Ed. Note: This is the third in a series of profiles of Knoxville’s mayoral candidates.
It’s not something exactly listed on her resume, but let it be known: Madeline Rogero does have actual mayoral experience. Of a sizeable city even—Dayton, Ohio.
And, okay, maybe it was only for one day, and maybe she was only 18, and maybe she’s apt to dismiss the whole experience now. “At that time I never anticipated that I would be running for mayor myself!” Rogero laughs, sitting at the kitchen table of her South Knoxville home, a cup of coffee in front of her.
But make no mistake—with that one day shadowing the real mayor of Dayton, that knowledge learned in the high school civics class that sponsored the event, those years on the student government association, that experience as class president—the teenage Madeline Rogero was already well on her way to the position in which she now finds herself, as the frontrunner in the city of Knoxville’s mayoral race.
Used to being the underdog, Rogero still isn’t comfortable with that frontrunner title.
“I am not overconfident about winning!” Rogero exclaims with what seems to be genuine amazement. “I don’t know who would think that. You always run scared, and you never get overconfident. My concern about some people saying that I’m the frontrunner is that my supporters will be overconfident. We can’t let that happen.”
Still, Rogero led the other candidates in fund-raising during the first quarter of 2011. She has amassed over $103,000 in contributions to date, with $60,550 still in the bank as of March 31, the end of the reporting period.
And now that her seemingly strongest competitor, City Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy, dropped out of the race last week to run for retiring State Sen. Jamie Woodson’s seat, even Rogero may find herself hard-pressed to not think of herself as the frontrunner, whether she’s willing to admit it or not.
“I think she’s gonna be the next mayor of Knoxville,” says Anita Waugh, 83. Of course, Waugh is more than a little bit biased—she is Rogero’s mother, after all.
Standing in her daughter’s office in the newly opened campaign headquarters on Sutherland Avenue, Waugh points to stacks and stacks of thick black three-ring binders. These are her scrapbooks, Waugh says. She’s been making them for her daughter for years, from back when Rogero first ran for mayor in 2003. The binders have every single press clipping, every photograph, each letter of endorsement, even printouts from websites. While made by a proud parent, they are almost the opposite of the traditional baby “brag” book. These are not the documents of first teeth or first steps, but the archives of almost an entire career.
Those first teeth and first steps came in Jacksonville, Fla., where Rogero was born in 1952, the middle of three children. When she was in first grade, her family moved farther down the coast to Cape Canaveral, where her father worked as a mechanical contractor. In 1966, they moved to Dayton, just in time for Rogero to start high school.
Waugh says she always knew her middle child would be successful in whatever she did. “She was a straight-A student,” Waugh says. “She was very popular in high school … She was a leader.” Those who know Rogero now might find it hard to believe, but that popularity even included a stint as a cheerleader. Still, Waugh says, it was clear her daughter was always more concerned with issues of social justice than being liked.
Rogero says as a high schooler in the late 1960s, she found it impossible to not get sucked into the political issues of the time—the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, protests against the Vietnam War. Yet it wasn’t until she was a student at Ohio State University in Columbus that she discovered the cause that became closest to her heart: labor rights for farm workers. She first became involved in the United Farm Workers of America boycott of grapes, lettuce, and Gallo wine via an organization on campus and her church, but soon Rogero decided to postpone school and volunteer full-time for UFW. From 1974 until 1977, she helped organize UFW boycotts in Columbus and Chicago, and then lived in California monitoring conditions on farms.
During that time Rogero fell in love with another UFW coordinator, Mark Pitt. They were soon married, living on a salary of $5 to $10 a week, with housing and board provided by UFW.
“It was a fabulous experience,” Rogero says. “It was a very simple life, but very fulfilling. It’s sort of like the young people who volunteer for Americorps or the Peace Corps.”
Rogero had her first child, Damian, while working for UFW in Chicago. Her daughter Carmen was born after the family moved to Greenville, S.C., where Pitt was organizing textile workers. Despite the two toddlers, Rogero managed to finish her college degree in political science at Furman University.
A few years after moving to Knoxville in 1980, Rogero decided to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Tennessee. She says she originally thought about law school, but she changed her mind after her neighborhood organized to protest temporary trailers that were going to be installed down the street during the World’s Fair.
“As a result of that process, I learned about neighborhood zoning, which I never knew about or had paid attention to,” Rogero says. “Once I learned more about city planning and what it was about and how those decisions are made, that inspired me to go to planning school instead.”
Rogero and Pitt divorced in 1983, but she managed to juggle work and childcare along with her graduate classes—although when she was trying to finish her thesis, she says, things got a bit challenging.
