Knoxville's Traditional Power Centers Have Dead Batteries

The times, they are a-changing.

Trustee John Duncan III ought to send Gloria Ray flowers. Her troubles with the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp. have kept him off the front page or the lead TV news items for a few days.

Were it not for Ray's troubles, the story about County Mayor Tim Burchett saying that if the allegations are true then young Duncan should quit his post would have made a bigger stir. It is still a remarkable occurrence and it comes on the heels of Burchett and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero calling on Ray and the executive committee of KTSC to resign.

At first blush you wouldn't think Burchett and Rogero have much in common. He's a Republican, she's a Democrat. But what they do have in common is that neither are part of either the "ole boy" network or the Knoxville political establishment. Some establishment folk around town were no more pleased to see Burchett cruise to election than they were when Rogero did it.

There is very little left of the old county courthouse political machine: fee officeholders with years of political organizing and ground troops to put in the field come election time. (We no longer have a Bean machine, a Lowe machine, or a Hutchison machine.) The troubles in the Trustee's office may produce more impetus for Burchett's earlier pitch to have his office approve the budgets and staffing in the fee offices. The Trustee is accused of giving out $42,000 in bonuses to employees who didn't complete a required course to get the money. And one employee may have taken the tests for the work they did complete.

The cronies getting bonuses again raises the question about having the offices covered by the county merit system, with job descriptions, consistent hiring practices, and consistent standards for work and pay.

The Republican establishment, the other source of local Republican Party dominance, is also not what it once was. They certainly didn't want Rogero, but they couldn't find another Victor Ashe or Bill Haslam. They will have some time to regroup and examine the younger generation. In the meantime, the Democrats control the mayor's office and a majority of City Council.

The smaller and blinded-by-Sunshine Knox County Commission has a drastically changed personality. There is more openness, and disputes spill out into the public rather than being hashed out in private. Commissioner R. Larry Smith has the temerity to ask the questions that got the investigation of the Trustee's office going and then said Congressman Jimmy Duncan tried to intimidate him. Duncan denies it. What the hell has gotten into local government?

Coalitions are fractured. The party machinery is in a shambles. The 12 White Men (who allegedly run everything) have gone to Martha's Vineyard or Hilton Head. Or their focus now is on Haslam or U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and the possibility of national politics.

The Chamber of Commerce has turned into a nonprofit education lobby.

The traditional power centers in Knoxville evidently have dead batteries.

Much of the impetus for change has been term limits, of course, for good and for bad.

Some officeholders are spending time on good government rather than protecting a 20-year career in office. But some of it is because we have a lot of lame ducks wandering around looking for another job. Some suspect Commissioner Smith might have his eye on the Trustee's job.

We also can't underestimate scandals that have rocked local government. (We wonder if the computer confiscated in the Trustee office investigation is being stored alongside Tyler Harber's old computer, he being the Mike Ragsdale aide who ran political campaigns out of his county office.)

The voters, the media, and the bloggers are paying a lot more attention these days, and when trouble arises it almost immediately goes viral. Given what we've seen in local government in the last few years, we are now ready to believe just about anything that's rumored might indeed be possible. Because it usually is.