Throughout the spring and before the qualifying deadline there was a persistent rumor that a Candidate X would jump into the Knoxville mayor's race—someone with instant credibility, plenty of money, and who would immediately become the front runner.
I don't think late entry Joe Hultquist was who they had in mind.
I was skeptical of this scenario. First, I talked to the usual suspects and no one knew the name of this mystery candidate. Second, and more significantly, no one could think of a person in Knoxville who would fit the description. A public figure with name recognition and credibility who does not already hold public office does not come to mind.
City races are nonpartisan, though one wonders if any election in Knox County can be run without party allegiances coming into play. If the Republicans are to rally and retain their hold on the reins of government, they will have to rely on Ivan Harmon. Ivan? The county Republican Party is trying to gin up support for Harmon and make the race about a Republican victory.
When I worked for then-Mayor Victor Ashe, I recall a conversation in which he wondered if he might not be the last Republican mayor of Knoxville. The trends were there back in 2001.
But along came Bill Haslam, the exception that proved the rule. Name recognition, plenty of money, and a good candidate. He was able to retain Ashe's coalition, including black community leaders in Sam Anderson, Tank Strickland, and Mark Brown. Madeline Rogero, a Democrat, needed votes from East Knoxville and if she had gotten them she probably would have won.
I recall a conversation with Haslam during his second term. We were discussing the continued success of downtown development and the boom in downtown living. Haslam joked that his legacy might well be the creation of more Democratic precincts.
In the Democratic primary in Knox County in 2008, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the ballot, Randy Tyree got 27,945 votes for sheriff. "JJ" Jones got 34,717 votes in the Republican primary. In the general election, if those same Democrats had come back to vote we would now have Sheriff Tyree. Jones won with 25,795 votes in the general. Tyree dropped to 18,575.
As Betty Bean has noted, Democrats, like Harold Ford Jr., have carried Knoxville while losing Knox County as a whole. It is very possible that after the city election is concluded, the Democrats could be holding the mayor's office and a majority on City Council.
The weakness of the local Democratic Party of late has been a paucity of elected Democrats, the lack of a strong bench from which to field a full slate of candidates, and the resulting apathy of Democrats to vote in local elections. Rogero seems to have an enthusiastic following among Democrats, but also has longtime friends who are Republicans. She can convincingly argue that she is better equipped and has the most experience to be mayor.
Who will have the most enthusiastic voters on election day? Rogero or Harmon?
There are collections of enthusiasm for Rogero. The first woman mayor. Helping her win after a valiant effort in 2003. Electing a Democrat. Friends accumulated after years of public service.
Electing a generic Republican, in this case, Harmon, does not seem to translate into a voter frenzy. The only fervor I can detect against Rogero is a fear that she is too liberal and might not be business friendly. But Rogero has given critics no ammunition this time around (no ads about family oil companies) and she has a good deal of support among small business people in town.
Young Mark Padgett is getting experience in this race, and will likely be a force in local politics in years to come. He will strengthen that weak Democratic bench I mentioned earlier. But I think Rogero has cultivated a front-runner aura that will be hard for Padgett to overcome.
If the Democrats vote in the numbers they should, they can take control of city government. My only question is, why have they waited so long?