The Politics of Lunch

The real business of government gets done over lunch. So who's talking about what—and where?

From left, Assistant Election Commission Administrator Scott Frith, restauranteur Bill Regas, and John J. Duncan III.

David Luttrell

From left, Assistant Election Commission Administrator Scott Frith, restauranteur Bill Regas, and John J. Duncan III.

It’s high noon in Fountain City and Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. is spoofing the power lunch principle at Litton’s, home of the World’s Best Cheeseburger.

Meanwhile downtown lawyers and stockbrokers are meeting up at the Bistro, while those in a hurry are opting for a quick in-and-out at the Lunch Box. Market Square is hopping with a younger, hipper crowd looking to socialize. There’s very little midday alcohol being consumed since Jimmy Carter killed off the three-martini lunch back in the ’70s, and those with serious, solitary stuff to do at the noon hour are eating at their desks.

But sometimes lunch isn’t just lunch. It’s business. And this town’s business gets done in all kinds of places, although hardly anybody wants to own up to being a practitioner of the “power lunch,” a creepy Gordon Gekko-esque term that the Urban Dictionary defines as “a gathering of co-workers or of mostly young male corporate douches…. Supposedly a motivational event, but usually turns out to be a feast of gluttony and ruined neckties.”

Mike Chase, CEO of the Copper Cellar Corporation, a 16-restaurant regional chain, doesn’t recognize the above-detailed description. He’s a consumer of the power lunch as well as a provider, and he says doing business over lunch is a good use of time because it generally has a clearly defined cut-off point. He says he’ll meet guests in most any of his places, based on convenience, but in recent years, he’s been identified with “the sheriff’s table” at Chesapeake’s, so named because he frequently lunched there with former Sheriff Tim Hutchison, a close friend and political ally. They’d sit at a table in the corner next to the bar.

“A lot of people like to sit where they can be seen,” Chase says. “I used to sit there where all people can see is my shiny bald head because if I was talking to somebody, I didn’t have to acknowledge everybody else and was less likely to be interrupted.”

For several years, Chase and Hutchison were locked in mortal combat with County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. At one point the rift grew so deep that Ragsdale’s office issued an edict warning department heads that lunches at Copper Cellar establishments charged on county P-Cards would not be reimbursed.

“That was probably good for business,” Chase said. “They knew they wouldn’t run into Ragsdale there.”

In short, there’s no such thing as an “average” power lunch in Knoxville, and its practitioners are as varied as the places they choose to do their deals. But what, exactly, are they getting done?

John J. Duncan Jr.

Corey McPherson

John J. Duncan Jr.

POWER CENTER: LITTON’S

POWER BROKER: THE DUNCAN POLITICAL MACHINE

It’s tough to get Jimmy Duncan to take the subject of power lunches seriously, especially after he administers the Duncan Political Machine Oath, which goes (roughly) like this: “I, [Hapless Reporter], do solemnly swear my loyalty to the world’s most exclusive organization, the Duncan Political Machine, and promise never to write anything bad about anybody at this table, so help me God.”

And it’s a big damn table, with enough room to seat The Congressman; sons Zane (works for property assessor Phil Ballard) and John J. III (said to be getting ready to run for trustee); chief-of-staff Bob Griffitts; son-in-law Jason Brown (married to Duncan’s daughter Whitney, whose wedding reception the first ever held at the Knoxville Convention Center, and says he’ll never run for anything); “Godfather” Mose Lobetti, an old-school politico inherited from John J. Duncan Sr.; retired lobbyist and Duncan golfing partner Bill Vaughan; banker Josh Burnett; former City Council member, Chicken City owner, and Duncan golfing partner Larry Cox, whose famously gravelly voice is often imitated but seldom duplicated.

A little later, the group is joined by one of the DPM’s true triumphs, rookie state Rep. Ryan Haynes, who is 23 and looks 18 and is John J. III’s best friend. Last year Haynes, a new University of Tennessee graduate who told a reporter that his greatest achievement was putting out a kickass yearbook at Farragut High School, was elected to the General Assembly over a U.S. Naval Academy veteran with a doctorate in nuclear engineering and who founded a national organization promoting college campus safety. Young Republican Corey Johns, who bears a disquieting resemblance to Stacey Campfield (maybe it’s the red hair), comes by to pay his respects, as does City Council member Joe Bailey, who is lunching in the front room with lawyer/lobbyist Arthur Seymour Jr.

