Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of profiles of Knoxville mayoral candidates.
Here's what you probably don't know about Mark Padgett:
He hates tomatoes. Like, he will pick every single piece of tomato out of his burrito at Soccer Taco. Nonetheless, he likes salsa quite a bit. In fact, his favorite food is Mexican.
He really likes Jimmy Buffet. Also Jack Johnson.
He enjoys wakeboarding.
He admits to watching the Real Housewives reality television franchise on occasion, although he claims it's only because his wife has it on.
He met his wife Katie in 2004 at a Cinco de Mayo party in downtown Nashville.
He proposed to her on a surprise trip to the Virgin Islands, but the surprise was almost ruined when airport security found the engagement ring in his pocket.
He's been a Boston Celtics fan since he was six, but he likes college basketball more than the NBA.
He has a torn ACL, which means he can't play the basketball he loves so dearly. But he doesn't have the time to recuperate from surgery to repair the injury right now, what with running his own company and taking care of his 14-month-old daughter Kirby and running for mayor.
Because if there's one thing—and it very likely is the only thing—you know about Mark Padgett, it's that he wants to be your next mayor.
With his tall, lanky frame and easygoing grin, Padgett comes across as the former college basketball player he is.
He just turned 33 less than a month ago. If he were to be elected the mayor of Knoxville this fall, Padgett would be the youngest mayor since 1888, when 31-year-old Martin J. Condon took the city's helm. Padgett says his age shouldn't be a factor in the race.
"Knoxville, if you look at it—Victor Ashe was young … You know, Tim Burchett was pretty young."
Ashe was 43 when he was elected. Burchett was 46. However, Randall Tyree, Knoxville's mayor from 1976 to 1983, was elected when he was just 35, and Kyle Testerman was only 36 when he began serving his first bout as mayor in 1972. Prior to their elections, Ashe and Burchett both had state legislative experience, Testerman had briefly served on the City Council, and Tyree had been the city's Safety Director.
Padgett has no experience in the Knoxville political arena, and he's up against a slate of candidates who each have years of it—Ivan Harmon, Marilyn Roddy, and Madeline Rogero. But Padgett's not exactly positioning himself as the maverick outsider who can turn things around. He's instead running on a platform that highlights his experience as a small-business owner.
"I believe the mayor of a city is the executive, kind of the chief executive, of a city, and I'm the only candidate that has experience doing that," Padgett says. "I'm the only candidate I know of running for mayor that's ever created a job."
Padgett is the CEO of eGovernment Solutions, a turnkey government software provider. His company provides the website interface for a number of Tennessee county governments (mainly county clerks and trustees)—the type of software that allows you to pay your property taxes or parking tickets online, for example.
Padgett says he handles almost a billion dollars a year for the dozen or so contracts he currently has, which include Davidson, Anderson, Hawkins, Claiborne, Summer, Warren, Dyer, Monroe, and Sevier Counties.
Padgett says eGovernment has less than a dozen employees, some of whom are part-time or contract only—a far cry from the hundreds of city employees he would be responsible for as mayor—but Padgett says his corporate leadership gives him insight the other candidates do not have.
Of course, Padgett's not exactly a stranger to the world of government, either. He says he drew on his father Mike's long experience as Knox County Clerk and his own experience as an executive assistant for then-Gov. Phil Bredesen to come up with the idea for eGovernment solutions. (His grandfather Bill also served on the City Council for eight years during the '60s.)
Padgett likes to talk about how he started the company in 2005 with $5,000 he had saved up and a laptop he borrowed from his future father-in-law (although he and Katie were not, at that point, engaged). He says at heart, eGovernment Solutions is a company of the government, for the government—a private company, sure, but one that makes government offices and services more efficient, with a greater accessibility and ease of use for the public.
And efficiency is something Padgett really does care about. You can see it in the way his eyes light up when he starts talking about it, in a manner beyond his carefully polished down-to-earth political persona. In fact, Padgett seems to derive more glee from talking about methods of efficiency than anything except his daughter Kirby, about whom he is clearly crazy.
"I could sit there and watch her play forever," Padgett says. "Probably the worst part of running is that I get to see Katie and Kirby one night a week. We try to make sure one night a week I'm home for dinner."
Padgett lives with Katie and Kirby in a house in Rocky Hill that they bought last May—his first time as city resident since adolescence, when his family moved from Lonsdale out to Halls. In fact, this fall's election will be the first time Padgett will have ever cast a vote for the mayor of Knoxville, although he has voted in Knox County elections regularly.
The Padgetts previously lived in Karns, in a house Mark bought in the fall of 2006, about nine months before he married Katie in the summer of 2007. Katie followed Mark to Knoxville from Nashville, where her family still lives; she lived with Padgett's parents for a full year before the couple was married.
When asked what it was that made him fall in love with her, Padgett beams.
"I had more fun around Katie than anybody that I've ever been around. … That was it," Padgett says.
Katie is a slender, well-dressed blonde who still seems settling into the role of a politician's wife.
