Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde
It’s hard to understand the drama surrounding Ragsdale
by Frank Cagle
Former County Commissioner Mike Ragsdale, an attractive, articulate and personable candidate, cruised into the County Mayor’s office unopposed in 2002. Though some have denigrated his unopposed “victory,” it was a very real accomplishment. To negotiate the business community, the special-interest groups, the diverse neighborhoods and the field of potential candidates and come out all alone on the other side is no mean feat.
Ragsdale’s election signaled the first step among community leaders to put a stop to the political infighting that has paralyzed the greater metro area for years. The election of Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and the concerted effort to improve city-county relations heralded a new era. The era of good feeling between city and county continues, most notably the cooperation between city police and the Knox County Sheriff’s Department. County-owned property downtown has been an integral part of some city initiatives, like the new movie theater on Gay Street.
Still there has been less substantial progress in city-county agreements than many of us had hoped. One would have thought city-county tax bills would be arriving now in one envelope: some co-operation on parks and recreation; measures to end duplication of services; combined building/inspection process with similar building codes and one-stop permitting perhaps. I get the impression it is not from Ragsdale’s lack of trying, but more a lack of enthusiasm among city staff.
What many of us find most puzzling is the amount of controversy that has surrounded Ragsdale during his first term and his re-election effort. While sweetness and light has been the public face, there has been a darker side hidden from view. What makes it so puzzling is that it has been so unnecessary.
There appears to be a wide streak of paranoia in the psyche of our County Mayor. How else to account for his almost constant need to compile enemies lists? He conducted an investigation of the purchasing procedures of Sheriff Tim Hutchison. Was this because he viewed the sheriff as a rival for political power or because of a fear Hutchison would run for County Mayor this year? Ragsdale forced candidate Billy Stokes to hire Ragsdale protégé Tyler Harber to run his campaign for state senate. Harber operated a vile little website called caswalker.com (unbeknownst to Stokes) that had as its primary focus the personal destruction of state Sen. Jamie Woodson. Woodson is also a popular political figure who could have been a credible candidate for County Mayor this year, if she had any interest in it.
Ragsdale, the popular and charismatic County Mayor, went out of his way to make total and complete enemies of Hutchison and Woodson, two of the most powerful political figures in the county. He was opposed for re-election by charisma-challenged City Councilman Steve Hall. Instead of just rolling up a big victory, Team Ragsdale chose to focus on the few supporters Hall had. Who (besides Mike Arms) thought a memo forbidding county employees to use a Mike Chase restaurant was a good idea?
Ragsdale also used Harber to try and stack both County Commission and the Knox County school board with his allies. Instead of using his popularity and his political skills to bring incumbents around to his agenda, Ragsdale just created enemies. He lost his voting majority on County Commission to the sheriff.
Ragsdale now finds himself possible collateral damage in a Knox County Commission investigation of Harber’s political activities. Ragsdale demonstrated in the last election he can’t beat people who oppose him. His efforts to get people fired and ruin their careers have been fruitless. He is now politically toothless. Last week he was reduced to canceling a table for Commissioners at the Orchids and Onions luncheon. The Commissioners, reeling from the blow, managed to buy their own table.
There is a long list of people whose careers have been threatened by Team Ragsdale. They routinely go after anyone on their list as not being a team player. The ugly back-room efforts to smear people are not visible to the public, and the major media organizations in town evidently only see the kindly face of the progressive community leader. But I sometimes wonder what the media reaction would have been had it been Hutchison instead of Ragsdale who read journalists’ e-mail, especially the political columnist at the News Sentinel .
If Ragsdale has political enemies, he created them. If he has political problems, he invited them. If his agenda has run off the track and he limps out of office, he has no one to blame but himself. (And possibly his chief cheerleader into the nefarious, Arms.)
You cannot understand the political self-destruction of the popular Dr. Jekyll unless you understand that behind the scenes there is a purple-faced, screaming, vindictive Mr. Hyde.
Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .