Who's Next?

Ability to do good politics is essential for the next county mayor

Events are in train to change the face of Knox County government in 2010, and the agenda for the next county mayor makes it a critical election. Scandals in the Mike Ragsdale administration, turmoil on County Commission, and government by referendum have had an unsettling effect that goes beyond county government and to the public at large.

What are we looking for in the next county mayor and is there any prospect of finding it among likely candidates?

It would seem, given recent election results, that a candidate from outside current county government would have an advantage. That would seem to benefit state Sen. Tim Burchett, R-Knoxville. While Burchett has the political skills to run for the office, his position in the state Legislature has kept him out of the controversies that have beset county government for the past two years. He is someone who has name recognition and money to run, but he comes to the job from outside.

How would voters feel about a current county commissioner running for county mayor—Richard Briggs or Mike Hammond, for instance? R. Larry Smith? The voters think so much of commission they just passed a referendum to get rid of almost half of them, reducing commission from 19 to 11 members. Perhaps it was a reaction to just a few of the commissioners, not the whole body. But given the reputation of commission of late one wonders if Commissioner St. Peter could rise above the fray and win the trust of the voters.

Lewis Cosby is a retired CPA and a former auditor. He has been examining the county books and has raised salient questions about charter violations and wrongdoing. Should he be convinced to run for mayor he is sensitive to the criticism that all his good work was just politically motivated. Should Ragsdale leave office early, Cosby would be the perfect pick of commission to step in and restore integrity to the mayor's office. But he is not a politician. Running against Burchett in a straight-up race in 2010 would be an interesting choice for the voters.

Former Sheriff Tim Hutchison has long been a controversial figure. He won elections as sheriff because, for all his faults, his department was recognized as a top-flight law enforcement agency. But his margins were getting smaller and smaller against even weak Democratic candidates in a Republican county. The county mayor job requires a different set of skills from being sheriff and they are skills even Hutchison's supporters concede he lacks: Getting along with various stakeholders; dealing with the press; building consensus in order to govern.

But back to Burchett. What you hear often around town is a sentence beginning: "I like Tim, but…" These people look at Burchett's lack of management experience and his public image as a lightweight. Some of this is Burchett's fault. He has cultivated a good ol' boy image that often obscures the fact that he passes more legislation than any other senator in Nashville. And they aren't all about roadkill.

Which brings us back to the skill set needed to be the next county mayor.

Ragsdale's problems were financial but they were all rooted in politics. He took controls off purchasing cards so he could wine and dine and lobby. He set up the hospitality fund to showcase his political agenda. He picked fights with other officeholders and set up Tyler Harber to run political races to try and build a political machine. There are competent financial managers in county government—but it was the political decisions in the mayor's office that led to financial problems. It was a political decision to fund the sheriff's department pension with bonds rather than a tax increase.

The next mayor needs to be a consensus builder. Needs to work with commission. Needs to get the support of the entire community. Needs to restore trust.

The next mayor needs to have good political skills, and to not practice dumb politics.

Burchett has never lost an election and has to be considered the favorite at this point. But his task over the next two years is to convince skeptics there is more to him than first appears. m