Duncan, who is scheduled to fly out of Knoxville right after lunch, brags that he gets by with neither a laptop nor a Blackberry.

“My wife’s told me for years that I still live in Andy of Mayberry days,” he says. “And lo and behold, I found the most famous person who shares my birthday is Barney Fife. Don Knotts and I have the same birthday. I turned 62 July 21.”

He talks about getting a journalism degree from UT the year before the J-School was absorbed by the College of Communications; about being a reporter at the Knoxville Journal back in the days of hot type; about a 15-year-old Metro Pulse review of Wright’s Cafeteria that said, “Reportedly this is Jimmy Duncan’s favorite restaurant. Need we say more?”

The memory rankles: “If everybody that likes uncooked green beans and hard-as-rocks asparagus votes for my opponent and everybody who likes the food at Wright’s votes for me, I’ll win 95-5.”

He manages the conversation like a toastmaster, cracking a steady stream of jokes like the one about being asked to perform a wedding ceremony “for the niece of a woman named Andie MacDowell. Lynn [Duncan’s wife] says she does the L’Oréal advertisement on TV, but what do I know? Everything I watch has commercials for Flomax or Cialis.”

Cox mumbles something in an unknown tongue and Duncan guffaws:

“When Larry says something, we just say, ‘Is that right?’”

Lobetti allows as how the Congressman’s daddy was the greatest Tennessee politician that ever was or will be and says things are going pretty well for his City Council candidate, Joel Bond. (Lobetti is courting Bond’s mother as well as managing Bond’s campaign.)

Vaughan says he’s out of politics and hasn’t had a bit of fun the last few times he’s returned to Nashville on account of new rules curtailing lobbyist/legislator friendships.

“Too many ethics,” he says.

Zane, who has inherited his daddy’s conversational skills and comedic timing, starts in on the Congressman’s driving. Duncan responds by telling on himself:

“Zane loves to tell the story about how I got stopped on the interstate up in Washington for going too slow,” Duncan says.

“I told him, ‘At the rate you’re going, you’re making gas,’” Zane says.

Duncan orders a piece of strawberry cake to take on the plane to D.C. and handicaps the governor’s race—a bunch of good candidates, but if the election were held today, it’d be between Bill Haslam and Zach Wamp, putting Duncan between a rock (the mayor of his home town) and a hard place (a 14-year House colleague).

Then he takes a swipe at the widely held theory that John III’s pending candidacy for trustee is a prelude to the congressman’s retirement and a stepping stone for his older son to become the third John J. Duncan to sit in Congress.

“Yesterday somebody told me they heard a rumor I was retiring. I told ’em if I could afford a 500-acre farm in Blount County, I’d think about retiring…. But I think early retirement has killed a lot of men. I tell people it’s not up to me, it’s up to my people.”

The Congressman is charming and funny and refrains from bad-mouthing ultra-liberals, environmental wackos, or trial lawyers. (The following day, however, the daily paper quotes him saying that the only people still upset about TVA’s toxic ash spill in Roane County were “kooks and malcontents.”)

But there wasn’t much business being done. The real power lunching of the day probably took place in Litton’s front room at the table occupied by Bailey and Seymour, who were long gone by the time the Duncan Political Machine departed the building.

Seymour represents Don Duncan, developer of Joshua’s Landing, a controversial Tazewell Pike condominium project built on a swampy, sinkhole-dotted parcel above the headwaters of White’s Creek, which feeds into flood-prone First Creek. The Metropolitan Planning Commission had approved Duncan’s request to build 70 new units, a proposition vehemently opposed by nearby homeowners, who appealed the decision to City Council, which took up the issue the following evening. Bailey voted Duncan’s way and the vote ended up knotted in a 4-4 tie, which meant that Seymour’s client prevailed.

Bill Haslam

David Luttrell

Bill Haslam

POWER CENTER: CAFÉ 4

POWER BROKER: BILL HASLAM

Relative political newbie and rising star Bill Haslam is taking a breather from a campaign trail that has taken him from Bristol to Bucksnort in pursuit of the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He has planted his flag at the intersection of politics and business, so he lunches around, so to speak, and isn’t identified with any particular establishment—not even one that he, loosely speaking, paid for. A tactful man, he lists a bunch of different places he might take a prospect: Tomato Head, Trio, Bravo, Litton’s, Pete’s Coffee Shop for hamburgers, Chesapeake’s or Regas to talk business.