“For about a week, I was writing constantly on my little old Apple II computer, and I would take little breaks and nap on the couch and sleep and get up and write some more. And the kids were great, so we decided to write a song about it,” Rogero recalls, and then gently begins to sing, in a quiet, wavery voice:
“‘Don’t be cruel to a mom in school. Please be kind, I’m going out of my mind. I know I’m your mother, but please go ask your brother. Until I’m through. It’s up to you.’ And so we would sing that, and the kids would make up other verses, and so it was a way to involve them. But yeah, it was hard. ”
Rogero’s community involvement and interest in planning led to more than just graduate school, however. As she became more and more active in her North Knoxville neighborhood, she found herself being asked to run for a Knox County Commission seat in 1990.
Rogero says her years with the UFW and as a neighborhood leader taught her how to reach out to people and gain grassroots support. “When I look back, I’d sort of been preparing for it in a way, without realizing it, by being active and involved in the community. But it was because somebody actually asked me to run, suggested that I do it, that I seriously considered it,” she says.
The campaign had a small budget—she raised just $6,800, she says—and her press materials borrowed the maroon and black of Fulton High School, which her children later attended. (She still uses the same colors on her campaign material today).
“The folks that had been involved in politics … didn’t think I was a threat, because they didn’t know who I was, and they just didn’t figure anyone could beat an incumbent who had been in there for 24 years,” Rogero recalls with just the slightest hint of a smile on her face. “I ended up winning by a landslide; it was basically 60 to 40 percent.”
Rogero was reelected to Commission in 1994 and then stepped down due to term limits. She worked in non-profits and community development until she decided to run for mayor in 2003 against wealthy Bill Haslam. Like in 1990, she says, the Haslam campaign didn’t take her candidacy quite seriously, but in the end, she was less than 2,000 votes shy of forcing a runoff.
In 2007, Haslam appointed her the city’s director of community development—a consensus-building move that Rogero says should have long ago squashed any concerns that she’s unwilling to work with Knoxville’s business community, despite those concerns already popping up in the campaign.
“Bill Halsam will tell you that you don’t run government like a business,” Rogero says. “I don’t think to be an effective mayor you need to have run a business or created a job. To be an effective mayor you need to know how to run a diverse, complex organization, which I have done.”
Rogero says she wants nothing more than to work with the business community and have a government that is responsive to their concerns. But, she says, jobs won’t come to Knoxville if that’s the only part of community she focuses on.
“Being a mayor is about having a vision for Knoxville and working with all sectors of the community—the business community, the neighborhoods, the schools,” Rogero says. “A lot of businesses have a choice on where they locate … and so they want to go where there’s a high quality of life. So by focusing on our arts and culture, on parks and greenways in our city, historic preservation … if we don’t focus on sustainability and on conservation of our natural resources, then we won’t be the same beautiful East Tennessee, and we won’t be the same attractive place for people to go.”
As beautiful as it may be, is East Tennessee ready for someone who—let’s face it—is as liberal as Rogero?
The 1920s home she shares with her second husband, Gene Monaco, could not be any farther removed from the manses of Halsam or Victor Ashe. The couple, who have been married for a decade, live in a modest home filled with antiques and books and musical instruments. Monaco keeps beehives in the backyard. They have an extensive vegetable garden. Their combined five children are all pursuing careers in progressive fields like environmental engineering, energy policy, architecture, and social work. (Except the youngest, Jacob, who is still in college.) Rogero beams proudly as she talks about how all the members in her family are committed to “greening Knoxville and our own planet.”
But in Knoxville, there are voters scared by phrases like “greening.” Despite her frontrunner status, despite her funds, Rogero is likely to face a long slog over the summer as more conservatives raise their voices in concern to perceived politics. She says her media strategy will focus solely on the positive attributes of what she’d bring to the office, and she says she will not be downplaying any of her past activist experience.
“I have worked for Cesar Chavez, I have worked for Dolly Parton, I have worked with Colin Powell’s organization, and I have worked with Bill Haslam,” Rogero says. “I think I have proven that I have worked cooperatively with all sectors of the community.”
Roddy’s exit leaves Rogero facing former County Commissioner Ivan Harmon, relative unknown Bo Bennett, and political newcomer Mark Padgett, whose fund-raising has been competitive with Rogero and Roddy so far. Roddy will be returning all of her money, but it remains unclear if her supporters will send their funds on to Harmon or Padgett. Rogero says she isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I don’t think I have to have as much money as my opponents to win, but I need enough to be competitive. I’d like to have more … but based on my race eight years ago, I’m not at all intimidated,” Rogero says. “Because it doesn’t just come down to money, it comes down to name recognition, it comes down to public record. I have an extensive public record of having voted on issues, of having worked on issues ... And I think when people go to the polls, they weigh all that.”
Rogero may keep saying that she doesn’t know if she’ll win, that she doesn’t want to be considered the frontrunner. But whether or not she’s actually taking anything for granted, she does want to win.
“I want it even more than in 2003!” Rogero says. “I want to win, just like I wanted to win last time. It’s not as scary this time, because I know—I’ve been through the race—and I know in any race there’s the ups and the downs, and there’s the criticisms and the affirmations. But what I’ve learned is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to get up every day with a strategy, do as much as you can, go to bed, and then get up the next morning and do it again.”