Malone Alone

For the past 10 years, Carlene Malone has fought the status quo on City Council. As she departs office this week, she leaves a legacy of intelligence and determination

Of all the things that moved, maddened or motivated Carlene Malone during her 10 years as 4th District City Councilwoman, nothing got next to her heart like Danny Mayfield. It was this relationship that provided what she labels the defining moment of her political career. As she prepares to leave office this weekend, it is still fresh in her mind.

When Mayfield was elected to the 6th District council seat in 1997 in an upset victory over an entrenched incumbent who enjoyed the support of most of the Knoxville power establishment and the majority of the incumbent Council members, it was Malone who welcomed, befriended, advised and cared for the newcomer who was just a little older than her own sons. When he was diagnosed with the deadly cancer that would end his life before his term was over, everyone was concerned for him, but it was Malone to whom he turned for help.

"His wishes were kind of interesting," Malone says. "When he first became ill, he asked that I help [his wife] Missy, because she'd be doing some of his work—if she had questions, could she call me? Obviously, I said of course."

A few months later, Mayfield's cancer went into a remission that lasted until the end of the year. When the tumors recurred, he talked to Malone again.

"Danny knew what was going on regarding his health, and somehow we were talking about his district and his seat—some people were saying he should resign—and I called to make sure he understood that I would help any way I could, and also to tell him that he had a right to the seat and should not consider resigning. Then we got to what would happen if something happened to him. He brought that up, talking about the process.

"I didn't really want to talk about it, but he said 'Oh, come on, Carlene, I don't plan to die, you know that,' and I told him how Council would appoint somebody. And then I said that I thought Missy needed to finish his term if he couldn't. He liked that idea. He laughed that little laugh of his and said 'You're good, Carlene; you're good.' I know he meant that, it was an honor."

Around that time, Malone remembers walking out of a meeting with 5th District Council member Larry Cox, who sat next to Mayfield on the dais.

"I said something to Larry like, 'This is so hard and I'm so worried about him.' And Larry said 'Yes, I don't think it sounds good.' Then I said if he's not here to finish his term, Missy should be appointed. Larry seemed to think it was a good idea. He nodded his head and said 'That would show great respect.' I think Larry was very moved by Danny's illness."

But in the days leading up to Mayfield's death, and shortly thereafter, it became clear that only Malone and Councilman Nick Pavlis were willing to vote to appoint Missy Mayfield to serve out her husband's unexpired term. Malone says April 3, when her colleagues voted to appoint Raleigh Wynn, was the worst night of her career.

"The night it all came down I could not stop shivering. It changed the way I viewed a lot of things. For the first time, the only time, sitting on Council, I really felt I was in the presence of evil. I might as well say it. I had disagreed with people on many occasions and many times, and felt strongly about many things, but I never ever had felt something I could describe as the presence of evil. Until that night. There was just darkness. Hopelessness.

"There are many things about serving on Council that I have enjoyed, and there are many things that with the help of others I've been able to accomplish, and there's a lot of scar tissue—some real disappointments, like when the sign ordinance revisions in 1994, which began as an effort to improve it, got hijacked by the Chamber. In times like that, I would wonder what am I doing, why am I here, and how foolish holding an office really is for someone like me. But never, until Danny's death and the appointment of someone other than his wife, and knowing the orchestration that took place to make it happen, did I realize that I could never again go back to that body without carrying with me my belief that they were capable of the worst possible actions.

"That's when I decided that I really couldn't be part of it any more. Call it a defining moment—when you've seen the very worst, the unthinkable, and you see it for what it is and how it was orchestrated, and how inhumane it was, and you just know it's no longer the place it was the day before. And you know you'll never recapture the sense of good will toward other members of Council—giving them the benefit of doubt as I would hope they would me. It was no longer a place I wanted to sit. I considered resigning. My heart was broken. Not just about Danny, not just about Missy—but about our city."

The only thing that kept her in office these final months, she says, is knowing that election day was coming and that there were good, competent candidates gearing up to run.