Over coffee at Panera, she says that campaign has been a whirlwind, between trying to juggle her clerical job in a physician's office and taking care of Kirby and making occasional appearances on the campaign trail. She says she's willing to put up with the stress because of her love for her husband, and that she loves him because he is, at heart, a good person.
"He's a very sensitive person, he's very caring. He puts thought into ever single thing that he does and he says," Katie says.
Padgett is the middle of three children. He shared a bedroom while growing up with his older brother Matt, now a vice-president at Broadway Electric, with whom Padgett says he's always been competitive. Both brothers played basketball at Halls High School, and Padgett says he followed his brother down to Troy State (now Troy University) in southern Alabama specifically so they could play on the same basketball team.
Padgett likes to talk about how he worked hard to get a basketball scholarship for college, even after tearing his ACL the first time during high school tournament play. (He says he has had four or five knee surgeries overall.) Matt also went to school on a basketball scholarship; their younger sister Sara Beth played volleyball.
"Athletics were kind of important in my family. My father always said you can learn everything you need to know in life through athletics—teamwork, hard work, perseverance—you know, dedication," Padgett says.
After two years at Troy, Padgett transferred to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., where he continued to play basketball. Padgett stayed at LMU for an MBA, during which time he worked on Bredesen's first gubernatorial campaign, which is how he ended up in Nashville.
Over a Bud Light at Soccer Taco, Padgett says he's always had an interest in political office. But when asked if his mayoral campaign was mainly to make a name for himself so he would be better positioned to run for a statewide or some other office, Padgett becomes nearly indignant.
"I'm running to be the next mayor. I'm doing this because I believe I'm suited to be the next mayor. I'm running to win. I wouldn't be doing this to get my name out there," he says.
For such a relative unknown, Padgett's name has already gotten out there—although not, perhaps, in the ways he would most like. There are the controversial $1,200 in donations from convicted felon Harold Grooms and his son Jason, and the $1,000 each donated by former County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and his chief of staff, Mike Arms.
There was the praise, since removed, on eGovernment Soultions' website from former Sevier County Clerk Joe Keener, who has been indicted for fraud.
Then there was the picture Padgett put up on his campaign website of marching in the Martin Luther King Day parade with the Boys and Girls Club of East Tennessee, which, as a non-profit, cannot endorse a candidate.
Padgett says "to me there's not … a controversy" about the donations, and that the website drama was simply an innocent mistake made by a political novice.
The "novice" label has been applied to Padgett by some when he has discussed his views on the Ten-Year Plan and other issues. But in conversation, when it comes to the specifics of what he would actually do as mayor, Padgett likes to focus on job creation.
"The next mayor could focus on a thousand things. But where we're gonna have the most success are when the mayor focuses on the two or three things, or four things, that it takes a mayor to do, the things that Knoxville has to get right," Padgett says.
"Jobs in Knoxville and growing our economy is something we just can't afford to get wrong over the next 10 years. Because that's where the rubber meets the road for so, so many other things in this city."
That's a phrase Padgett likes to use often—"where the rubber meets the road." He uses it almost every time he brings up the topic. More jobs, he says, means a decrease in Knoxville's stagnant, 20 percent persistent poverty rate, which turns into a better quality of life and safer neighborhoods, which means even more companies will want to relocate here. Padgett says he wants to focus on recruiting in the automotive, technology, and television production industries, as well as encouraging entrepreneurship and growing small businesses.
While the mayoral race is non-partisan, Padgett is a registered Democrat; yet while speaking on these topics, Padgett at times sounds like a mouthpiece for the solidly Republican Chamber of Commerce.
"I didn't know that Democratic candidates were un-business friendly," Padgett says. "I don't buy that. I'm definitely a fiscal conservative. I wouldn't be in business if I weren't a fiscal conservative."
On the other hand, Padgett calls the Chamber model of recruited business "20 years out of date."
"I hope that the people of Knoxville, when they picture whoever they want as their next mayor, they picture somebody who can get on a plane, who can go off and sit across a boardroom table with a world-class CEO and talk about why Knoxville's a great place to have a business, to grow a business," Padgett says. "I've done those things. I have a proven track record of success in industry. It's important that the mayor connects with those CEOs."
The intersection of these two interests—the Tennessee Democratic Party and Knoxville businesspersons—is why Padgett had raised just over $90,000 by the first filing deadline on Feb. 1. It is that money, coming from donors like his friend John Sharpe, that gives Padgett a chance in the race against his more-seasoned competitors.
Sharpe, 37, is the owner of a local staffing company; he and his wife have each donated $2,000 to Padgett. Sharpe calls himself a "big Republican" and says he is heavily involved in local GOP politics, but says he helped talk Padgett into running.
"I was calling him and begging him to run," Sharpe says. "I wanted to see a candidate out of the business community, someone who knew what it was like to be at risk."
Sharpe says he's been working his Rolodex, introducing Padgett to contact after contact, saying he, more than any other candidate, is the one who can execute on new economic development, and the others in the business community are doing the same. If Padgett's donor list continues to grow the way Sharpe thinks it might, could there be executive pick-up basketball games, the way there now are in the White House?
No, says Padgett, not until he has knee surgery.
"But maybe a game of H-O-R-S-E?" he laughs.