“When it’s somebody from out of town and you really want to show off, it’s Calhoun’s or Ruth’s Chris right across from the office,” Haslam says. “A lot of people want barbecued ribs when they come here. I go to Wright’s, but not nearly as much as Tim Burchett does. You’d have a hard time finding anybody with a tighter link to any place than Burchett and Wright’s.”

Cherokee Country Club, saddled as it is with its no-women/WASPs-only past, is one place he doesn’t take anybody. Haslam famously resigned his membership during his first run for mayor.

“I’m not a member,” he says with a smile.

Café 4, Haslam says, has gotten to be his “default place,” modestly failing to mention that he and his brother James helped fund its start-up through the Cornerstone Foundation, a Christian nonprofit organization whose purpose is “founded on the belief that Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone, and that He expects us to live out the values of Christian stewardship and to seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which He has placed us.”

The stated purpose of Café 4’s building, 4 Market Square, is to serve as a “third place,” where anyone who can afford the moderately pricey nouvelle Southern cuisine can find common ground with their fellow Knoxvillians over a plate of shrimp and grits or lobster mac ’n’ cheese. The restaurant, bakery, and adjacent nightclub are there to provide financial support to the Knoxville Fellows program, a 10-month post-graduate course designed to train future Christian leaders. The fellows, including Haslam’s daughter, Leigh, live in apartments upstairs, affording them easy access to internships with downtown businesses and a variety of temptations on Market Square.

Haslam says he does way more business over lunch than dinner.

“I can count on both hands the times I’ve taken people out for dinner. That’s usually when we’ve had a big group in from out of town.” He says he took the Sysco executives to Regas for dinner while the Green Mountain Coffee guys “always wanted to do breakfast. Must be the coffee deal.” His first date with the Mast General Store staff was in their North Carolina headquarters because they were not yet convinced that visiting Knoxville was worth their time. Subsequently, Mast lunches were at the Downtown Grill & Brewery because of its proximity to the location the city was trying to sell.

“I guess most of the meetings are lunch since 80 percent-plus of the meetings involve people from this community,” he says. “Lunch just seems to be easier to set up.”

Haslam says he’s discovered a non-Knoxville breakfast place he likes a lot—Noshville, in the city of nearly the same name. And that brings up his campaign routine, which he says consists of three to four days in the office, two or three days and a couple of nights on the road. Lamentably, he hasn’t been able to scope out the state’s restaurants as much as he would like because he has to hit so many banquets.

“I eat a lot of barbecue and a lot of chicken.”

Alvin Nance

David Luttrell

Alvin Nance

POWER CENTER: CHESAPEAKE'S

POWER BROKER: ALVIN NANCE

A big chunk of the talks that smoothed the way for Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation to absorb Knox County’s Housing Authority happened in the back corner of Chesapeake’s. That’s where KCDC CEO Alvin Nance likes to get things done.

“Generally, my administrative assistant will call and reserve a back table for me,” Nance says as he makes his way through the darkened restaurant. “It’s quiet enough so you can have a conversation and if I need to talk business, it’s an easy environment to talk in. There’s a lot of business going on here.”

He points to the last table against the north wall, back in the corner at the end of the bar.

“The sheriff was there last week,” he says, referring to Jimmy “JJ” Jones. Former Sheriff Tim Hutchison also occupies that table on a regular basis, as does Copper Cellar Corporation CEO Mike Chase.

Nance says he used to like having business lunches at the now defunct Riverside Tavern, but the building’s next tenant, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, which is open for dinner only, is too rich for his blood, and not in a cholesterol kind of way.

“I had to tell the manager, ‘Sorry, man, but I’m the director of the public housing authority. I represent low-income people, and eating in the most expensive place in town doesn’t work for me.’”

Former County Commissioner Billy Tindell approaches Nance’s table and asks him if he’s running for mayor.

Nance breaks out a broad smile. “Mayor?”

“That’s what I’m hearing,” Tindell says.

Nance gets serious. “I’m giving it some consideration,” he says.

