On the way to work every morning, Dean Rice passes a framed photograph of former County Mayor Mike Ragsdale. It’s the formal portrait granted to ex-executives along the sixth-floor hallway on the county end of the City County Building. It also may be an admonition about how much can go wrong for the occupants of those offices.
Rice is chief of staff to new Mayor Tim Burchett, who took the county helm this month after a yearlong campaign built largely on promises to restore the trust and integrity that eroded during Ragsdale’s scandal-plagued tenure.
Since taking his roost in an office next door to the boss, Rice has helped preside over a series of small but significant steps toward Burchett’s long-promised “new direction.”
Some, like Burchett’s refusal to accept a county-funded car, are mostly symbolic and have been warmly received. Others, like the turmoil surrounding former Library Director Larry Frank’s resignation, have engendered anxiety and speculation about where the new direction is really headed.
But Rice, 41, seems at ease in his role. “I’m from this county, I know the community, my community,” he says, seated at a conference table in his new digs, with their requisite view of the Tennessee River. “I didn’t walk in the office and find any great shocking things.”
He also knows Burchett. The two have been all but inseparable since the former state senator launched his bid for county mayor last year. Rice, who at the time was a partner in his own government and community relations firm, served as Burchett’s adviser and confidant throughout the campaign. His quiet, professional demeanor was generally perceived as a counterbalance to Burchett’s folksy gregariousness—and often touted by supporters as a positive influence to anyone skeptical of Burchett’s bona fides. (By those inclined to see the new mayor as a slightly goofy good ol’ boy, Rice is sometimes referred to as “Burchett’s brains.”) But Rice balks at the suggestion that he helped polish a politician once best known for sponsoring a road-kill bill.
“I don’t know if Tim needs any polishing,” he says, “and I don’t know if anybody wants Tim polished. That’s probably the worst thing I could ever do for him. Tim is a natural communicator, and people appreciate him because he’s straightforward.”
If Burchett has moved deliberately up the political ladder from state legislator to state senator and now to county executive, Rice has traveled in somewhat the opposite direction. His career path is almost an embodiment of the Republican credo of devolving power from the federal to the state and local levels.
Rice grew up in West Knoxville and attended the Christian Academy of Knoxville from third grade on. He stayed close to home for college, graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1994. While there, he met and married his wife, Laura. They lived in married student housing on Sutherland Avenue, and Rice worked as a bagboy at the Bearden Kroger. The year he graduated, Rice went to work as a field coordinator for Fred Thompson’s campaign to fill the last two years of Al Gore’s Senate term. He says he had no particular plans of a political career, but it’s possible his trajectory was set at an early age.
“My grandfather was a staunch Democrat,” he says. “Growing up, I spent a lot of time at his house. When I was 5 years old, he used to make me come sit in the living room and watch this old black-and-white TV, big cabinet around it, and tell me, ‘Now Dean, you’ve gotta watch this, it’s history.’ And it was the Watergate hearings. I was bored to tears, not knowing what they were talking about, only knowing that it was something about a gate and some water, not sure if that had something to do with cows or fields, I had no idea.
“But ironically, you know, Fred was the minority counsel and asked Mr. Butterfield the question, ‘Are you aware of any listening devices?’ and sort of broke that open. And later, Fred had worked with Marie Ragghianti in the Blanton administration scandals. So I had a lot of respect for him, for what he had done, and when he got into that campaign, I wanted the chance to work around somebody of that caliber.”
Two years later, Rice was promoted to East Tennessee political director for Thompson’s re-election bid, and then moved to Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant to the senator. Other policy and political gigs followed. He was the Southern political director for Elizabeth Dole’s presidential bid in 1999, and then moved to the office of Rep. Jimmy Duncan, where he worked on energy and technology issues—particularly those crucial to Oak Ridge—as well as defense and homeland security. While working for Duncan, he voluntarily relocated from Washington back to Knoxville.
“My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the time up there,” he says, “but at some point you realize, okay, you’re getting home at 10 o’clock at night, you’re eating dinner on a TV tray while your wife’s in her pajamas, you talk to her for a few minutes, you go to bed, and you’re out the door before 7 in the morning to start it again.”
Shortly after returning to Tennessee, he and his wife had twin daughters, now 7 years old. Rice left Duncan’s office in 2006 to do political and government consulting, including a stint in 2007 for Thompson’s abortive presidential bid. When he heard that Burchett was planning a county mayoral run, he was interested.
