Politcal Newcomer

While still a long-shot, Danny Mayfield's run for City Council may give local elections some much-needed excitement

The meeting is coming to a close; Danny Mayfield blows out a candle and whispers a name. It is someone who is in danger of contracting HIV. Earlier, he had explained what that meant.

"That's 'Hood Infectious Virus,'" he says, listing the underlying causes of the condition: "Bad information, bad instruction, bad example, and bad advice."

Afterward, Mayfield explains that the young man whose name he mentioned is one of the reasons he is running for City Council's Sixth District seat.

"In the work I do with Tribe One, we're trying to get our young people to look beyond the ends of their noses. They're concentrating on each other--beating up each other and fighting each other. We continually stress to them: There's a big world out there, and so much to be done...I've gotten a lot of breaks that a lot of people haven't...I've been places they haven't been; I've seen things they haven't seen yet...

"So I thought it was wise for me to put my candidacy where my mouth is...I want to show our young people that they can do it, too."

Whether elected or not, Mayfield says he intends "to support initiatives that will bring jobs offering living wages here. If we're going to grow, we need to bring up the least of us. Let's hire people who are already here. We need to look to employ our neighbors." He supports training programs and educational opportunities toward that end.

He recalls a galling personal experience that jarred him into thinking about the direction his adopted hometown is headed. A scathing letter from a cousin complaining of having nothing to do during a recent family reunion the Mayfields organized here made him think about how Knoxville looks to others.

"We need to give people a reason to stop here on their way to the mountains," says Mayfield. "If a convention center is the tool for the job, then I'm for it."

But he thinks there should be more.

"Why should all these buildings be empty? Is downtown Knoxville--which is in the Sixth District--no longer Gay Street, but Kingston Pike? We need something to draw people downtown...Why couldn't Knoxville be a model family town? When we think about St. Petersburg, we think about retirement; when we think about Los Angeles, we think about filmmaking. When my son grows up, I want him to be able to say, 'I'm from Knoxville, the best place in the world to grow up.'

"Knoxville has such potential; but I wonder if we're just sitting on it, afraid to be successful."

At the tender age of 28, Mayfield is a little green and a lot innocent as he prepares for his first foray into politics. One of the two leaders of a Mechanicsville youth ministry called Tribe One, he has taken on the formidable task of seeking to unseat entrenched Sixth District incumbent William Powell, who is seeking a third term and enjoys the barely-disguised support of Mayor Victor Ashe. The daily paper is replete with city administration-generated Powell photo opportunities, like the recent Habitat for Humanity ribbon-cutting featuring a grateful new homeowner flanked by Ashe and Powell.

That is the kind of publicity money can't buy, even if Mayfield did have a fat campaign kitty, which he doesn't.

"Bill Powell will be re-elected," Ashe declares to anyone who cares to ask.

City Council races are quirky events, and voter turnout has been dwindling in recent years. Only registered voters in each of the councilmanic districts will be allowed to vote in the September 30 primary. The top two vote-getters will qualify for the November general election, when each race will be citywide.

The Sixth District primary is the only contest that is drawing much interest, and common wisdom (as purveyed, for example, by as astute and interested an observer as Ashe) is that perennial candidate Ann Dingus is the likeliest second-place finisher due to name recognition.

Mayfield has lived here since 1989, when he boarded a bus in Philadelphia bound for Knoxville College. He was on the chartered bus courtesy of a foundation called "God Not Statistics" founded by Dr. A.V. Hankins, an African American woman who had made it as a physician and was determined to help educate bright young people who might not otherwise have a chance to go to college. The trip would change his life in several ways. He remembers seeing a woman put her beautiful daughter aboard the bus headed down South.

"I noticed her right away," says Mayfield, who was leaving behind a tough inner-city neighborhood in Camden, New Jersey. "So I sat down in the seat right behind her and tried to get her to notice me."

He tried putting on some headphones and showing off his bodacious singing voice; he tried walking up and down the aisles asking everyone their names. But he made little headway getting her attention during the long bus trip, beyond finding out that her name was Melissa. In fact, he struck out so badly that when he awoke from a nap and looked out the window at a rest stop somewhere north of the Tennessee line, the first thing he saw was Melissa holding hands with the guy who'd been sitting next to him.

"I kept thinking she was the most committed, smart, sincere, beautiful girl in the world--and she was his."

But Mayfield was determined to change that, and he won her over before the end of their first semester. He and Melissa have been married for 7 years and have two children: Din, 6, and Nia, 2. They own their own home in Mechanicsville.

That first semester at Knoxville College was memorable in other ways. Mayfield and other out-of-staters were shocked at the conditions on campus.

"We had thought we were headed to the Promised Land.

A historically black college in the South--we had finally arrived!

"It didn't look the way it was supposed to; people felt betrayed," he says. "I wanted to leave. But Missy told me if I left, she was leaving too, and I couldn't face calling her mother and telling her why her daughter was leaving school..."

So he stayed and became involved in KC's highly publicized problems. Issues of the student newspaper, The New Aurora, from Mayfield's senior year, show that he was in the thick of the fights over campus conditions and the handling of funds.

"What is going on at KC?" Mayfield was quoted as asking. "We need answers! We must be honest with ourselves. KC ain't all right! If loving the truth is wrong, I don't want to be right!"

In 1994, Mayfield received a business degree and graduated summa cum laude. His classmates elected him to deliver the valedictory address and be the class representative in the traditional passing of the torch symbolizing KC's slogan, "Let there be light."

One on one, Mayfield, a slight, slender man, is soft-spoken and polite almost to a fault. But a video of his graduation records a brief, to-the-point, barn-burner of a speech that brought the audience to its feet. Tribe One was already a year old.

Mayfield and his partner, Chris Woodhull, started Tribe One together 4 years ago. They met when Woodhull, who had been doing similar work in the neighborhood for several years, hired Mayfield on as a summer intern in 1992.

"He hired me because God told him to," Mayfield says.

Woodhull says he sees Tribe One, which is funded by individual donations and by various churches, including Cedar Springs Presbyterian and Sequoyah Presbyterian, "...as a movement. No one church, no one agency is going to be able to effect community change. And we have been able to tap into people who don't resonate with each other."

John Wood, pastor of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, says, "Danny Mayfield is a great guy, and I'm really enthusiastic about the work he and Chris Woodhull are doing." Woodhull approves of his partner's foray into politics, even though it's a brand-new field of endeavor.

"I think it's excellent. We're not trained ministers or social workers, but that's what we're doing today. We believe the only way to figure out stuff is to jump in. I think Danny's got the spiritual discipline necessary."

Last December, Woodhull and Mayfield were featured in Christianity Today in an article naming 50 up-and-coming young Christian leaders from around the US. The "talent search" was conducted by Leighton Ford, who is brother-in-law to Billy Graham. Ford sponsors the Arrow Leadership Foundation, of which both Mayfield and Woodhull are alumni. Among the 50, Ford singled the Knoxvillians out for special recognition, writing them an open letter urging them to be "hopers," "visionaries," "kingdom-seekers, not empire-builders..."

Whether Mayfield is discussing community safety, crime prevention, economic development or education, the topic always gets back to family. And right on the surface are memories of the early days of Tribe One, when he, Missy, and Din lived in College Homes, which is across the street from KC. "We lived there because we were poor, and it was convenient," Mayfield says. "Our experience there was part of the reason I needed to do Tribe One.

"But eventually, we had to get out. I never wanted my family to practice the things we had to practice. At 10 o'clock at night, we'd hear rat-a-tat-tat--automatic weapon fire--and we'd hit the floor; sometimes we'd have to spend all night there. And sometimes cars with those super-powerful sound systems would pull up right under my son's window, and we'd listen to Snoop Doggy Dog all night long. Our son was born and raised there, but I just didn't want to bring my daughter into that. We were blessed with the opportunity to leave, and we took the opportunity."

At least one community leader who has long had a goal of encouraging new political talent is guardedly enthusiastic about the field of candidates.

"Although as president of the NAACP I cannot endorse candidates, we've really striven to get young people involved in the process, and we've got some fine young candidates in this race. I'm especially pleased to see someone of the caliber of Danny Mayfield throwing his hat into the ring. It speaks well for our future," says Dewey Roberts, Jr, who also has words of encouragement for another young candidate, Umar J. Tate, 24, a close friend of Mayfield's.

Mayfield rebuffs any suggestion that Tate's candidacy is "unhelpful," as they say, to his own chances. He won't even concede that he and Tate are opponents. "Umar an opponent? Well, he's running, too. He's my friend and my brother."

Tate is an active participant in Tribe One, and the "Stop the Violence" signs in the rear window of his car echo Mayfield's sentiments.

Most politicos are predicting that voter turnout in this off-year contest could hit a record low--perhaps no more than 10 percent of the eligible voters--since there are no referendum issues and no mayor's race to build interest.

Traditionally, the city's majority community has ended up effectively over-ruling the wishes of the predominantly African American Sixth District. In 1993, for example, Powell came in second in the Sixth District primary, collecting 877 votes to Beal Bourne's 972. But Powell prevailed in the city-wide general election, even though Bourne out-polled him 1,220-1,076 in the district.

And although Mayfield seems to be looked upon as a promising young potential leader in Knoxville's African American community, many agree with Ashe's assessment that Powell will be nearly impossible to beat. Some speculate that Mayfield is taking on the role of David to Powell's Goliath merely to build name recognition toward a future race, since Powell will be term-limited out of office in 2001.

Not so, says Mayfield.

"I'm running with all my might this time to win this time," he says. "I'm naive enough to think I can make a difference."

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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