In the end, it turned out like everyone expected.
Madeline Rogero entered the race for Knoxville mayor late last year as the presumptive front-runner. She had name recognition, having served two terms on County Commission and made a strong run for mayor in 2003 against Bill Haslam. She had an enthusiastic base of volunteers. And by working in Haslam’s administration, she had maybe allayed some establishment misgivings about her politics (too liberal?) and her background (a union organizer?).
Nothing that happened all year shook the sense that Rogero was headed for victory. Her most credible rival, City Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy, dropped out of the race in the spring to run for state Senate. In the summer, Rogero released a poll showing her well ahead of both longtime politico Ivan Harmon and newcomer Mark Padgett. And in the Sept. 27 primary, Rogero came within 17 votes of winning an outright majority and settling the election then and there.
So her victory over Padgett Tuesday night, taking 12,351 votes to his 8,721, was hardly a surprise. The 59-41 margin was even bigger than a 15-point spread that an internal Rogero poll had reportedly predicted a week earlier (and miles removed from a dubious poll Padgett had peddled in late October that had them much closer). A month’s worth of increasingly aggressive mass mailings from Padgett, attacking Rogero as a tax-and-spender, may have boosted his numbers—in the primary, he polled only 23 percent—but they weren’t enough to slow Rogero’s momentum. Neither was a half-underground whisper campaign about Rogero’s supposed plans for a “rain tax,” a stormwater utility fee.
But if a Rogero win had seemed likely for a long time, it was still hard Tuesday night to miss its significance. Knoxville has just elected its first woman mayor, ever. Rogero is, in fact, the first woman mayor of any of Tennessee’s four biggest cities. (It’s one milestone Chattanooga didn’t reach first.) And while city races are nonpartisan, Rogero is the first Democrat elected as Knoxville mayor in more than 30 years, in keeping with a trend that has seen city voters leaning Democratic in state and national races. She also comes from outside the traditional power structures that have shaped local leaders in recent decades: business (Haslam, Kyle Testerman), politics (Tim Burchett, Victor Ashe), law enforcement (Randy Tyree). Rogero has a master’s degree in planning and a background in community organizing and nonprofit groups. In 2003 and again this year, she positioned herself as a grassroots candidate—albeit, this time, a grassroots candidate who could appeal to a good number of big-money donors.
In her victory speech to hundreds of cheering supporters at the Foundry Tuesday night, Rogero emphasized again the reach of her campaign. “Tonight we come together, as we did throughout this campaign, representing a broad and deep cross-section of Knoxville residents,” she said. “We ran a campaign of inclusiveness, from white collar to blue collar, from labor to management, from every neighborhood north, south, east, west, and downtown. We welcome people of all races and colors, gay and straight, people of all abilities, people from the youngest to the oldest.
“From the youngest to the oldest,” she continued, “from the richest to the poorest, because all of us are Knoxville. And Knoxville will only become greater if all of us are involved.”
She also reiterated her campaign promise to make Knoxville a more environmentally aware and active city: “We will work for a greener Knoxville that continues to grow while preserving our environment. Not only is it the right thing to do in the fiscally responsible way, it’s also the right thing to do for this planet, and that’s what we’ll do.” (For the full text of her remarks, see the Daily Pulse.)
The breadth and depth wasn’t just metaphorical. As she did in the primary, Rogero won precincts in most parts of the city, from Fourth and Gill to Fountain City, just about all of East and South Knoxville, and big chunks of West Knoxville including Sequoyah Hills and Bearden. Padgett won in the near-west areas where he grew up, Lonsdale and Beaumont, and picked up a lot of Harmon’s traditionally Republican northwestern territory, like Inskip, Norwood, Pleasant Ridge, and West Haven. (Padgett, nominally a Democrat, ran a fairly Republican-sounding campaign in the closing weeks.)
City turnout did jump nearly 5,000 votes from the primary, to 21,072 in unofficial Election Commission returns. But it was still the lowest turnout for a mayor’s race without an incumbent since at least the 1980s, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars both candidates poured into it. There are just over 99,000 registered voters in the city.
Padgett’s party at the Sunsphere featured a larger and more diverse crowd than his primary affair in September at the Crown and Goose, but the mood was much more somber.
As the early returns rolled in, people could be heard murmuring that the they were shocked, that they really couldn’t believe Knoxville would go for Rogero. Still, people nibbled on bruschetta and sipped their beers as they waited for more precincts to report.
At around 9:20 p.m., Padgett got off the elevator, with his wife, Katie, and his two young children beside him. He hugged his father. He hugged a couple of other people. He started to thank everyone, and then realized he had a podium set up.
“Thank you,” Padgett’s concession speech began. He thanked his supporters and family—his wife stood by his side throughout the speech, looking chic in a little black dress and red patent leather platform peep-toe stilettos.
“I’m obviously disappointed, but I’m proud of the race we’ve run together,” Padgett continued. He went on to talk about his vision for the city and how far he had come since his campaign started. He congratulated Rogero on her win and her campaign, and he sounded sincere while doing so. He praised “the most transparent campaign in Knoxville’s history.”
As his speech ended, Padgett briefly teared up. You could tell he wanted this, and wanted it bad. But when asked what his future plans were, Padgett was all smiles once more.
“I’m gonna go back and make money,” he laughed. “I’ll be back at work in the morning.”
When asked if he wouldn’t at least sleep in, since he had been campaigning for about 36 hours straight, Padgett said he wouldn’t. Then he made a statement that maybe suggested he was open to even working with the new administration. (Padgett has worked in government before—he spent a few years early on in Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.)
“I want to do anything I can to help this city,” he said. “I sincerely believe Knoxville’s best days are in front of her, and if there’s any way I can play a part, I want to do that.”
In any case, there’s at least one person a teeny bit glad all the fuss is over.
“I can honestly say I’m glad the campaign is over,” Katie Padgett said. “I kind of want my husband back a little. …
“Obviously, we wish there would have been a different outcome tonight, and that Mark could have won. But to me, he did win. … Win or lose, I’m proud of him.”
Back at the Foundry, Rogero thanked her own family and campaign team, giving shout-outs to her husband, Gene Monaco, and assembled children and grandchildren. Then she walked off the stage into a waving thicket of outstretched arms, as the celebration started in earnest.
Just slipping into the back of the room was County Mayor Tim Burchett and his wife, Allison. Their quiet entrance seemed designed not to step on Rogero’s moment. But asked by a reporter for his reaction, Burchett offered congratulations. “I look forward to working with Madeline,” he said. “She ran a great campaign, and she’s well qualified. She and I probably don’t agree on everything, but she’s very honest. She’s never told me a lie.”
He said he foresees a continued amicable relationship between the two local governments: “We’re both in this for the right reasons.”
No Surprises on Council
The three at-large City Council seats up for election Tuesday all went, predictably, to the same candidates who finished first in the Sept. 27 primary voting: George Wallace in seat A, Marshall Stair in seat B, and Finbarr Saunders in seat C. None of the races were close, with Wallace and Stair each taking 63 percent of the vote in their contests, and Saunders taking 66 percent.
“I learned a lot of things about this city that I didn’t know,” Wallace said of the campaign, his first, when reached by phone Tuesday night. “There’s a lot of issues in each part of the city that I don’t immediately have the answers for. From the outside, the solutions look simple, but when you begin to put your hands around it, the solutions are going to take a lot of work.”
Wallace, a prominent local Realtor, says he already knows Rogero well because of his work with Knox Housing Partnership, which helps first-time homebuyers in low-income neighborhoods. “I’ve had a good working relationship with Madeline,” Wallace says. “I look forward to working with her.”
Stair’s party at Relix Variety Theatre was hopping just before his win was announced, with close to a 100 people in attendance as a mix of hip-hop and indie rock played.
“It’s been fantastic. All our hard work has paid off. I can’t thank everyone who voted for me enough,” Stair said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to serve Knoxville.”
Stair pointed to hosting his event at Relix, on Central Avenue in the prospective Downtown North area, as an example of what his campaign was all about. “We’ve got to revitalize these industrial corridors,” he said.
His opponent Bill Owen was gracious in defeat. “It’s been an exciting and enjoyable campaign,” Owen said.
Saunders also had close to 100 people at his party, in the old gas station at Jackson Avenue and Broadway, before most of them left to head to the Foundry in time to hear Rogero’s speech. Wearing his trademark bowtie (a maroon and yellow paisley one), Saunders said he was delighted with his victory.
“In my opinion, this is going to be a really strong and active Council. The current members, along with Wallace and Stair, are people I know and am excited about working with,” Saunders said.
The fourth new Council member will be Mark Campen, who was unopposed in his run for the 5th District seat.
And the State Senate
Becky Duncan Massey took an easy victory in her bid to fill the 6th District state Senate seat left vacant by Jamie Woodson’s resignation earlier this year. Massey, the sister of Congressman Jimmy Duncan, won 64 percent of the vote in the heavily Republican district, beating out Gloria Johnson, a Knox County teacher and the chairwoman of the Knox County Democratic Party. Although she comes from a powerful political family, Massey is the first Duncan to join the state Legislature. (Her father was a Knoxville mayor and congressman, and her brother was a judge before going to Washington.)
Johnson may not have won, but she had the best smelling party of anyone. She and Owen co-hosted a party at Big Fatty’s in Bearden; around 40 people were in attendance shortly after the polls closed.
“It’s been fabulous,” Johnson said about her campaign. “We know we got our message out, and that’s the positive thing.”