Feudin' and Fightin': Business, Chamber Spats With Local Government Isn't With City's Democratic Mayor

The irony is rich.

The Knoxville business community looked high and low for a Republican candidate who could defeat Madeline Rogero's bid for mayor. Given her background as a union organizer in her youth, her work with non-profits, and the fact that she is a Democrat did not bode well for business-friendly local government.

But they couldn't find anybody who could beat her. One of those encouraged to run, businessman Eddie Mannis, is now her deputy.

The Knox Area Chamber Partnership and business leaders are now in a bitter feud with local government—but it's county government.

Rogero has reached out to businesses with an Office of Business Support and a Business Advisory Council. She supported a TIF to bring the Walmart/Publix development and she has maintained the city's financial support for the Chamber, Innovation Valley, and the Development Corp.

Meanwhile, County Mayor Tim Burchett rejected the business community campaign for a tax increase to substantially increase school funding. The County Commission has elected as its chair Tony Norman, who also opposed the school plan. Norman also was the architect of the hillside/ridgetop plan that the Chamber bitterly opposed as taking too much Knox County land out of the development pool.

Norman is now pushing for the Chamber to open its books on the school campaign, despite the Chamber's assurance that no public money was used for it.

There was a time when it seemed that the Knox Chamber, as a surrogate for the community's business leaders, seem interchangeable with local government. The idea that a local government, like Knox County, would cut funds for the Chamber or demand to see its books was beyond imagination.

What's changed?

• The business leadership has changed. Big Jim Haslam, understandably, stepped away from influencing local affairs when his son Bill was elected mayor. Developer Bob Talbot, who seemed to be the guy most likely to step into Haslam's role, has moved to Nashville. Some of the movers and shakers are just trying to keep their heads above water given the current economic climate. They don't have time to screw around with mayoral elections and County Commission squabbles.

• The fallout from the state Supreme Court ruling imposing term limits on Knox County government has broken up the disciplined courthouse machine. Lillian Bean, Steve Hall, Mike Lowe and Tim Hutchison are gone. County government these days is made up of free-lancers. Burchett came into office with over 75 percent of the vote and he doesn't "owe" it to any special-interest groups. He doesn't have any strings on him.

While Burchett is being hammered by the Chamber and the press, I don't think the people who elected him will be turned against him because he wouldn't raise taxes and because he now reports a budget surplus. These aren't issues you can use to beat him in the next election.

• As to freelancers. In years past it was inconceivable that a county commissioner, like R. Larry Smith, could go public and accuse Congressman Jimmy Duncan of threatening him if he didn't lay off criticizing his son, Trustee John Duncan III. The days of being a cog in the courthouse machine, paying dues, and keeping your head down waiting for an opportunity are over. Politicians now feel free to make their own opportunities.

• Term limits have led to a County Commission that no longer has members dedicated to keeping the seat for decades by playing ball with the political machine. The machine isn't there and once they are in office they only have to make it past one more election. They feel free to stake out positions and go their own way. And often they are angling for another elected post.

Scandals, upsets, and turmoil in county government are driving local news coverage and factions will continue to roil the community.

Meanwhile, city government rocks along, avoiding controversy and being quietly efficient. Under its business-friendly Democratic mayor.