"I knew I owed it to the taxpayers to allow them to select their own Council person."

For a time, she made it a point to be out of the room when Council "chaplain" Ivan Harmon would pray.

"I just couldn't listen to it. The word 'hypocritical' comes to mind."

The long journey that transformed a young Fountain City homemaker into the strongest, toughest, smartest and most stubbornly principled City Council member anybody can remember started in the spring of 1979 when she was on her way to the grocery store and spotted a sign announcing a proposed rezoning near the Kay's Ice Cream shop on North Broadway. It was next door to the Williams house, a turreted brick-and-marble three-story Victorian mansion built in 1890 by Col. J.C. Woodward. It crowned a low hill on the west side of Broadway across from Gibbs Road and was a major landmark.

She was curious about what the sign meant, so she wrote down the number and made the call when she got home.

"I reached the Metropolitan Planning Commission and found out it was about a rezoning to make way for a shopping center, and the house would be coming down. I couldn't believe it. It was very much a signature of the character and sense of place of Fountain City," she says. "It was during this time that I went over and started knocking on doors on Gibbs Road. I got to know those people very well."

But getting to know Carlene Malone requires going back a lot farther.

Carlene Valdata was born in the Bronx on January 18, 1945, to Rose Marie and Charles Valdata. Her mother was a homemaker who did some professional sewing on the side, her father a New York City Police Department homicide detective. She has one sister, Sandra, and a raft of cousins, aunts, uncles. Her father died in 1972, and his badge is one of her proudest possessions.

She lived in the city until she was about 13, when the family moved out to what had been their summer home in Westchester County. She graduated from Somers Central High School in 1962 and received a degree in psychology from the State University of New York at Albany three years later. She started working on her master's degree and met John Malone, a smart-aleck ex-Marine who was older and smarter than his undergraduate classmates, in a graduate-level statistics class that was giving her trouble. She hired him as a tutor "to get me through it."

Not because she thought he was cute?

"Not particularly, but he sure knew math. He was extremely blunt, a wise-cracking smartass. But he knew math, and seemingly everything else. Whatever it was he was doing, the professors gave him wide latitude. He was older than most of us, had an incredible amount of self-confidence and just seemed to know a heck of a lot of stuff."

She got a B for her effort, and after awhile "I didn't have to pay him anymore."

She married him in November 1967, not long after he had started working on a doctorate at Duke. They moved to Raleigh and she took a job with the North Carolina Department of Mental Health. She started acclimating herself to the South. Getting used to the weather was easy: "The absolute first thing I noticed the first morning in Raleigh was how blue the sky was. I woke John up to look at it because it was bluer than any sky I'd ever seen in New York. It was just outstanding. The other wonderful thing was how short winter is."

The cultural adjustment was a little tougher.

"I'll be very blunt about this. Like most Northerners, it was hard to listen and hear the words and pay attention to what people were saying. I tended to be listening to the pronunciation and the rhythm of the words rather than to the thought being expressed. It takes awhile to get past that. The biggest difference I noticed between Southerners and Northerners was that people were extremely nice, less hurried, very patient. We also noticed how hassle-free life can be."

That, however, was nothing a move to Knoxville couldn't fix.

John finished his doctorate and accepted a temporary job in the psychology department at the University of Tennessee, filling in for someone who'd gone on sabbatical. The Malones rented a house in South Knoxville, fully expecting to be there no more than a year.

As soon as they arrived, she went to a phone booth to call her parents but got no answer. She kept trying into the night, and when she finally reached them, she found out that her father had been in the hospital. The next day, she learned he was dying of pancreatic cancer. She went home to be with her dad, and he died Dec. 7 at the age of 59.

"The only thing good you can say about it was that it was fast," she says.

She is his namesake and was very close to him. Does she wonder what he would have thought about what she's done with her life?

"He would have thought I was nuts, but I hope he would have been proud of what I have done. He taught me how to do all kinds of things. He was very compulsive and did things really well. He was a big guy, lean and tall. I have his body type."

