Former Sheriff Tim Hutchison has been spending most of his time in South Carolina building houses since he left office—out of sight, out of mind, and out of the continuing controversies surrounding county government.
Not that he isn't paying attention. He is very aware that candidates associated with his faction of the local Republican Party took a beating in the February primary. So will the former sheriff return to run for County Mayor when Mike Ragsdale leaves office?
Hutchison has been a formidable candidate for almost two decades, and without term limits he may have been able to remain in the sheriff's office indefinitely—though his victory margins have dwindled in recent years. Can he translate his political clout from the sheriff's office to a run for mayor? Does the Hutchison machine still exist?
Even most of the former sheriff's critics acknowledge he did a tremendous job in bringing the office into the 21st Century and made it a professional crime-fighting force. Criticisms of Hutchison have centered on his political activities, his contempt for the media, and his insistence in running his office free of any interference or control by the County Commission. Come election time, his abilities in law enforcement were often enough to overcome concerns about these other issues.
A County Mayor's race, however, is all about politics.
Other candidates may emerge, but at this writing it looks like a Tim versus Tim election. State Sen. Tim Burchett, one of the most popular political figures in Knox County, is organizing for a run for County Mayor. If Burchett runs, will Hutchison, too?
Hutchison can argue that Burchett has never been an administrator, but has been a legislator. Hutchison can point to his years as an administrator running a 1,000-plus employee organization. But given the current political climate, does it matter?
Burchett isn't Randy Tyree or Jim Andrews, the last two candidates to challenge Hutchison for sheriff. Burchett has never lost an election, he will have as much or more money than Hutchison, and he is one of the most media-friendly candidates to hold office in Knox County. If it's Tim versus Tim, then Burchett will have the entire Knoxville business and political establishment behind him. Not to mention most of the media.
The County Commissioners appointed and then removed by the Sunshine lawsuit were, by and large, members of the Hutchison faction. They were universally turned out of office in the February primary. Hutchison's clout on County Commission has been severely diminished. If the August election demonstrates a continuing backlash among the voters toward incumbents and established political figures, it would not bode well for Hutchison.
The petition drive to get charter amendments on the ballot to change the structure of county government is continuing to inflame the populace. Commission's failure to put the items on the ballot may be continuing to keep the February anger boiling. If the amendments get on the ballot, and if they pass, it is further evidence the voters want to punish county government, smash the political machine, and get a fresh start. This is not a good environment for a Hutchison candidacy. Ask longtime County Trustee Mike Lowe, who lost a race for property assessor; or Commissioner Scott Moore who lost a bid for County Clerk.
Predicting local election results these days is difficult because the landscape has changed dramatically. The political machine that repeatedly elected Hutchison, Lowe, Steve Hall, and John Whitehead no longer exists. The days of a faction controlling County Commission and controlling the agenda are over.
Local races these days do not turn on issues, experience, or the old allegiances. The problem for Hutchison (and to a lesser extent Sheriff Jimmy "JJ" Jones) is the poisonous political atmosphere. If the voter anger demonstrated in February continues, and the attitude remains virulently anti-incumbent, Burchett benefits from being outside the courthouse crowd.
Hutchison is still a popular political figure and has tremendous organizational skills. But term limits have changed everything. Before he runs, he needs to get the talk right.