Where You From?

Knoxville doesn’t elect non-native mayors—at least not lately

When was the last time we had a mayor who wasn’t a born-and-raised local?

In any other year, trying to recall the last exception might seem a droll parlor game. But this year, we might ask ourselves, a little urgently: Can we elect a mayor who’s not from Knoxville? Or one who’s not even from Tennessee? Most of us would say, of course we can. We’re broad-minded and cosmopolitan. We just haven’t, lately. If you remember the last time Knoxville elected a mayor who wasn’t raised in Tennessee, you also remember the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Whether that matters may lurk in the background of this year’s election. Once-vigorous candidate Marilyn Roddy, originally from Columbus, Ohio, dropped out. But Madeline Rogero appears to be the frontrunner. She has been a public figure in Knoxville for three decades, but is originally from Florida, by way of Ohio, California, and Illinois.

Bill Haslam, Victor Ashe, and Kyle Testerman, our mayors for the last 27-odd years, were all born-and-raised, more-or-less lifelong Knoxvillians, give or take college years or a sojourn abroad.

How far back that streak extends depends on how we define native, and native of what. Randy Tyree was originally from Carthage, in Middle Tennessee—he first moved to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee law school, 15 years before he became mayor. John Duncan Sr., who was mayor in the early ’60s, was from Scott County. Cas Walker, who brandished a couple of brief and peculiar spells as mayor in the ’40s and ’50s, was from Sevier County.

Well-liked 1960s Mayor Leonard Rogers had his beginnings much farther away, but still in Tennessee, Shelby County—a relative exotic by the standards of recent Knoxville mayors. But since World War II, all of Knoxville’s mayors have been native Tennesseans. As near as I can tell, all but those two were East Tennesseans. That streak might leave folks wondering whether non-natives should even bother. What are these arrogant outlanders thinking?

But in the deeper past we have indeed elected quite a few folks who weren’t from around here at all. Fred Allen, a prominent politician of the 1930s and ’40s who served two years as mayor starting in 1940, had come here as an energetic young heating-oil man from Birmingham. A remarkable guy who didn’t begin his political career until he retired, at 65, he became one of the most influential leaders of his time, instrumental in choosing the site of McGhee Tyson airport and in pioneering early air-pollution abatement measures. He became mayor at 74.

E.W. Neal, mayor from 1919 to 1923, was from Ohio. John S. Van Gilder, an influential banker, manufacturer, and developer, who took the helm as mayor in the early 1870s and oversaw the first public schools in Knoxville, among other things, was from New Jersey—the Jersey Shore, in fact. But he didn’t come the farthest.

It’s safe to say nobody out there remembers a Knoxville mayor who had a foreign accent. There have been several.

In the 19th century, we took orders from at least five foreign-born mayors, several of them prominent and well-regarded: James Park, the elder, our second and fourth mayor, was from Ireland; his house still stands on the corner of Cumberland and Walnut. Donald McIntosh, who was mayor in 1832, was Scottish. Industrialist Joseph Jaques was elected to non-sequential terms, in 1858 and 1878, and was an Englishman.

At least two Knoxville mayors grew up speaking a language other than English. Peter Staub, developer of Knoxville’s 1872 “Opera House,” was from a German-speaking canton of Switzerland. After being elected to two terms as Knoxville’s mayor, he served as U.S. consul to his home country.

For distance traveled to arrive at that office, none of them outdid one especially popular mayor, who grew up in the Prussian-occupied Grand Duchy of Baden. Peter Kern immigrated to America as a young man, ran the city’s biggest bakery and confectionery, and conducted City Council meetings of the early 1890s with a German accent.

Kern was, as far as I know, our last foreign-born mayor. Since then, for reasons I can’t explain, it’s hard to picture someone with a foreign accent in the mayor’s office. It wasn’t all that novel back then, but you and I may not live to see it happen again.

Now it’s hard to imagine an immigrant on City Council or County Commission, but some City Councils of the 1870s and ’80s included multiple immigrants. Some immigrants became Knoxville judges. That period of about 50 years when foreign accents resounded in City Hall seem to have been a pretty good era for the city. During that period, Knoxville approximately octupled in size, built train stations and an electric streetcar system, threw three national expositions, established schools and libraries and utilities. The era when we routinely elected mayors who came from far away was the era when Knoxville was most ambitious and generally thought best of itself.

We make assumptions about community pride as something handed down from our forefathers. Sometimes it works that way. But the people who love this place most are often newcomers.

We make assumptions about our modernity, that our times have made us more cosmopolitan and accepting of diversity than our great-grandparents’ generation. But it isn’t necessarily so. In 2011, Tennesseans seem happy to send our money to foreigners, and we do so every time we buy gasoline or shop at Wal-Mart.

But we don’t elect immigrants mayor anymore. It’s been 70 years since we elected one from as far away as Alabama. The year 2011 is, in fact, as long as Knoxville has ever gone without a mayor from another state or country. We don’t pick them for City Council, or judge or clerical offices, anymore. We seem to be getting more and more provincial about whom we allow to lead us. Maybe we’ve grown more skeptical of new people, and new ideas. But maybe we’re loosening up just a little bit, and getting to be more like we were 120 years ago.

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