Assessing the Online Campaigns of Knoxville Mayoral Candidates

The candidates for Knoxville mayor are staking out ground online

It is still early in this city election year, and we will probably have to wait at least until the snow melts for good (soon? please?) before we see the blossoming of candidate yard signs that lets you know a campaign is in full swing. But if you're looking for some early indications of where things stand, all you need is an Internet connection. In the realm of websites and social media, the Knoxville mayor's race is well under way.

So far, only four of the declared or almost-declared or thinking-about-declaring candidates have serious Web presences: Ivan Harmon (ivanharmon.com), Marilyn Roddy (marilynroddy.com), Madeline Rogero (madelineformayor.com), and Mark Padgett (votepadgett.com). Rob Frost, the former city councilman who is also running, has staked out robfrostformayor.com, but at the moment it's just a placeholder page with contact information. County Clerk Foster Arnett Jr. has no obvious Web indicator of his putative campaign.

Rogero's website is the newest; it just went live on Monday, using the same Web address she used in her energetic 2003 run against Bill Haslam. The other three have been up longer—Roddy launched hers the same week as her campaign kick-off rally last September—but Rogero says she doesn't think any virtual ground has been lost. "This is now the time" that voters are starting to pay attention to the mayor's race, she says. "It's great if you were up months ago, but you didn't have to be."

The four sites have some obvious similarities. All feature some combination of red, white, and/or blue motifs, along with smiling portraits of the candidates and snapshots of them meeting and greeting assorted Knoxvillians. They all have biographical information and overviews of positions on local issues, along with clickable opportunities to contribute cash or volunteer for the campaigns.

But there are differences, too, that seem to some degree grounded in the personalities of the contenders. Roddy's and Padgett's are the most lushly designed, with attractive typefaces and extensive photo galleries. Roddy uses a rich red background above what looks like gray-painted wood grain, and Padgett opts for a deep-sea blue that fades to a lighter shade at the center of the page, giving his photograph a sort of soft halo. (It's tempting to see the colors as political code in the nonpartisan race, for Roddy the Republican and Padgett the Democrat, but both deny any such intent. "Red is the color I used for my City Council campaign," Roddy says. "It's recognizable, it's friendly." "It's just a nice shade of blue," Padgett says of his own template, adding, "I think she's got a very nice shade of red.")

Roddy's site is the most photo-heavy, showing her with supporters and city workers at a whole range of events (including a sequence of her in firefighter gear). Padgett, who is 32, plays up his youthfulness, with photos of young supporters and family members. He also has the cleverest logo of the bunch, an M in a circle with the points of the letter formed by a sleek ballot checkmark.

Rogero's red-and-white site is more stripped-down and not as touchy-feely; unlike Roddy and Padgett, she has no pictures of her family. Her rolling slideshow is, at the moment, all pictures from her campaign kick-off rally last month. Unlike the bullet-pointed issue lists on all the other sites, hers offers a full transcript of her speech from that rally, with its repeated declaration that "I have the right experience and I am ready to serve as your mayor." The "About Madeline" page recites her long history of public service, from her post in the Haslam administration back through her terms on County Commission to her work with Cesar Chavez in the 1970s. She is the only one whose logo plays up her first rather than last name (maybe in deference to Knoxvillians still not sure how to pronounce "Rogero"), and also the only one with an actual campaign slogan emblazoned on the site: "Believe in Knoxville."

Harmon's site, meanwhile, has something of a folksy feel, in keeping with the "people's campaign" the veteran politician says he wants to run. Harmon, who is 30 years older than Padgett, says he put the site together himself, working with a Web designer, and wanted it to be "just an opportunity for people to recognize that I am in the race—nothing fancy." Of course, there is more to online campaigning than websites. Interestingly, in the early going, Harmon has been the most free-spirited user of Twitter in the bunch. "‘Tis the season to be jolly!" he tweeted on Dec. 9. "Casseroles, cakes, cookies and candy! I'm the jolliest of them all!"

"It's for keeping people abreast," he says of his Twitter feed. "I've got a lot of Facebook friends, and people just want to know what you're doing on a day-to-day basis."

All of the campaigns have Facebook pages of one kind or another. Rogero says the Facebook event page for her campaign kick-off had more than 1,700 friends and generated hundreds of new names for her mailing list. She says the emergence of social media is the biggest change in the landscape since her 2003 race, and she thinks it will suit her campaign style. "We've always prided ourselves on running a grassroots campaign," she says. "So now we'll be running a netroots campaign as well."

Roddy's mayoral Facebook page has 348 friends, Padgett's has 297, and Harmon's 150. Roddy says it's important for candidates to have some kind of presence in all of these places, because you never know where somebody's going to look for information. "People have so many choices," she says. "The trick is determining what is the best channel for reaching a certain constituency."

Padgett, who runs a technology company, e-Government Solutions, says even he knows new media will not replace the old standbys of print, broadcast, and plain old door-to-door campaigning when it comes to winning an election. But, he says, "It's the thing that I can do besides being face-to-face and talking to someone, it's the most direct way" to speak directly to voters. He is the only one of the candidates with his own YouTube channel—padgettformayor—which is currently showing his first broadcast commercial. He is also apparently the only one running ads through Google; searches for Knoxville mayoral candidates turn up banners for his website.

And that may be a good thing, too, because among the candidates, he is the only one who is not the top Google search result for his own name. The first "Mark Padgett" who appears is an event designer and wedding planner in California.

"That's one of those things you just can't control," Padgett says, with a laugh. "You do all you can, but at a certain level, Google makes those decisions. I guess that guy's a popular wedding events planner."