frank_talk (2006-05)

What Have You Got?

Anger toward the establishment fuels rebellious politics

by Frank Cagle

In the 1953 film The Wild One a motorcycle gang takes over a town and the nihilistic leader of the group, played by Marlon Brando, is asked: “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” To which the motorcycle gang leader replies: “What’ve you got?”

I thought about that scene last week at the Clinton Expo Center as I tried to figure out the logic of the disparate groups gathered to rally against “the man.” There were the anti-wheel tax forces, damning County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. There were Democrats and Green Party members criticizing Knoxville City Council for selling the Candy Factory to private developers. There was Mark Saroff, critical of the city for threatening to condemn his McClung Warehouses on Jackson Avenue. Ken Knight, the downtown hotelier who led the referendum effort to stop a convention center hotel, was there with door prizes. Republicans, Democrats, Greens and independents united under the rubric “Taking Knox County back” with the principle rabble rousing being done by frequent talk show caller Joe Bryson.

If there was a commonality, it consisted of a sense of disenfranchisement; not being part of the group in Knoxville and Knox County “that runs things.”

The anti-wheel tax County Commission candidates, like Gary Sellers and Greg “Lumpy” Lambert and Mike Alford, were joined by anti-wheel tax incumbents like Democrat Mark Cawood and Republican Mike McMillan. But the Godfather of the movement who spoke to the group was City Councilman Steve Hall. He stood before a T-shirt pinned to the wall urging Steve Hall for Mayor. Though he declined to announce a decision, Hall has picked up a petition to run against Ragsdale.

The question for Ragsdale and the establishment that does indeed “run things” is how widespread is this “I’m agin’ it” attitude and whether it translates into a real political movement or whether it will remain a collection of the usual suspects. The event at the Expo consisted of people crowded into a room with 50 chairs, some people standing outside the door and people going and coming over a two-a-half-hour period. It was about 75 people, when I took a quick look around midway through the evening. But there were a lot of candidates, activists, spouses and organizers. But the number at the rally is not as important as the question of whether this core group of activists will be able to mobilize voters during this upcoming election season.

A more important question is whether there is a disconnect between the political and business leadership and a significant segment of the Knox County population. I hate to generalize, but the political and business leadership, in the main, live in West Knox County. The insurgents are, mostly, from everyplace else. People in East and South Knox County have not identified with people in West Knox County for a long time. That’s also true of some of North Knox, from Halls to Powell.

There is also the traditional disconnect between the new urban dwellers downtown and in inner-city neighborhoods from suburbia. I suppose the remarkable thing about the Clinton Expo Insurgency is that it is the first time I’ve seen downtown denizens and East Knox County commissioners making common cause.

Factions in Knoxville and Knox County have, for the last 20 years, been symbolized by public bickering between city and county government, Mayor Victor Ashe and whoever headed county government; open antipathy between the police department and the sheriff’s department. We have seen those tensions dissipate with Ragsdale, Mayor Bill Haslam and Sheriff Tim Hutchison seemingly determined to set aside the petty stuff. There is also a sizable contingent on County Commission determined to get along.

The factionalism now is more geographical. It may be that people East and South and North with school needs resent the necessity of building more and more schools west to accommodate the population growth there. They are also angered by Ragsdale’s support for downtown projects. It’s possible to live in West Knox County, work in Oak Ridge, and be barely conscious that there is a downtown Knoxville, much less a Vestal, Five Points, Mascot, Gibbs, Halls or Powell. It is also certainly possible for people in those communities to view West Knox County as an Oak Ridge suburb and alien to their own experience.

Ragsdale is the first head of Knox County government from West Knox County, and he will do well there in the coming election. The question, and an indicator of whether there is a disconnect, is how hard he campaigns and how well he will do in voting precincts in the rest of the county.

A Hall candidacy might be a good thing—a useful diagnostic test to discover if there is only a surface crack in community unity or whether it’s a deep fissure.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .