Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of profiles of Knoxville’s mayoral candidates.
Marilyn Roddy tries hard to not be the candidate from Sequoyah Hills.
In arranging for two interviews, she suggests meetings in cozy cafeterias far from her home turf: Tracy’s on Western Avenue and the Round Up in South Knoxville. When City Council had to choose an acting mayor from its ranks in January, Roddy stood steadfastly by Daniel Brown, who was eventually selected over Duane Grieve. Brown represents the center-city 6th District, while Grieve represents the affluent 2nd, where Roddy lives. And when she opens her mayoral campaign headquarters this Saturday, it will be not on Cherokee Boulevard or Kingston Pike but in Mechanicsville.
“Our diversity is one of the things that makes Knoxville such a great city,” Roddy says. “A leader first and foremost has to understand the DNA of a community, and what makes it unique. Having been on Council for the past seven years, I have spent more time in every other part of the city outside of West Knoxville than West Knoxville, by far.”
As an at-large Council member first elected in 2003, Roddy represents the entire population of Knoxville. She says she knows local leaders and community groups in neighborhoods from north to south and east to west, and she doesn’t think a mayor’s mailing address should be an issue. “Hopefully they don’t bring that bias with them,” she says. “If they live in East Knoxville, there shouldn’t be a bias toward East Knoxville.”
But as a practical matter, being the candidate from Sequoyah Hills carries certain advantages. Except for Brown’s current interim term, Knoxville has been run by Republican mayors from West Knoxville for nearly the past quarter-century. Victor Ashe served from 1987 to 2003; he was succeeded by Bill Haslam until Haslam resigned to assume the governorship in January.
And while Roddy is campaigning all over town, it is hard not to notice the severe westward tilt of her base of support, at least as evidenced in her first campaign financial disclosure in February. Roddy reported the most money raised to that point, $99,708, outstripping Mark Padgett’s surprisingly robust $90,000 and more than doubling the amount reported by Madeline Rogero. But a full 59 percent of those donations came from the 37919 zip code, with another 9 percent trickling in from the adjacent 37922. That means more than two-thirds of her money has come from what you could call the Kingston Pike-Northshore corridor.
Roddy is easy to stereotype—and her detractors often do—as the well-off housewife from a prominent Knoxville family who got her start in public service through the Junior League. But the stereotype paints, at best, an incomplete picture. Neither debutante nor dilettante, Roddy presents both herself and her candidacy as serious propositions.
She was born Marilyn Long, and grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the daughter of two educators. Her father is now a professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Ohio State University. Her mother has a graduate degree in school counseling and worked at a community college teaching returning adult students. “My parents still live in the same house we moved into when I was in second grade,” Roddy says.
Roddy attended public schools “all the way through” and was accepted into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Initially, she says, she was going to get a business degree. But she felt the pull of her parents’ vocations and eventually switched to education. “There comes a point in time where you can’t deny your DNA,” she says. “Teaching is what comes very naturally to me.”
While at Chapel Hill, she encountered a young man from Knoxville. Patrick Roddy grew up in a well-established local family. The Roddys owned the local Coca-Cola bottling business for 91 years, beginning in 1902. Patrick actually joined the family through the second marriage of his mother, Dottie. She grew up in Knoxville and at 19 married John McKenzie, Patrick’s father. But McKenzie was killed in a car accident when Patrick was 4.
“We lived in Colorado at the time,” Patrick says, during a joint interview with his wife at the Round Up. “We moved back. A year later, she married Pat Roddy.” Pat Roddy, who died in 2009, was the grandson of James Patrick Roddy, the founder of the Coke franchise.
Patrick graduated from Baylor, the private school in Chattanooga, and then enrolled at UNC, where he majored in business administration. He met Marilyn there during their freshman year. “I met her in the library, looking for a date,” he says with a small grin. “One thing I learned in boarding school was study skills. So I made myself go to the library every night.”
“Whether you had homework or not,” Marilyn interjects, laughing.
“Whether I had homework or not,” he says.
“I just thought that was hysterical,” she says, “that boarding school discipline: ‘I’m going to go to the library.’”
The two hit it off, and after graduation (Marilyn was Phi Beta Kappa), they moved to Denver, where Patrick had an offer at the local Coca-Cola plant and Marilyn found a job teaching third grade. They had their own apartments, at least initially, but got married a year later. That was 1985, and they were both 23. “We’ve had the pleasure of growing up together,” Patrick says.
Three years later, they moved to Knoxville so Patrick could join the family business and the two of them could start a family. They have three daughters, ages 15 to 22. After the Roddys sold the Coke business in 1993, Patrick went to work at the Knoxville Zoo, where he was director for seven years. That was followed by several years as an investor and “private wealth adviser,” which Patrick says “just wasn’t for me, in the end.” But through some work he did on the Tennessee Shines concert series at the Bijou Theatre, he got to know Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment. Capps was impressed with him, and for the past year, Patrick has been AC’s chief operating officer.