The year in Knoxville was coming to an end when the guy John was replacing decided not to return. John was offered a full-time tenure-track position, and the Malones started looking for a permanent home. It didn't take long for them to tire of real estate agents steering them to treeless West Knox subdivisions, so they struck out on their own, and on a March day in 1972, the Malones ventured north on Broadway, topped a hill and got a glimpse of Fountain City.

It was love at first sight.

"It just took our breath away. We weren't even sure we were still in Knoxville. It was a beautiful, blue-sky day, and we came over that hill where I-640 is now, and honest-to-God, I will never forget seeing this little valley down below us with the sun glistening from the steeples of the churches and the cupolas of the schools. We got to the lake and the park, and it was just exquisite—like being in some little town in New England. We walked through the park, sat by the lake, bought ice cream at Kay's. We looked at the house and bought it that day for $22,500."

They settled into the brick bungalow-style house on Fountain Drive, and their son Jack was born the following December. Three years later his little brother Mike came along, and Carlene busied herself with the things young mothers do—ferrying children to swimming lessons, school, doctors' appointments. John settled in at the university and life was pretty normal.

Until she saw that damn sign.

As she studied land use law and got more and more involved, she could see that prospects for stopping the demolition of the Williams house were bleak. The owners wanted to sell, and they were friends of Bernice O'Connor, who represented that district on City Council. Historic preservation was not high on anybody's agenda in those days. The citizens' organization, Fountain City Town Hall, was around, but it was very pro-development, so Malone helped form a little grassroots group that fought the plan to level the house and replace it with a Target Store.

"We got knifed in the back by Fountain City Town Hall," Malone says. "Mary Lou Horner, Gordon Baher, Bill Baxter. Arthur Seymour Jr. represented the family wanting to sell the house."

Seymour, who during the next two decades would butt heads with Malone over more issues than they can both remember, sidesteps the question of whether he will be glad to see her leave office.

"How could I forget anything about my favorite soon-to-be-ex-Council person," he asks with a rueful chuckle. "Did I create her?"

In a way, he did. The rezoning fight was bitter and ground on for more than a year and a half. Malone's group lost and ended up taking it to court, where she remembers Chancellor Frederick McDonald expressing regret as he issued his decision.

"Judge McDonald ruled with great reluctance in favor of the city of Knoxville, but he said he did not want his decision to be construed as condoning this city's failure to follow its own laws. To this day I wonder what he meant."

She says the Target fight was educational.

"I learned that you can't just wake up for a fight. You've got to be in there developing plans, influencing elected officials and elections. It takes a persistent and continuous effort."

After the losing the battle over the Williams house, Malone remembers a time of "incredible depression when I just wanted to pull the covers over my head."

But she was pulled out of her tailspin by her friend Gerry Eastman—"the toughest among us"—who "while the rest of us were licking our wounds, managed to get himself on the board of Fountain City Town Hall and open the door for the rest of us to join as board members, and what had been described as the Republican Club was no more."

During this period, it gets hard to remember all the individual battles, even for one with so prodigious a memory as Carlene Malone.

"There've been a million of them," she says, remembering the Tennessee Department of Transportation's proposed reconfiguration of the intersection of Broadway and Essary Road, which she says would have constituted "a hellacious traffic disaster," the monumental, multi-year fight over the location of a Red Food Store that proposed to cut deep into the Adair Gardens neighborhood with a parking lot, the $180 million solid waste incinerator. She got better at fighting and started winning more than she lost.

It was during this time that she met Lynn Redmon, who remembers seeing her around at MPC meetings. Redmon, who was active in neighborhood issues in Norwood, became one of Malone's closest friends and political allies.

"My first impression of her was that she was articulate, determined and knowledgeable," he says. "I liked her right off. Her reputation as a very determined neighborhood person, willing to go to any length to protect her Fountain City, preceded her. I'd heard about her Target activities and the Red Food fight, and we were usually on the same side of things."

