Sometimes things are over way before they end.
That was true of the Republican primary for Knox County mayor, which had started to feel like a foregone conclusion weeks before state Sen. Tim Burchett demolished former Sheriff Tim Hutchison by a more than 5-to-1 margin Tuesday night. It was also true, though somewhat less clearly, of the Tim Hutchison era in Knox County.
When Hutchison was forced out of office by term limits in 2007, he had still never lost an election. His detractors noted that his margins of victory had slipped—he beat Randy Tyree by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2006—but his years as a formidable presence in county politics had made him somebody not to take lightly. There were plenty of signs during the county mayor race that he no longer commanded the respect and/or fear that had, for a while, made him the most powerful figure in county government. The noisiest defector was County Commissioner Greg “Lumpy” Lambert, who in the closing weeks of the campaign publicly chastised Hutchison for attempting to distance himself from the County Commission machinations of Jan. 31, 2007, the day that became known as Black Wednesday.
But Tuesday night’s results suggested that Lumpy’s candor (or betrayal, depending on which camp you were in) was just a codicil to a decision Knox County voters had already arrived at on their own. More than half of the ballots in the primary were cast in early voting, and Burchett’s margin there was the same as it was in the overall count: a jolting 85 percent to 15 percent. The final tally had Burchett with 29,662 votes, to Hutchison’s 5,177.
At the Crowne Plaza hotel on Summit Hill Drive, where the Republican Party held its election night soirée Tuesday, many Hutchison supporters left as soon as the early-vote totals were posted on a screen at the front of the room. (The screen was showing a live feed of the Knox County Election Commission’s website, which has supplanted the election-night flurry that used to converge on the Election Commission’s offices in the old county courthouse. Tuesday night, there were a few TV reporters scribbling notes there and two law enforcement officers looking bored.)
When Burchett entered the room a little before 10 p.m., he was greeted by loud applause. And when, during his short victory speech, he made the usual winner’s-gracious-gesture toward Hutchison—“He was a good sheriff, and he’s still my friend”—there wasn’t much more than polite clapping.
A slightly less seismic sign of change was the defeat in the 9th District County Commission primary of Paul Pinkston by Mike Brown. Both are incumbent commissioners, and they were competing for the single district seat that will be left in the new, streamlined Commission. Pinkston assumed his seat in 2004 after his brother Howard died. Brown’s win means there will be no Pinkston on Commission for the first time in 20 years.
“I still think a big part of it is the Black Wednesday deal,” said Brown, who joined Commission in the 2008 wave of elections after Black Wednesday. “I think people are still mad about that, and I’ve had a lot of people tell me that.”
Lambert, who was happily making the rounds at the Crowne Plaza on Tuesday night, thought Hutchison had had the same problem. “The thing that clicked with me, the real epiphany,” he said, “is I have always supported Mr. Hutchison, scandal after scandal that he’s been involved in. I’ve always supported him and always thought, well, that’s just the liberal press beating up on a good conservative. But when it came down to this, if he’s going to be less than truthful about something like that, then maybe, perhaps, in some of these other scandals he was less than truthful. So I think that set light bulbs off in a lot of people’s heads.”
Among the things Burchett’s rout did was complicate the picture for his would-be challengers in the August general election. Democrat Ezra Maize, who defeated the unfunded Michael McBath by 1,318 votes to 990, has never appeared a serious threat to whoever the Republican candidate was going to be. Independent candidate Lewis Cosby seemed like more of an unknown factor, running as a reformer who helped expose accounting problems in the administration of Mayor Mike Ragsdale. But Cosby withdrew from the race Wednesday, citing Burchett's overwhelming win. "Last night's election results reflect a mandate from the public for a new change in the Knox County's Mayor Office and the election of Tim Burchett," Cosby wrote in a statement.
Still, Burchett claims to be taking nothing for granted. After a legislative stop in Nashville on Wednesday, he promised to be back out campaigning Thursday.
Meanwhile, outside the Crowne Plaza, it was a beautiful May evening. Down Gay Street, people were walking dogs, hanging out on restaurant and bar patios, pondering their options at the Regal Riviera. Children ran back and forth through the jumping water fountains at the entrance to the extension of Krutch Park. It was easy to forget that not long ago, Sheriff Tim Hutchison had seemed poised to convert entire blocks of downtown real estate into a new county justice center, with himself as its de facto potentate. It was, in fact, easy to forget Sheriff Tim Hutchison, period. An era might have just ended, but as far as Knoxville was concerned, it had been over for a while.