for the campaign is whether the county party and the officeholders uniting behind another candidate would do damage to Burchett's chances, or whether the county Republican machine has lost its ability to turn out the Republican vote and influence an election. Despite the setback of various Republican officeholders, and the defeat of many incumbents last year, the Republican ticket routed the Democrats in last fall's election.
Does the machine still have clout in a Republican primary, or does Burchett's favorability with the voters trump machine politics?
A Burchett poll among Republican voters reveals that 51 percent perceive Knox County government as on the "wrong track," which is not surprising given the scandals of the last few years. The surprising thing might be that 42 percent think Knox County is on the "right track."
But what is clear is that Burchett has a favorability rating of 72 percent and has an unfavorability rating of just 6 percent. Burchett's poll has former Sheriff Tim Hutchison with a favorability rating of just 53 percent and an unfavorability rating of 33 percent. (Possible candidate Lewis Cosby's numbers were insignificant, since he has not run before and his name recognition is nowhere near that of Burchett and Hutchison.)
In a head-to-head race, the Burchett poll has him defeating Hutchison by a 56-27 percent margin.
The race hasn't started so these numbers are not hard and fast. Indeed, it is not a sure thing that Hutchison will even enter the race. But up front, Burchett has to be considered the favorite.
Should Cosby get in the race, running on a reform ticket, and spending some money, the nature of the race could change. Reform candidates in the February primary last year trounced a host of familiar names. Cosby needs to remind voters he was the one stepping up to raise questions about County Mayor Mike Ragsdale's financial troubles and charter violations. He has an issue to run on if he can make the case. He is not an experienced candidate like Burchett or Hutchison, but another scandal might get the populace riled up again as in the February primary.
The county mayor's race next year will be a defining moment in Knox County politics and set the tone going forward. We can't wait.