It was Redmon who first mentioned to her the idea of running for City Council.

"We were in the lobby of the City County Building right outside the large assembly room after watching her make an elegant argument in defense of Fountain City. I said she should consider running for City Council—that she would have much more influence if she were sitting on the other side of the microphone, and that her knowledge of the issues was far deeper than any Council member."

Her reaction?


Redmon persisted. "I pointed out to her that the very hardest thing about changing the world is to get good, decent people to run for office. She reluctantly agreed to at least think about it."

Although she never missed an opportunity to bedevil him for decisions that displeased her, Malone had grown close to Milton Roberts, the Council member who represented the 4th District. When Roberts grew ill in 1990, pressure began to mount, in some sections, for Malone to make the race. When Roberts died, Ashe appointed Bill Pavlis (the late father of Councilman Nick Pavlis) to fill the seat until the next election. Candidates started gearing up to run. "There were desperate people all over town who thought Malone could bring a lot of knowledge to City Council," Redmon says.

Malone launched her campaign amid some skepticism, and not a little alarm from the establishment she had battled. On her side, however, were a multitude of neighborhood groups and individuals she'd helped over the years, and she never lacked for volunteers willing to invest sweat and shoe leather. For example, there was Janice Crosline, who "would pack jugs of water and lists of names, and we would go door-to-door day after day after day with one car and two sets of car keys. She was the toughest taskmaster. She'd work one side of the street and I'd work the other. Then I'd start her car and drive over to pick her up. We did that for a million days in the hottest summer. The amount of time she gave was unbelievable."

Malone had raised a total of $8,000 including $2,000 that she lent herself, so her campaign couldn't afford pollsters. She got an unexpected assist, however, when some of her campaign workers got wind of a phone bank operating in the Fort Hill Building on behalf of one of her opponents.

"Somehow a friend of a friend found out that they were doing polling one night, and a friend of a friend of a friend was working there [in the phone bank]. And since we didn't have any money to do polling, we decided we'd let them get their polling done and get the results before we said anything."

They did some investigating, and discovered that the phone bank was being run by Joe May, then an aide to Ashe. Malone called Ashe mouthpiece George Korda to complain, and he denied that May was involved in the phone bank.

"I said 'George, they're in the Fort Hill Building, they are doing polling on these nights, and if you want a signed affidavit, I'll get it to you.' He was going to call Joe and get back to me, and to this day I haven't heard back from him.

"Right after that, we heard that when the people went to work at the phone bank the next time, Joe May had them go sit in a room then went in and picked up all the material, threw it in the garbage and sent them home because he didn't know who was leaking. Joe and I have never talked about it, but I have every reason to believe that everything we were told was true, including the figures we were given. They were reassuring, and they came at a time when part of what kept us going was it looked like we actually had a chance..."

By election day, Malone was the odds-on favorite, and received an endorsement from the Knoxville Journal and an "inclination" from the News-Sentinel. She still never quite believed she would be elected, but she was, quite handily.

"No one was more surprised than I was that I won," she says. "'I owe a lot to Lynn Redmon, let me tell you."

Once elected, Malone hit the ground running, all the while steadfastly refusing to affiliate herself with a party (city elections are non-partisan). Democrats liked her bottom-up philosophy of government and considered her a natural ally; Republicans liked her fiscal conservatism.

"When Malone ran for office the first time, one of her pledges was 'I will watch every penny of your money,'" Redmon says. "People thought that was campaign rhetoric, but it has turned out to not to be, and throughout her Council career she has questioned expenditures when the rest of Council and the administration would not have them questioned."

Ashe didn't much like her at all and labeled her "divisive and ineffective," a refrain that was picked up and repeated off-the-record by many of her Council colleagues.

