Ed. Note: This is the fourth (and final?) installment in a series of profiles of Knoxville’s mayoral candidates.
Ivan Harmon has been a school board member, a city councilman, a city employee, and a Knox County commissioner. He was also, 16 years ago, a candidate for Knoxville mayor. And now he is again. At 63, he is the elder statesman of the mayoral field, nearly twice the age of political newcomer Mark Padgett, though not so far removed from 58-year-old Madeline Rogero. He is the only serious Republican candidate left in the officially nonpartisan race.
But let’s set aside for a moment all that experience in varied political realms, all those years working and sometimes getting crosswise with a few generations of Knox leaders—Victor Ashe, Tim Hutchison, Mike Ragsdale. What Harmon is most excited to talk about on a recent weekday morning, over coffee and homemade strawberry cupcakes in the back room of his campaign headquarters on Western Avenue, is illegal dumping. Specifically, the guys he happened to catch driving off after throwing some old tires out of the back of a pickup along a stretch Third Creek in April.
Now, Harmon had some history with this dumping site. He had helped with a clean-up of it just a few weeks before. And here were some old boys trashing it up again. Harmon was mad.
“I drove up there real quick and I blowed my horn,” he says. “The truck stopped. I said, ‘You guys are going to jail!’ I tell you what it was, it was the Saturday before Easter. I got out, the truck was sitting right in the middle of the road. They could’ve shot me. I had my card with me, I gave them my card. I said, ‘If I was the mayor today, you boys would be in jail.’ The guy said, ‘Sir, if you won’t call the law, we’ll pick these tires up, we won’t be back.’ I said, ‘No, you boys can do better than this. Who paid you to drop these tires off, anyway?’ And they said, well, they picked them up over at Inskip. So we turned around, I put my flashers on, I followed them back. The guy got off and put them back in the truck, there were over 20-some tires that he picked up.
“We pulled over to the little pumping station, and I got out of the car, and I said, ‘Guys, listen. I just spent four days picking up over 500 tires outta this road. Not only tires—I had to pick up old chairs, just trash. And here you come back through here, you’re throwing these tires.’ ‘Sir, we’re sorry, we didn’t think.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you did. You knew it was illegal. I mean, why’d you pick this place if you didn’t think it was illegal?’ I said, ‘Well, who’d you get the tires from?’ And they told me. I said, ‘Well, we’re going back over there, and we’ll take the tires back to where you got ’em.’”
We’ll interrupt this tale of roadside vigilantism to note that it encapsulates much of what Harmon believes is important about civic leadership: an attention to detail and decency, a gut-level knowledge of the community you serve, and a willingness to get your hands dirty, literally, to get things done. Harmon retired this winter after working for eight years in the city’s stormwater engineering department. When he says he’s been in the trenches, he actually means he’s been in the trenches.
It also, of course, illustrates his populist, folksy style of politics. That business card that he handed to the tire-dumping malefactors bears his campaign slogan: “One of the people, for the people.” Harmon is certainly a different breed than the community-organizing, masters-degree-bearing Rogero and the MBA-wielding second-generation pol Padgett. He is also different from the two men most recently elected to the office of Knoxville mayor, Bill Haslam and Victor Ashe, who both came from wealthy West Knoxville families and have degrees from A-list universities.
Harmon didn’t have time for a college education. He grew up on a farm in Greene County, and when he was 16 he started working at the local Giant Food store, stocking shelves. He finished high school just in time to get drafted, and served an Army stint in Okinawa. When he got out, he married his hometown sweetheart and went back to work at the grocery chain. “I got out of the Army in January, got married February 14, Valentine’s Day,” he says. He and his wife, Jane, celebrated their 41st anniversary this year. They have two sons and a daughter, and four grandchildren.
Harmon worked his way up the Giant ladder, moving to Knoxville in 1972 to manage a store on Merchants Road. Over subsequent decades and through various corporate buyouts, he also worked for Food Lion and Food City. “That’s my main background, is managing grocery stores,” he says. “And if you’ve ever managed a grocery store or worked in a grocery store, it’s hard to make money. They figure if they make one penny on a dollar, they’ve made good money.”
It’s not hard to imagine Harmon as a successful grocer—he has a broad grin and a seemingly natural gregariousness. Those qualities also made him appealing to some local Republican Party apparatchiks, who in 1986 recruited him to run for the old Knoxville school board against the sitting board chairman, Bill Carty. It was Harmon’s first campaign, and it taught him a lot.
“I was 27 years old, didn’t know anything about politics,” he says. “When you go out and start politickin’, people tell you, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna vote for you.’ Some of them are not even registered to vote. I got to feeling sorry for Bill. I thought, ‘Well, Bill ain’t gonna get no votes, ’cuz everybody’s gonna vote for me!’” So it was a shock on Election Day when early returns showed him actually trailing Carty. In the end, Harmon says, he won by a mere 116 votes.
But his school board service was brief. The next year, city voters decided to shutter the entire system and turn the schools over to the county. Harmon was out of politics for a few years before running for and winning election to City Council in 1989. That was two years into Ashe’s first term as mayor. For the most part, Harmon was part of a Council majority that could be counted on to back Ashe’s agenda. In an e-mail, Ashe says, “He was one of the seven out of nine Council members who nearly always supported my proposals during the 12 years he served when I was mayor. His support usually came after he knew that there were already a majority in favor. He seldom allowed himself to be on the losing side of a Council vote.”
