Hall’s effort was more referendum than campaign
by Frank Cagle
The Knox County mayor’s race was a referendum on Mike Ragsdale’s administration. City Councilman Steve Hall was on the ballot, but the space might as well have just said “Not Ragsdale.”
No one would confuse Hall with a serious, well-funded, charismatic candidate. He offered no agenda and no tax relief. His issue was all about Ragsdale’s handling of the wheel tax and the way it was done. No mention of its repeal. Hardly the platform of a demagogue or a platform guaranteed to rouse the populace.
I said before the race that the Hall candidacy pre-supposed a pent-up rage out there among the voters seeking an outlet. Having little money and even less of a comprehensive program, Hall essentially provided a vehicle for protest.
Looking at the election results can we discern any pent up rage being vented?
Ragsdale got 60 percent of the vote, or near it. That’s a serious win; I don’t care how you spin it. It’s as close to a mandate as you are likely to get in a countywide election in a place as diverse as Knox County.
The wild card in the election was the Supreme Court decision on term limits for Knox County commissioners. The coverage, the confusion and the sheer volume of news about it pushed the mayor’s race to the side.
The evidence that the wheel tax was a dominant issue in the campaign is mixed. Out in the east end of the county, Commissioner John Mills voted for the wheel tax. He won his primary. Gary Sellers, from the district and the father of the wheel tax referendum effort, came in third in the Mills race. The other 8th District representative, Commissioner Mike McMillan, voted against the wheel tax, made it an issue in his campaign, and lost the primary to Phil Ballard.
Greg “Lumpy” Lambert, another leader of the anti-wheel tax effort, did win the Republican primary in the Powell area. It is an open seat. But Lambert is a charming and effective candidate who got the wheel tax as a platform that gave him visibility, but then made the most of it. Those elements of the county Republican Party who seem determined to “get” Lumpy, even if it means supporting a Democrat in the general election, need to stop and get a grip. You should remember that old adage about preferring to have someone inside your tent doing it out the door rather than someone outside your tent doing it the other way.
Lambert is an effective demagogue, and all he needs is the suggestion that the Republican courthouse crowd is opposing him to put him back in the news, back riding an anti-establishment horse and back to leading an insurgency. And unlike Hall or Sellers, he is a charismatic candidate with leadership skills.
There are those who always look for Sheriff Tim Hutchison’s fingerprints in county elections. I think the CSI team would find them all over the Wanda Moody defeat. Moody and her attorney Herb Moncier have been suing the sheriff on a variety of issues for years and run up legal bills in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hutchison was determined that Moody not return to Commission, even before the term-limits decision. Moody announced at one point that she would be suspending her campaign, since she was term-limited. But she soon had phone banks working, and she campaigned hard to win her primary. Tony Norman got twice as many votes as Moody, indicating that the public may have viewed the race as a referendum on the sheriff versus his obsessive attackers.
Former County Commissioner Leo Cooper came back to run against incumbent Scott Moore. Former school board member Jim McClain came back to run against incumbent Robert Bratton. During the campaign, critics said both men thought their willingness to come back and serve was enough and that they weren’t trying hard enough to win back their voters. The younger, more energetic Moore and Bratton held onto their seats.
This election was about process rather than issues. Considering the lawsuits and the upcoming party conventions to pick candidates, it appears that the general election will also be preoccupied with the how rather than the why.
In the meantime, someone schedule an intervention with those term-limited County Commissioners who don’t seem to get it. Get out of the way.
The story is told about a young congressman from Illinois who got elected by the Whigs. They had a policy of allowing a candidate to serve only one term. The young congressman wrote back to the party chairman at the end of his term and pointed out that he had pretty well gotten the hang of things and if he just had one more term he might be able to do even more good for his district. The party chairman is alleged to have written back: “Come on home, Abe (Lincoln), there’s no shortage of good men.”
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .