Victor Ashe's credo as Mayor of Knoxville has been to make the city "work right and look right." And for most of his 10 years in office, he's gotten generally high marks for effective administration of city services and attentiveness to the needs of neighborhoods for parks, street repairs, and eradication of eyesores.
But even though Ashe has seen to it that Knoxville has an excellent city arborist, there's a growing perception that the mayor can't see the forest for the trees. Lack of vision is the rap, coupled with a sense that he's gotten bogged down in the nitty-gritty of maintaining the status quo.
In an attempt to evidence some boldness, Ashe proclaimed a commitment to build a new convention center. But instead of making his convention center plans a launch pad for any sort of grand design for Knoxville's future, he made them appear hastily concocted as an escape hatch from his abandonment of plans to build a new baseball stadium for the Knoxville Smokies.
Slippage in Ashe's control of the body politic began showing up in various ways. The one member of his administration who'd shown a passion for community development efforts, Laurens Tullock, departed in evident frustration. A usually obeisant City Council spurned the mayor when he attempted to renounce a pay raise that he had himself initiated in maladroit fashion. An oligarchy of business leaders formed to fix a breakdown in the private sector's economic development efforts began hinting that the public sector might need fixing also. Even the Knoxville News-Sentinel, long a mouthpiece for the mayor, began turning critical.
While Ashe publicly may still be his normal cocky self, the last two months of the year saw a flurry of activity clearly designed to head off the head-hunting. Among other things, he hired popular WBIR anchor Gene Patterson as deputy mayor to help with, ahem, "economic development;" he announced with great fanfare plans for redeveloping Market Square that had been sitting around his office for months; and he even picked up on an issue long championed in these very pages—the repeal of the 5 percent entertainment tax for small concert venues.
Even so, if Ashe elects to run for an unprecedented fourth term in 1999, he's likely to draw a serious challenger for the first time since he took office. A more youthful, zestful, and venturesome State Sen. Bud Gilbert is hovering in the wings. Knoxville voters could face a choice between keeping the city on an even keel and preparing for a leap into the 21st century on a higher plane.
The biggest homegrown political story of the year was, of course, Danny "David" Mayfield taking down Bill "Goliath" Powell in the race for City Council's 6th District seat. Everybody liked Mayfield, a Gen X community activist with a strong religious background and a successful inner-city youth ministry. But nobody—especially Victor Ashe, who backed the incumbent Powell with all the resources of his mayoralty—thought he'd really win, let alone win by more than 1,000 votes in an election that generated the lowest turnout in 20-odd years. He won in his home district, but he also won in Sequoyah Hills, in South Knoxville, in Fountain City, and dang near everywhere in-between.
Prior to the election, Ashe-friendly forces claimed Mayfield was running a campaign "against the mayor" and would surely lose. Immediately after the vote, the same analysts insisted Mayfield's victory was not a mandate on Ashe. Uh-huh. Anyway, whatever its larger political significance, the main thing Mayfield's presence promises is a fresh voice on an often tired and timid Council. What he can do with it remains to be seen.
ELECTION COMMISSION WOES
1997 dawned gloomy at the Knox County Election Commission, where the embarrassment of botching the '96 unification referendum still hung heavy. There was much sentiment for replacing incumbent registrar-at-large, Irene Lovely, who had admitted forgetting to separate city and county early vote totals, but Lovely was hanging tough, boosted by a number of old-line Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans caught heat for selecting two new commissioners by secret ballot. Time passed, the Republicans replaced one of their new members, the Democrats appointed a new guy and Lovely decided to say adios. All this occasioned a big brawl over replacing her, with state Rep. Joe Armstrong making it clear that the choice was his to make. He was right. His choice, Pat Crippins, was the commission's choice.
"Where in the world is Rudy Dirl?" This became the hottest courthouse question of the year when rumors started swirling that Dirl, who was off with pay getting his high blood pressure fixed, had been indicted for drug dealing. A secondary rumor that the county commissioner had been wearing a wire and introducing his colleagues to an out-of-town developer whom he said "can really help us a lot" no doubt raised some other people's blood pressure. Unlike some rumors, most of the street talk came true when Dirl turned himself in at the federal courthouse and copped a plea to cocaine trafficking.