Lunch with County Mayor Tim Burchett is positively Jimmy Duncan-esque. Like the popular Congressman, a sustained conversation with Burchett is difficult between the handshakes, the fist bumps, the hugs and the kisses from all and sundry.
Burchett won his office with an overwhelming popular vote that was also Duncan-esque. In the 80 percent range. He remains popular with the public at large. But at six months into office he is also accumulating enemies. His opposition helped kill the controversial Midway Business Park, an action that angered the Knox Area Chamber Partnership and the business community. A News Sentinel editorial labeled Burchett incompetent and "stupid."
Burchett is continuing the process of putting together a plan for a new elementary school for the Carter community that will likely come to the school board in May. The school board is not happy, having repeatedly refused to build a school there.
As he puts together a budget for the coming year, looming layoffs and funding cuts have created a great deal of angst in the City County building. There are a lot of non-profit groups around town that rely on grants from the county budget and it is likely their funds will be cut, if not eliminated.
Knoxville is a collection of circles—political people, the non-profits, business groups, assorted professionals. But the circles overlap. Most non-profits have business people and people with political clout on their boards, and they call on them come budget time. The pressure can get intense on County Commission and the mayor's office. I call them the Gang of 500, the people who make Knoxville run. From the economy to the arts organizations to the social service agencies. They are linked by Leadership Knoxville, and the ambitious in the business community are ever aware of the example of service set by Jim Haslam, who has been drafting the well-to-do to do good for decades.
It is this Knoxville establishment that is leery of Burchett. He prides himself on not being a member. As a legislator he was not part of the "courthouse crowd," which stood him in good stead in trouncing former Sheriff Tim Hutchison. Burchett is the unusual elected local official who came into office with few strings on him. But when the going gets tough, and this budget year will be tough, he will have few allies to call on despite his popularity with the public.
Are there people out to "get" the county mayor?
I asked Burchett about a report I received that his movements in and out of the City County building are being monitored—when he gets to work and when he leaves. Burchett was also nailed pretty thoroughly in a well-sourced News Sentinel story about missing meetings of boards and committees on which the county mayor is a fixture. Burchett produced his schedule for the day from his jacket pocket. It contained eight or nine meetings getting him home about 10 o'clock that night. He shrugs off the rumors, suggesting that he will keep his own schedule. Attend the meetings he wishes to attend.
It is likely that Burchett will continue to get hammered, if his first six months are any indication. The Burchett I have observed over the years (in Knoxville and in Nashville) was never not working, even as a part-time legislator. I know of constituent services performed on weekends even when the Legislature was not in session. A story about "mostly ridiculous" hotline tips still appeared on page one of the News Sentinel this week with a "tip" accusing Burchett of having dodged a drunk-driving charge. I have had some experience following Nashville and Knoxville political night life over the years, and Burchett doesn't drink and never has.
But in setting himself apart and not going with the flow Burchett is going to have to be very careful. Any misstep (or accusation of a misstep) will be noted and expounded upon. He is in danger of a "narrative" being created in which he is lazy, inattentive, or not sufficiently engaged in the establishment's agenda.
He may need to call on that wellspring of public support quite often in the coming year.