For Marilyn, the transition from working teacher to stay-at-home mother was not a difficult one—partly, she says, because her husband always encouraged her other activities. “Patrick and I have always really shared parenting,” she says. “So any time there was something I wanted to get involved in, he was always incredibly supportive of that.”
Her community involvement began through the local Junior League, which she credits with teaching her some basics of governance and leadership, from parliamentary procedure to organizing committees and events. The League’s volunteer work introduced her to parts of Knoxville she was less familiar with, like a class of teen parents in Lonsdale. She was also president of the Sequoyah Elementary PTA.
Roddy’s biggest step toward politics came in 2002, when she joined that year’s Leadership Knoxville class. The program, designed to identify and encourage civic leaders, gives participants a crash course in local issues and institutions. Roddy happened to go through it at a tumultuous time in Knoxville politics. Term limits had taken effect in the city in 2001, with five of nine City Council seats suddenly thrown up for grabs as longtime incumbents had been forced out. The other four seats were going to be open in 2003, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity to anyone thinking about local leadership.
“It’s easy to vote for term limits,” Roddy says. “But then you also as a community have to say, okay, how do we develop the kind of leaders that are willing to step up and offer themselves for service?” She decided to run, with Patrick’s complete support. “We have a family rule,” he says. “If you want to do something, we’re all in.”
Roddy won easily over two lesser-known candidates, taking 73 percent of the votes in the primary and 75 percent in the general election. When she ran for reelection in 2007, she had no opposition at all.
The mayor’s race will be different, and since formally entering it last year, Roddy has been running hard. She was first out of the gate with a campaign kickoff in September, and she has been a nearly constant presence at civic events across the city. Her early fund-raising totals obviously make her a formidable contender, and there are some heavyweight names on her list of supporters: Jim Clayton, the manufactured-housing baron; Bill Stokely of Stokely Hospitality; Pete Claussen of Gulf & Ohio Railways.
“We were both in the same Leadership Knoxville class,” Claussen says of Roddy. “She has the Council experience. She’s bright, active in the community.” He allows that he might “disagree with her more on some issues than I did with Bill [Haslam],” but he says he thinks Roddy would be a thoughtful leader and a strong representative for Knoxville when it came to recruiting businesses and employers.
Still, there are some big names and hefty wallets not yet accounted for in the donor lists for the mayor’s race—the Haslams, most obviously, but a number of others as well. And there is a burble of talk that some people in the “business community”—which might be assumed to be a logical base of support for a West Knoxville politician—still hope to field another candidate.
It’s hard to know what the exact displeasure with Roddy might be, since she was, for the most part, a supporter of Haslam’s agenda. She was deeply involved in the South Knoxville waterfront task force, and, like Haslam, she talks often about the value of open, robust debate. “We have spent a lot of time showing by our actions our commitment to public process,” she says. “When you make the table bigger and rounder, you bring more ideas and more voices, and hopefully a richer outcome than you ever would have had without that.”
She is an enthusiastic advocate for the continued revitalization of downtown, which Haslam cited as his signal accomplishment. “We forget so fast where we were eight years ago,” Roddy says. “We didn’t have 2,000 people living downtown. To make downtown a place that was and is appealing not only for new businesses to locate but also residential, and offices as well as traditional commercial retail, takes a really integrated effort.” Now, she says, that effort needs to continue to spread into areas outside the “vibrant core,” including out along Magnolia Avenue into East Knoxville.
Roddy also supported the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, although as it got bogged down in neighborhood fights over sites for housing, she suggested it was time to take a step back and let the dust clear. (That’s more or less what happened when the TYP leadership resigned this winter and a citizens’ group stepped in to study the issue.)
In conversation, her Council experience shows in her easy command of municipal issues: the new push for curbside recycling (she’s for it); the Mercer pay plan to improve city salaries (ditto); the looming challenge of Knoxville’s pension obligations (“I think we’re going to have to put everything on the table”).
Like any legislator looking to move up, Roddy faces the question of executive experience. She cites her work on the boards of non-profit groups like the Legacy Parks Foundation, the Metropolitan Drug Commission, and Ijams Nature Center. “You learn how to manage and work within all kinds of different structures,” she says, “with people who come at problems from a variety of different perspectives.” She is past president of the Drug Commission board, and there was staff turnover during her tenure that prompted some talk of personality conflicts between the board and employees. But Roddy says that wasn’t the case. “Catherine Brunson was the executive director for 10 years,” Roddy says. “She did a great job for the organization. And then she decided to pursue other opportunities.” The board hired a new director, Karen Pershing, last year.
And then, of course, there is the vision question: What should a leader be leading Knoxville toward?
“We need to make this the best city in America to locate, grow, and expand a business,” Roddy says. “The city with the best neighborhoods in America. And the city with the best small downtown in America.”
She adds, “And those are the three themes that you hear in every city mayor’s race. Because, in reality, we’re not in charge of world peace, or abortion, or a whole lot of those big things. But you can make your hometown better, you can leave it better than you found it. You can make it attractive, and a place where business and neighborhoods are growing in a sustainable way. A place where citizens feel engaged, and part of the decision-making process.”