There was a time when Circuit Court Clerk Lillian Bean was a force in county politics. Her “Bean Machine” raised money, turned out the votes, got people elected, and controlled the patronage. She was much feared and thus one of the most powerful figures in county government. But once she became vulnerable, she was through. People were reluctant to return her to power.
I started thinking about that this past week when former Sheriff Tim Hutchison named a treasurer for a possible county mayoral race. Hutchison had few people buck him publicly during his long tenure as the wheel hoss of local politics. But he had a lot of secret enemies who may not like to see him return to power.
When Hutchison goes to get the ground troops in the sheriff’s department—the guys who always delivered him elections—he may find they now work for “JJ” and have little interest in his political career. They also know that having Hutchison on the ballot is not a good thing for Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones, who has worked mightily to become his own man and not be seen as an extension of Hutchison’s tenure. Morale in the sheriff’s department is much improved, relations with the city police department are great, and the sheriff’s department returns media calls. If Jones is smart he will endorse Burchett before Hutchison officially gets in the race.
There is a school of thought that next year’s county mayoral race could be a defining election about the future of Knox County government—a choice between state Sen. Tim Burchett and Hutchison. Voters will have a choice to bring back Hutchison and firmly solidify the machine’s control of county government. Or they can elect Burchett, who is a longtime officeholder, but not part of the “courthouse crowd.”
It’s not quite that clear-cut of course. Elections rarely are. In past elections, Hutchison supporters were Burchett supporters and vice versa. There is no ideological or political difference between the two—it’s mostly a matter of style. Burchett is known for openness, constituent service, consensus building. Hutchison is known for discipline and hard-nosed administration. Local politicians who have supported both are in a quandary.
Hutchison served over four terms as sheriff. That sort of success breeds confidence and makes him a formidable candidate.
A private poll, believed to have been done for Burchett, confirms what we know to be the case. Burchett has really high favorability ratings. He is as well-liked as any political figure in Knoxville, with the possible exception of Congressman Jimmy Duncan. Hutchison is respected and is liked by a lot of people. But as we say in the political consulting game, he has trouble with his fav-unfavs.
Burchett’s favorability rating is 72 percent versus 6 percent unfavorable. Hutchison’s favorability rating is 53 and his unfavorability rating is 33. Hutchison’s high unfavorability rating among a lot of voters has been demonstrated by the decline in his winning percentages over his last two elections.
I think Hutchison could get reelected as sheriff. The question is whether people will vote for him for mayor—a much more political job requiring a different skill set. Hutchison did well running what is essentially a paramilitary top-down organization. But can he build consensus to govern? Can he deal with local media? Can he work with County Commission and the rest of county government? My-way-or-the-highway works for a general, but rarely works for a political leader.
Burchett has to walk a fine line. He will appeal to people who do not want to see Hutchison return, but he cannot be perceived as a tool of the “downtown crowd,” whoever they are. The coverage of Hutchison’s run against Rudy Bradley back in the day was so over the top, many people believe it elected Hutchison. Burchett prides himself on being his own man and I think he can navigate the race without allowing his opponent to label him the tool of the “metro-loving, charter-changing establishment” versus the good old boys.
Burchett has few enemies. It’s his friends he has to worry about.