Second Term Outlook
For Haslam, not being Victor is no longer enough
by Frank Cagle
When Victor Ashe prepared to leave the mayor’s office after 16 years it didn’t appear likely that Knoxville would have another Republican mayor. The city has been trending Democratic over the years as Republican voters moved to the suburbs and newcomers choosing to live in the city added to the Democratic base already here.
Knoxville has voted for Al Gore, Phil Bredesen and Harold Ford Jr., for instance.
When Republican Bill Haslam decided to run for mayor he had the money and the business support that made him appear to be invincible. The establishment cleared the field for him, finding other opportunities for potential Republican candidates. Madeline Rogero, a Democrat and former County Commissioner, ran what appeared to be a futile campaign against the inevitable. Rogero proved it was not inevitable, demonstrated that a credible Democrat was a viable candidate, and exceeded expectations.
The difference for Haslam was his vote in the predominately African American precincts in East Knoxville. If Rogero had gotten the traditional heavy Democratic vote in those precincts (Ford numbers, for instance) she would now be mayor. Though Haslam didn’t win in that part of the city, he got enough votes to retain a winning margin.
Ashe, who had a very real personal commitment to integrating city government as well as boards and commissions, also realized his governing coalition needed support in East Knoxville. Sam Anderson and Tank Strickland were his close advisors and over the years they built up a formidable machine in East Knoxville, joined by County Commissioner Diane Jordan, state Rep. Joe Armstrong and an up-and-comer named Mark Brown they managed to elect to City Council.
This coalition of Democratic friends, political machine, influential East Knoxville citizens—call them what you will—threw in their lot with Haslam. They not only thought he would win, it seemed a natural continuation of the power they had accumulated during the Ashe years.
Anderson and Strickland and Brown have had a lot of influence in East Knoxville during the Haslam administration. There has been an infusion of federal and city money, as was the case during the Ashe administration. They have groomed the next generation of African American leaders to succeed them, including people like Leroy Thompson and Rene Kessler.
The recent Civil Service 1,000-page dust-up over Kessler’s tenure as head of the city’s Community Development office, the City Council’s concern over the expenditure of funds in the Empowerment Zone, the Carpetbag Theatre grant and the failure of Thompson’s Five Points grocery have been signs the mayor may not have been paying enough attention to what’s been going on in a large sector of his administration.
As Haslam heads into his re-election year, he is faced with choices. Reaching out and getting a grip on a large portion of city government and risk angering the African American community, or letting another series of miscues rock his administration. The wild card in this scenario is a newly elected, and more militant, head of the local NAACP. The Rev. Ezra Mayes ain’t from around here and shows signs of rocking an overloaded boat.
City Council appears to be very concerned and may press for a shake-up in the administration of the Empowerment Zone. The question Council has to wrestle with is whether, at the end of the day, all of the federal and city money expended in Knoxville’s inner city will have a lasting impact or whether it has been merely dispersed.
Haslam has benefited from controversies over at the county—the wheel tax vote, Tyler Harber, term limits, feuds with the sheriff. Very little attention has been paid to the city administration, except for the occasional raves about a downtown Cineplex, the restoration of the Bijou and the Tennessee theaters. There is potential for the South Knoxville waterfront development to be a lasting legacy.
But Haslam is facing the first real test of his slow-motion drift through a first term. How he handles the Empowerment Zone and community development and assessing the success of millions in federal and city funds being poured into East Knoxville will be the true measure of his success as mayor.
There are real challenges facing the city, and being a nice guy and beloved by local media may not be enough. Haslam, with his efforts to cooperate with the county and the sheriff and various interest groups, has been successful thus far by simply not being the feuding, disputatious Ashe.
But in seeking a second term he needs to let people know what being Bill Haslam means. This is especially true (just practicing some tough love here) if he plans to take his act on the road—to Nashville maybe.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .