insights (2006-11)

Testing Ragsdale’s Mettle

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes. And to the extent it’s true, County Mayer Mike Ragsdale stands to benefit.

It’s highly unlikely that Ragsdale will get knocked off in his bid for reelection. But having a worthy opponent in the person of City Councilman Steve Hall will serve to test his mettle, and a Ragsdale victory in the May 2 Republican primary should help replenish his store of political capital that got depleted in the debate that ensued from his heavy-handedness in pushing through a $30 increase in the county’s wheel tax two years ago.

Hall can be expected to make Ragsdale’s handling of the wheel tax a central issue in his campaign. After the mayor steered it through County Commission with only three dissenting votes, a swell of protest begat some 30,000 signatures on a petition to bring the tax to a referendum vote where it seemed doomed to fail. Ragsdale then resorted to getting County Commission to approve an 18-cent increase in the county’s property tax rate as a “backup” plan that would raise about the same $12 million as the wheel tax and take effect if the wheel tax got voted down. (Property tax increases are not subject to a referendum.) As it turned out, voters in the November referendum opted for the wheel tax over the property tax, but Ragsdale was left with a lot of political scar tissue.

Hall doesn’t intend to question the need for additional revenue nearly as much as the way Ragsdale went about getting it. “I won’t blackmail the citizens into voting for a tax increase,” Hall asserts. “I think he probably could have sold the wheel tax if he’d clearly stated that we need it for this, this and this. But no government should treat their citizens the way he went about it.”

Ragsdale concedes that “we certainly could have communicated better than we did.” But he recoils against the blackmail charge. “If we hadn’t had a backup plan we’d have been four months into our fiscal year without knowing whether we had the revenue to fund a budget that County Commission unanimously approved. Having to cut $12 million at that point would have meant firing school teachers and/or deputies, and that is not a risk that any reasonable person could afford to take.”

Having to campaign for reelection will enable Ragsdale to showcase the many accomplishments of his first four years in office and build support for more of the same. When asked about his goals for a second term, Ragsdale responds with a recitation of the same four points that have been his litany from the get-go: every school a great school, economic results, outstanding programs for senior citizens and making government better every day.

Where schools are concerned, he says, “You have to set your goals very high and then work very hard to get them.” To someone like myself who believes our schools remain underfunded and underperforming that theme has a somewhat hollow ring. But there’s no denying the value of the $17 million he’s pledged by 2008 to fund a foundation that’s developing programs aimed primarily at strengthened supports for disadvantaged students. And he has crusaded for rectification of inequities in the state’s formula for allocating its school funding that shortchanges Knox County.

New senior centers in Halls and South Knox and a $6 million county commitment to a new Veterans Nursing Home in West Knox evidence his support for seniors, whose voter turnout runs high. Beyond his four-point litany, Ragsdale has also birthed two major new county parks totaling 200 acres and four new branch libraries, judiciously spread around the county.

One initiative that Ragsdale doesn’t mention is his ill-fated proposal for a monumental new $40 million downtown library, which just happened to accompany his proposed wheel tax. The library became a lightning rod for wheel tax opponents, and the county mayor shelved it. When asked about its revival, Ragsdale responds that, “My first priority is a new Discovery Center.” And that’s something that’s much needed too.

Aside from his record, Ragsdale has a number of other advantages entering the campaign. His $300,000 campaign war chest dwarfs the amount Hall can be expected to raise with his late entry into the race. Almost universal support from the business community and the rest of Knoxville’s establishment goes hand in glove with that. Moreover, Ragsdale is a polished public speaker and, at age 52, he still has a youthful visage despite his gray hair. By contrast, the 49-year-old Hall is a small businessman who is plainspoken and not very telegenic.

Still, Hall’s unvarnished persona may stand him in good stead with a lot of ordinary folks and comports with the kind of grassroots campaign that is his forte. “I’m a straight shooter who’s not good at doing spin,” he claims. “If I’m elected, I’ll have an open-access policy for all citizens, not just select people.” And in fulfilling his pledge to make county government run more efficiently, he says, “I’m going to sit down with the people in every department, not just the department heads, and ask how we can help you do your job better.”

While detractors contend he’ll only attract the CAVEman vote (i.e. citizens against virtually everything), their stereotype of Hall, as an anti-tax, anti-establishment aginner is anything but fair. When asked if he’ll pledge to not raise taxes, he vehemently proclaims, “I’ll never say no new taxes. A no-tax person is completely wrong. If you’re in there long enough, you’re going to have to have a tax increase because costs are increasing daily with inflation, and most of those costs are people who need to be treated well because we need to have them in the best frame of mind about their jobs as possible.”

While he believes that “in a $580 million budget, there should be some ways to make cuts without hurting people,” he adds that, “There are some areas I’m thinking about that would actually cost the county money.” Foremost among them are health insurance benefits that Hall contends “are not nearly as good as what they had been before Ragsdale changed them to save money.”

Hall’s best hope of winning may be that the chamber of commerce crowd and other bigwigs will be so confident of a Ragsdale victory they’ll sit on their hands while Hall’s dedicated cadre of volunteers, whose get-out-the-vote efforts have carried him to two narrow City Council victories, will do so again.