frank_talk (2006-08)

Boiling Cauldron?

Just how much rage is there against the machine?

by Frank Cagle

There are people who think that Knox County contains a large number of voters seething with resentment toward the community’s business and political leadership. Under this theory the city and county mayors and the establishment are propped up by campaign war chests and special interests benefiting from the status quo.

It should be possible to unleash all this pent up rage and direct it into the political process and unseat the powerful.

If this state of affairs is indeed true, then Knoxville City Councilman Steve Hall need only let the voters know he is an alternative to Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, available to satisfy this pent up demand. He doesn’t need the $300,000-plus in campaign funds held by Ragsdale; he can do with a lot less.

But what evidence is there that there is a boiling cauldron of pent up rage about to blow a lid?

We just had City Council elections, and I have scanned the results to discern a voting pattern that demonstrates rage against the machine. It ain’t there. Turnout was, as usual, abysmal. There weren’t enough issues to make the voters care enough to go to the polls. This followed a year in which Mayor Bill Haslam and City Council raised the property tax 32 cents. Hall voted against the property tax increase, and he won by the smallest margin. Indeed, his race was the only one that was even competitive. If there is anger out there, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated city precincts.

Of the 19 County Commission seats up this year there are three races that feature candidates active in the anti-wheel tax referendum movement, and one of those races is for an open seat. On the other hand, the three commissioners who voted against the wheel tax all have opposition as well. There has not been a widespread groundswell of anti-tax candidates opposing all the incumbents. If there is a common theme to 19 individual County Commission races, it is more about Ragsdale candidates versus candidates more likely to listen to Sheriff Tim Hutchison. Hutchison presently has a majority of votes on Commission.

It is true that the anti-wheel tax forces were able to accomplish a prodigious feat, securing enough signatures to force a referendum on the county tax. It was the result of a lot of hard work, and it should not be denigrated. But asking people to sign a petition against a tax increase is like asking them if they want free ice cream. It is not necessarily a sign that thousands of people are ready to vote out the incumbents.

It is true that there was a lot of resentment at the time over County Commission’s vote to levy a property tax increase should the wheel tax be repealed. But that was two years ago. Are people still red hot about it, or has anger cooled? While people may be angry at County Commission, are they angry at their commissioner?

It is true that there is an activist base in Knox County, which not only supports Hall’s effort but will also work on his behalf to defeat Ragsdale. The question is how big this group may be and whether it has the ability to organize the masses to vote Ragsdale out of office.

Hall has positioned himself as a player in local politics. Between his cable-access show, his appearances on Southern Roots Radio (AM1180) and mentoring young politicians like state Rep. Stacy Campfield, he has developed a following. The decision to challenge Ragsdale, however, is a risky one. When you fight a guerilla war you never want the established order to be able to count your troops. Psychological warfare requires secrecy that forces the entrenched power to over-estimate the insurgency. When you take your troops out into a stand-up battle you reveal your actual strength and you risk losing it all.

Hall has put himself out as the alternative candidate to lead a crusade to “take back Knox County.” If he is crushed by Ragsdale’s money, incumbency and political ability, his status as a power broker will be severely diminished. Winning a countywide race requires a positive message about what you hope to accomplish. Being the Anti-Ragsdale will garner a protest vote. But protest votes rarely win elections on a scale larger than district level. If Ragsdale wins, what percentage of the vote for Hall would be considered a “moral victory?”

Ragsdale will not be sitting still and taking shots. There is no area of the county, including inside the city limits, where Ragsdale cannot point to a county project. Branch libraries and senior centers and parks are there in abundance. Four years ago Ragsdale ran unopposed, and he held fund-raisers and meet-and-greets in virtually every community in Knox County. I suspect he is quite ready to do it again.

Hall’s candidacy will be beneficial. If there is widespread dissatisfaction, it will surface. If the widespread dissatisfaction does not exist, then that’s worth knowing as well.

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