commentary (2008-04)

Two Tribes


Put them all in a ring with their gloves off

by Matt Edens

The train wreck that is Knox County politics is nothing if not entertaining. The latest installment, barring another blow-up before this goes to print, came last week during County Commissionâ’s monthly Agenda Committee meeting. Commissioner Greg â“Lumpyâ” Lambert all but stormed the podium in response to Community Services Director Cynthia Finchâ’s not-so-veiled reference to the Commission as racist.

Ever the scenery-chewing showman, Lumpy even came prepared with props, confronting Finch with photographs from a recent white supremacist rally. Lumpy, you may recall, sponsored a resolution denouncing the rally and received threats for his trouble.

Lumpy trotting out his â“Iâ’m no racistâ” bona fides via a bit of P. T. Barnum political grandstanding is hardly a surprise. Nor, if you know her at all, is Finchâ’s fondness for accusing others of racism. But the display, along with Paul Pinkston accusing fellow Commissioner Mike Hammond of being â“the Mayorâ’s Manâ” at last monthâ’s agenda meeting, is an excellent example of how Knox County politics have devolved down to a personal, vindictive, and tribal level (that last, no doubt, will prompt Finch to label me racist. It wonâ’t be the first timeâ).

â“When two tribes go to war, a point is all you can score,â” goes to the chorus of â“Two Tribes.â” An old Frankie Goes to Hollywood anti-Cold War anthem, itâ’s ostensibly about the futility of posturing and brinkmanship when played out against the background of mutually assured destruction. The song, as subsequent events proved, missed the mark somewhat. But the catchy tune, top of the pops way back in â’84, did pop into my mind the other day when pondering the endless rounds of finger-pointing Knox Countyâ’s government has become.

Do you really believe for a minute that, within the confines of the City County Building, all the various scandalsâ"the lobsters, P-Cards and Commission appointmentsâ"arenâ’t just a means to an end? The electorate may be riled up, but to the politicians, the scandal du jourâ"whatever it isâ"is a just a way to score points in the interest of furthering oneâ’s own agenda (appropriate, isnâ’t it, how these things tend to come to a head at the agenda meeting?). Honestly, Iâ’m not sure whatâ’s funnier. Is it Commission blasting Finch about funneling government money to family members while, at the same time, putting half their progeny on the county payroll? Or is it Ragsdale, who initially rode into the county mayorâ’s office unopposed, lecturing Commission on the finer points of the democratic process?

Knox Countyâ’s leadershipâ"on both sidesâ"clings to office by handing out swag to friends, family, and supporters. And, whether the reward takes the form of a non-profit grant, a cushy county job or a favorable rezoning or two, the recipient gives something in return: campaign cash, getting out the vote, or staging a proxy fight in front of the cameras. The fealty isnâ’t sworn on holy relics or bound by a blood oath, but itâ’s feudalism just the same, or even tribalism.

Knox County government consists of two rival war bands, each with its chiefs, retainers and, to varying degrees, swarms of foot soldiers ready to do battle, whether theyâ’re well-armed like the deputies who crowded the assembly room whenever the former sheriff needed them, or well-heeled like the west Knoxville homeowners who voted in the wheel tax for â“Farragut Mike.â”

I say quit pretending. The podium showdown at the last agenda meeting gave me an idea. Why not build a big wrestling ring in the middle of the main assembly room and let the two sides duke it out? Itâ’d be no less a farce than what currently passes for governance in Knox County. And it would no doubt save the taxpayers some money, maybe even make some, depending on how the pay-per-view rights play out.

Iâ’d even be willing to let Lumpy be the emcee.


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