And no wonder, since she made a specialty of questioning the status quo and calling attention to the custom of rubber-stamping Ashe administration proposals. Early on, she raised a stink when the Ashe administration decided not to refund a 5-cent tax hike intended to cover an anticipated court settlement with the telephone company. When the suit was dropped before the city budget was finalized, Malone suggested they give back the nickel. Ashe aides said the city charter wouldn't allow it. Malone checked the city charter and discovered no such prohibition. The administration hung tough and kept the windfall but took a dreadful political beating.

Then there was the matter of street paving. She brought up questions about the way paving projects were allotted to the various districts. Ashe and his new mouthpiece Mike Cohen pooh-poohed Malone's objections, but when she forced a study of the issue by the city's engineering department, it turned out (some eight months later) that she was right and they were wrong, and one district (the inner-city 6th) lagged far behind the others in miles of streets paved annually. Finally the system was changed, and now each member of Council receives quarterly reports.

She quietly kick-started a general rezoning process that had stalled for years. Entire neighborhoods were rezoned, protecting hundreds of homes in many neighborhoods by removing and replacing the old zoning that no longer reflected the character of what was built.

She tackled the issue of beer permits, after the city had gone 12 years without holding a hearing to suspend or revoke a license. The election of Nick Pavlis in 1995 brought her an ally in the cause of forcing a new level of accountability.

She was instrumental in getting the state to install road improvements to the Fountain City I-640 interchange, which has been widened and gotten a new ramp and drainage improvements.

She called attention to the fact that Knoxville's Nashville lobbyist, the Ingram Group, failed to notify the city of pending legislation that would bring billboards to scenic highways, and she embarrassed the well-connected Nashville firm at a City Council workshop session by ferreting out the fact that they also represented outdoor advertising interests. The following year, the Ingram Group dropped the city of Knoxville as a client.

She carried the banner for a term-limits referendum, even though she would be in the first round of Council members who would be affected.

She and Pavlis also refused to sign up for the sweetheart pension deal that allows elected officials to be considered full-time employees and "buy back" their pre-pension service without paying interest, as real full-time employees are forced to do. The measure was quietly introduced on second reading of a pension ordinance at one of those "away" Council meetings that had no live television coverage. She didn't make any new friends on the dais when she labeled it "fat cats hiding behind widows and orphans."

She unearthed a survey commissioned by the city for the purpose of determining whether Knoxvillians favored a downtown baseball stadium. The results had been deep-sixed, apparently because they were not to the Ashe administration's liking.

She and Mayfield supported a police review board long before Ashe and the rest of her Council colleagues were willing consider the need for oversight.

She helped several areas in her district get historic overlays and one district to become a neighborhood conservation district.

She poked holes in the Worsham-Watkins plan to connect the new convention center to Market Square via a series of enclosed tubes—"Habitrails," she scoffed.

She used her 202 Fund money (allotted to all Council members to fund pet projects) to finance needed drainage improvements to Essary Road, and to help the Market Square Historic Association fund a much-praised retail marketing study by The Gibbs Group. And the list goes on.

That first call to the MPC sparked a chain of events that spawned a remarkable public life that has spanned 23 years. Last Tuesday marked Carlene Malone's last meeting as a sitting member of City Council, where she built a reputation not only as a staunch advocate of neighborhoods and planned development, but as a relentless watchdog who kicked open the doors to smoke-filled rooms and insisted that the public's business be done in the light of day. Her critics still brand her anti-development and overly contentious, although they are harder to find these days. Her admirers point to her intelligence and hard work. No one doubts her courage.

Love her or not, Carlene Malone is the standard by which the five new members City Council will be measured. In a lot of ways, Redmon says, the brash Italian-American New Yorker ended up as the heir to a distinctly East Tennessee line of fierce individualists.

"Malone is part of a long tradition that goes all the way back to the Scotch-Irish," he says. "You can see it in Cas Walker, you can see it in Parson Brownlow—the mountaineer theory that I have my rights and you cannot run over me, no matter who you are."

As for the future, she has been threatening to write a book on local government, using real-life examples. And she also says she's going to clean her house and learn to make soup. Really good soup.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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