The last time Knox County elected a new mayor, it wasn’t really an election. Political power players threw so much money at Mike Ragsdale so early that anyone else thinking of running just gave up. What we got was a mayor who behaved more like an heir to a throne than an elected leader. Ragsdale will be remembered for lobster lunches and his luxury fleet of take-home vehicles, not accomplishments during his tenure.
This time around, the money is behind Tim Burchett. He has four opponents, starting with Tim Hutchison, the other Republican in the primary. Burchett’s political career was built in Republican social circles; Hutchison is a product of the patronage system that dominated county politics for decades. His power base is not country clubs, but churches, and his wealth grew through partnerships with tow-truck operators, car dealers, and developers.
County voters seem fed up with the scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours politics that Hutchison made a career from. Scott Moore, a former deputy Hutchison nudged into politics and an occasional business partner of the former sheriff, presided over the Black Wednesday appointments that ignited voter anger. Moore was found guilty of lying in court during hearings stemming from that meeting, and he continues to be dogged by conflicts of interest.
Moore was paid a broker’s fee on a real estate transaction exposed during bankruptcy proceedings against a company owned by Hutchison and two others, though he lacked the real-estate license normally associated with such fees. When Moore was a commissioner, he sometimes had to recuse himself from votes relating to property owned by him or his family, but such constraints loosen when property is owned by friends.
Given Moore’s connections to real estate and development and his tarnished reputation, he can no longer be assumed a fair and impartial member of the Board of Zoning Appeals. There will be a hearing April 20 on removing him from BZA thanks to County Commissioner Mark Harmon. Commissioner Paul Pinkston defends Moore, but Pinkston is part of the same patronage clan; his wife is in charge of the county jail’s infirmary.
Like Moore, Hutchison has been charged with contempt of court. During his tenure as sheriff, Hutchison refused to disclose how much money his department took in under federal laws that allow seizure and auction of property from drug dealers. He feared, probably correctly, that Commission would trim his budget by a similar amount. His secrecy about money taken in doing public work speaks louder than his campaign promises, and he fought Commissioner Moody’s efforts to learn how much money the sheriff’s auctions took in for years, first in meetings, then the courts, where he earned six counts of contempt. Drug proceeds bought surplus military helicopters, a horse farm, shooting ranges and more, and Hutchison has wanted to build a new jail since the last century.
An Athens, Tenn., bank recently sued Hutchison and his wife in demand of a loan Hutchison twice signed for while his investment business owned a car dealership that borrowed $5 million in 2006. At the time of its November bankruptcy filing, the Oak Ridge dealership had knocked $364,343.16 off the principal. Hutchison countersued, arguing that one signature is a forgery and that a handshake agreement among himself, a senior bank officer, and Hutchison’s partner Randy Hinton in 2008 freed him from the loan obligation and his ownership in Dean Stallings Ford.
Among the candidates for mayor, Hutchison is the odds-on favorite to perpetuate scandal and waste. His best hope at this point is that the Tea Party contingent perceives him as a martyr and rallies behind him against all reason. They’re good at that.
For rational voters, the most appealing strategy, assuming you allow yourself the freedom, looks to be a Republican primary vote for Burchett, then a free choice between Ezra Maize and Lewis Cosby in August. Burchett might even be worth a second vote, but the first order of business is shipping Hutchison off to his South Carolina retirement house for good.