“I’d known Tim since ’94, we go to church together,” Rice says. (That would be at the West Knox powerhouse of Cedar Springs Presbyterian, also home church—for now—to Mayor Bill Haslam.) “He’s the type of person, on and off camera, on and off the public eye, he’s the same person, very genuine, just a straight shooter.”
It might seem like a step down to go from working on national energy policy to worrying about county budgets and services, but Rice says it’s what he wants to do. “This is my home, this is where I plan to raise my family, grow old, and be put out to pasture one day,” he says. “Really, the vast majority of your life is affected by local government more than federal.”
As chief of staff, he says his role is to help shape policy and serve as a liaison with all the components of local government: County Commission, the school system, the sheriff’s department, city government. “He’s an extra set of eyes and ears for me,” Burchett says. “We go over things, he’s not afraid to tell me if I’m wrong. And that’s the kind of thing I need. I don’t need a yes-man.”
Rice says the most significant act of the administration’s first few weeks was the refinancing of $34 million in bonds, which could save $3 million over the next 14 years. But the moves that have gotten the most attention came before Burchett even took office, when three of Ragsdale’s top employees resigned in exchange for generous severance packages. The three—Library Director Frank, Engineering and Public Works head Bruce Wuethrich, and Communications Director Susanne Dupes—were reportedly told (though not directly by Burchett) that they wouldn’t be retained in the new administration, and elected to take the severance offered by Ragsdale instead. But the payments attracted a final flurry of controversy for Ragsdale, and as soon as Burchett took office he ordered them halted pending a legal review. Law Director Joe Jarrett opined that Ragsdale had no explicit authority to give the severance, and said the three would have to sue for it if they wanted the issue settled.
Rice declines to comment on any of that, because of the possibility of litigation. But he is forthcoming on the most persistent rumor that has circulated about the library system: that it could be privatized. Although he says some county services could be contracted out, the library is not one of them.
“The job the libraries do is critical,” he says. “A strong branch system is critical. Look at the parents that pick their kids up from school and take their kids over to get that book. It’s not just an act of, we’re going to go by and get a library book, it’s, we’re going to go by and open our kids’ eyes up to what’s out there. To expand their horizon, to give them a love of literacy, an ownership of literacy. That goes further for a community than almost anything.”
Given Burchett’s long emphasis on local branches (rather than the main downtown library, which he has said he has no plans to expand or relocate), it’s maybe not surprising that he named Myretta Black—who was assistant director under Frank—as interim director. “She’s done a tremendous job for years with the libraries, she was the director of the branch services,” Rice says. “She recognizes the importance of that infrastructure.” He says there is no active search for a permanent director.
Engineering and Public Works is a trickier proposition. Wuethrich left under the cloud of an ongoing Tennessee Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the Solid Waste Department’s relationship with Natural Recovery Resources, a mulch contractor in Solway. Rice is mum about that, but Burchett appointed former top Ragsdale staffer Dwight van de Vate as interim director to get the department back in order. The county is also conducting its own audit of Solid Waste. (Van de Vate and Finance Director John Troyer are among the few Ragsdale appointees to survive into the new administration.)
Another flashpoint was the decision to disband the county’s Office of Neighborhoods and Community Development, which managed codes enforcement, community grants, and the county’s 215 help line, and was a general one-stop-shop for county neighborhood groups. Director Grant Rosenberg was well-liked by longtime community activists like Lisa Starbuck, president of the Northeast Knox Preservation Association. “Grant really has done a lot of good things,” Starbuck says. “He is very knowledgeable about sustainability efforts and communities in general.”
But Rice is quick to say that all of those services will still be provided, just under other departments. Rosenberg has moved to the Finance Department, where he will continue to handle grants. Codes enforcement is going back to the revamped Engineering and Public Works. And there will be a new community liaison as part of Burchett’s communications department—Rice says the office will be moved up to the sixth floor, to emphasize the importance Burchett places on neighborhood concerns.
“Right now it’s down on the third floor, back in the corner,” Rice says.
Starbuck, for one, is willing to give the benefit of the doubt. “I think this is a real opportunity for the Burchett administration to show how things can be done in the county that are both economical and also progressive,” she says. “I’m looking forward with optimism to some good, common-sense management.”
And that’s the mandate Rice says Burchett has given all of his staff. “The mayor has said on several occasions that there will be no shenanigans—that’s the term that he’s used,” Rice says. “We’re all on a 24-hour notice, if you take advantage of the taxpayers, if you don’t respect the position and the responsibility that comes with it, if you abuse that power, there’s an elevator that will take you to the first floor.”
If anyone doubts it, there’s always Ragsdale’s grinning face in the hallway to remind them.