A native Chattanoogan, Nance is a 1979 Maryville College graduate who played football and became the Scots’ all-time leading rusher.

He says he needs to answer one major question before he knows for sure whether he’s going to throw his hat into what promises to be a crowded ring of mayoral contenders.

“Is Knoxville ready for an African-American mayor? Strangely enough, I’m getting some strong encouragement from some old-line Knoxvillians, but what I’m trying to be certain of is that people are not just enamored with electing an African-American president, and it’s now just a hip thing to be doing—‘Let’s all get on board with that.’ Or are people thinking, ‘You’ve got a guy who’s spent 20 years as a banker and eight running KCDC and has the skill set to be mayor, and, by the way, he happens to be black.’”

Bill Regas

David Luttrell

Bill Regas

POWER CENTER: REGAS

POWER BROKER: CYNTHIA MOXLEY

Public relations exec Cynthia Moxley, CEO of the well-connected firm Moxley Carmichael, has the menu memorized at Regas. She brings clients there regularly, just like her mentor, the late Knoxville Journal editor Ron McMahan, used to do. And despite a run of bad publicity concerning lobster-to-go on the taxpayers’ tab, Bill Regas is still working a considerable crowd. Moxley takes exception to the use of the adjective “stodgy” when applied to Regas, the granddaddy of all power lunch restaurants.

“I prefer ‘traditional,’” she says.

As if illustrating her point, the next generation of GOP power lunchers—John J. Duncan III and newly controversial Assistant Election Commission Administrator Scott Frith—are escorted in and seated not far from Moxley’s booth.

Regas turned 90 this year, and Moxley has been entertaining clients there for more than 20 years, dating back to the days when she was a city editor at the Journal. Does she believe the old story that the Journal was bought and sold at Regas—maybe more than once?

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she says. “Ron [McMahan] started me coming here. He came four or five times a week and always had the same waitress.”

She says the key word to describe Regas is “consistent.”

“You’re not going to be embarrassed, you’re not going to be surprised,” she says. “When you’re entertaining clients the last thing you’re going to want to worry about is if the restaurant is going to let you down. Business lunches are a great opportunity to get out of the workplace and touch base with clients or politicians or others in the community. And Regas is a great place for business lunches. An advantage of going somewhere that is known as a ‘business lunch place’ is that you know you will run into a lot of other people you know. So not only can you take care of the business you went there to conduct, but you can stop by other tables and network and talk to other people you know.”

Moxley says she goes to several restaurants where she can do that, but Regas is special because it’s quiet enough for conversation, offers professional, friendly service and ample free parking, and is convenient to the downtown business district.

Over the past six months, Moxley has done a lot of power lunching at Regas with the likes of Scripps honcho Bruce Hartmann (the Knoxville News Sentinel is a client); Mintha Roach, CEO of KUB (client); Tim Adams and Cathy Darnell of the Young-Williams Animal Center (client); Kevin Burris of Premier Surgical (client); Carolyn Pointer of Hillcrest Healthcare (client); Rachel Ford, executive director of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (client), attorney/lobbyist Arthur Seymour Jr., and Tim Williams of 21st Mortgage (Williams is KSO board chair, Seymour and Moxley are board members) to discuss the KSO’s upcoming year; Bill Shory (news director of WBIR); and Jamie Foster (news director of WATE).

Bill Regas, son and nephew of founders Frank and George, recalls the owner of a Nash dealership telling him he sold more cars at Regas than on any golf course, and he is emphatic about his family restaurant’s role in Knoxville deal making.

“All the big decisions are made here,” he says. “More deals are made over lunch and dinner at Regas than in the office. One of the great blessings of life is breaking bread with family and friends.”

POWER CENTER: WRIGHT'S CAFETERIA

POWER BROKER: TIM BURCHETT

State Senator/county mayor candidate Tim Burchett is sitting with his 11 a.m. lunch appointment at Wright’s Cafeteria. He has a noon lunch date with Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones and his henchman Lee Tramel, who probably wants to talk about a bill Burchett opposes because he believes it would weaken the county charter. Jones supports the bill, sponsored by a Knox County deputy/legislator, because he believes it will preserve his autonomy.