That congenial relationship was briefly interrupted in 1995, when Ashe was seeking a third term and Harmon decided to run against him. Harmon says he had questions about some of Ashe’s initiatives, including his development of the riverfront along Neyland Drive. But he acknowledges that it was difficult for him to draw too much of a distinction between himself and the mayor he had largely supported. “I felt like I could make a difference,” he says. “I was trying to put the common-man approach back into the mayor’s office. And that’s what I’m doing now.”
Harmon got 37 percent of the vote in 1995, and quickly went back to being an Ashe ally. “I told him, ‘Victor, I look at politics as a sporting event,’” Harmon says. “You have a loser, you have a winner. I went over and shook his hand, we went to breakfast the next morning, and went on from there.”
He was, among other things, part of the Council majority that decided not to appoint Councilman Danny Mayfield’s widow to serve out his term after Mayfield died in office. That vote angered a lot of people, but, Harmon says, “Personally, I thought, she’s mourning the loss of her husband, she’s got small kids, she doesn’t know what she’s asking for.”
His time on Council was curtailed by the imposition of term limits. Harmon was in the first wave of Council incumbents to rotate off, in 2001. The next year, he finally left the world of grocery stores to go work for the city—and also decided to run for County Commission, where he served two terms from 2002-10. By his own account, he didn’t enjoy county politics as much as his time in the city. He speaks disdainfully of the old 19-member Commission, which he thinks had an excess of posturing and pontificating.
Of course, he was also there during the infamous Black Wednesday meeting of 2007, when commissioners who were being term-limited off engaged in assorted shenanigans and horse-trading to appoint their successors. Harmon’s own seat was not affected, since he was only in his second term. But in the Commission battles of the day, he was seen as a staunch ally of Sheriff Tim Hutchison and Commission Chairman Scott “Scooby” Moore.
Harmon still seems a little uneasy talking about all of that, and the multiple Sunshine Law violations that it entailed. Asked what he learned from the uproar, he says, with a laugh “I learned to keep my mouth shut.” But, he adds, “I’m not saying some of us didn’t do some things that were dishonest, saying, ‘I’ll put you in, you do this’—I’m sure it happened. I did not hear it.”
He is also quick to say that Hutchison’s appearance at Harmon’s official opening of his mayoral campaign headquarters was entirely unsolicited. “Tim was my friend,” he says. “But Tim has no part in my campaign. Nowhere in my campaign or my administration will there be room for Tim Hutchison.”
What Harmon would rather talk about is economic development, working with the Chamber and the county administration to bring new jobs to town. And cracking down on drug dealers that are traumatizing Knoxville neighborhoods. And reinstituting Ashe’s “Mayor’s Night Out” tradition of taking friendly walks through different parts of the city to meet constituents and listen to their concerns.
Harmon has raised less money than either of the other major candidates. As of the last full financial disclosure in April, he had about $25,000 on hand, compared to about $60,000 for Rogero and $65,000 for Padgett. The departure of Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy from the race was probably good news for Harmon, in that it left him as the only Republican. In recent elections, city voters have trended more Democratic than Republican, but Harmon thinks he can pick up enough Democratic votes to be competitive.
Ashe, in his new role as local political sage, sounds a skeptical note. “It is hard to see how he wins the mayoral election,” he writes in an e-mail, “but it is certainly possible as the only Republican in the race that he could force a run-off and prevent Rogero from winning in the primary.”
Harmon, for his part, says he’s counting on his tireless campaigning and his long-standing local contacts to overcome the money gap. Although a blood clot in his leg laid him up the hospital recently and then kept him off his feet for a week, he resumed his door-to-door effort as quickly as possible. It’s more or less the same approach he says he would take to running the city: showing up, and showing concern.
“I communicate well with people,” Harmon says. “I will be able to offer people experience. I understand the needs of the people. I have the willpower, the time to spend, and the knowledge to be able to meet and greet people, and help them with their issues.”
Which brings us back to the tale of the tires. After chastising the dumpers, Harmon got back in his car and followed them back to a little tire shop in Inskip, where they had made the pick-up.
“We pulled in there, I went in and asked that guy, ‘You pay these guys to get rid of these tires?’ ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I said, ‘How much did you pay them?’ He said, ‘A dollar a tire.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna call the law on you, ’cuz that’s illegal. You know how you’re supposed to get rid of them.’ And he was a foreign guy, he was from India. I thought he was gonna pass out on me. I said, ‘Lemme tell you this’—I’d already called the sheriff, J.J. and I are friends—I said, ‘I’m gonna make you take these tires back.’ So the guys put the tires back. He said, ‘Well, what about my money?’ I said, ‘Okay, you gave them $20. I’m gonna let them give you 10, and they’re gonna keep 10. So you lost 10, they made 10, but you learned a valuable lesson.’ I said, ‘Guys, this is Easter weekend. The only reason I ain’t calling the law is because it’s Easter and what Easter means. You need to be with your family.’
“Anyway, I haven’t seen them since. But that’s what I want to do once I’m mayor. Not just in my neighborhood, these things happen all over the whole city.”