But suddenly, in walks former sheriff Tim Hutchison, who has let it be known that he is also interested in the county mayor job but is thought to be running a distant second to Burchett. Jones and Tramel, who owe their current jobs to Hutchison, spot him from the parking lot. Cellphone calls are exchanged; Burchett excuses himself and meets Jones and Tramel at Calhoun’s. Embarrassing scene avoided.

Like most who do business over lunch, Burchett has his favorite spot, but will go elsewhere when he needs to. He’s fond of Long’s and Litton’s, but make no mistake: at heart he’s a Wright’s guy. One local political watcher describes the scene when Burchett walks through Wright’s front door: “It’s like Peyton Manning coming off the field after throwing a touchdown, greeting people to the left and right. It’s all very larger than life.”

Burchett says he’s been a Wright’s customer since he was about 6 years old and playing in the West Side YMCA basketball league, which scheduled a banquet there. Burchett was asked to do the prayer.

“I’ve just always known David [Wright] and his family,” Burchett says. “And I do a lot of business there. I had a big fund-raiser there that the governor attended. Wright’s is in the heart of my House and Senate district and people don’t mind telling me what they’re thinking. It’s a real cross section of Knox County where you might run into Pete DeBusk or some guy painting a house. They all vote.”

Sen. Jamie Woodson (right) and Marine Capt. Bart Slabbekorn talk at Long's Drugstore.

David Luttrell

Sen. Jamie Woodson (right) and Marine Capt. Bart Slabbekorn talk at Long's Drugstore.

POWER CENTER: LONG'S DRUGSTORE

POWER BROKER: JAMIE WOODSON

Over at Long’s Drug Store in Bearden, state Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson is a face in the hungry crowd waiting for a four-top to come open. She’s meeting someone, but she talks with anyone who approaches her.

Woodson, fresh off vacation, started her day by giving a talk to a bunch of first-year law students at UT Law School. She’s meeting Bart Slabbekorn, a young Marine captain recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. He was still in high school when he volunteered in Woodson’s first run for office in 1998 and since then they’ve both had pretty spectacular career trajectories. As a judge advocate, Slabbekorn’s defense of high-profile defendants has attracted national attention and made him a USMC poster boy.

“He interviewed me to see if I was worthy of being supported,” Woodson says. “I was very honored that he decided to get involved in my campaign.”

Woodson has moved steadily upward from House to Senate to Speaker Pro Tem and was re-elected last year with the highest vote totals of any state senator. Political junkies are making book on her next move: Governor? Congress? Consensus is she’ll be tough to beat, whatever she decides to do.

Long’s is one of her favorite places for lunch meetings. The modest but popular venue in the heart of Bearden suits her accessible style. Co-owner and pharmacist Hank Peck sits down for a spell and wants to talk about the rising cost of medical care.

“My concern is how insurance is going to work so people don’t lose everything they’ve got,” he says.

While she waits for Slabbekorn, Woodson talks to a family of good Republicans with an exasperating problem: a kid who insists on wearing an Obama T-shirt. What advice does staunch Republican Woodson give them?

“That it’s good he’s involved, and that he’ll rethink his philosophy when he starts paying taxes.”

County Commissioner Amy Broyles (right) meets with Roy Kruse of Epilepsy Foundation, at Time Warp Tea Room.

David Luttrell

County Commissioner Amy Broyles (right) meets with Roy Kruse of Epilepsy Foundation, at Time Warp Tea Room.

POWER CENTER: TIME WARP TEA ROOM

POWER BROKER: AMY BROYLES

Second District County Commissioner Amy Broyles’ third place is the Time Warp Tea Room. Located in a newly trendy block of North Central, its welcoming atmosphere and convenience to her Old North Knoxville home make it her favorite haunt.

The Time Warp is where she had her election-night celebration and that’s where she meets with constituents and supporters. That’s where she and her seatmate Mark Harmon hold their monthly pre-commission meetings, so they can talk freely and not violate the Sunshine law.

It’s a quirky place, with its vintage motorcycles, massive bar, and stamped tin ceiling décor. Owner Dan Moriarty is a gracious host, even when said constituents just take up space.

But quirky is okay with Broyles, the lone Democrat in this group, who has taken some abuse for championing causes like setting up private rooms for the use of breast-feeding county employees and banning guns from county parks.

“It’s a comfortable place, the people are great, it’s very affordable, and I can walk there from my house,” Broyles says. “What’s not to like?”

© 2009 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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