Meet Knoxville's New (Interim) Mayor, Daniel T. Brown

Knoxville's first black mayor is ready to stop talking about race and start doing his job

It's a weird position, that of the interim mayor. One the one hand, you really are the mayor. You are the figurehead in charge of the city of Knoxville, and you are the public face that will be immediately associated with any unpopular or controversial action taken by its government. Even an interim mayor has unpleasant tasks, like issuing public condolences after tragedies like last weekend's death of Knoxville Zoo elephant keeper Stephanie James.

But on the other hand, you're only the mayor for a matter of months. Oh, and during that time? Half a dozen people will be loudly campaigning to replace you. Yes, you have the power, but you don't really get much of the glory.

So why did 6th District Councilman Daniel T. Brown decide he wanted the job?

"It was just an opportunity I didn't want to pass up. Those kind of opportunities don't present themselves very often," Brown says, four days after he's been sworn into office as Knoxville's new mayor (and just a little over a year after he was sworn into office on City Council).

The opportunity to make history? For, yes, even interim mayors can find their place in the history books—Brown is the first black mayor of Knoxville. A fact that might make a former history major at Tennessee State University doubly proud. But when he's asked about it, Brown sighs.

"You know, every single interview I've done, I've gotten asked that question," he says. When pressed, Brown finally admits that he thinks the city's first black mayor is something that's "really overdue."

All of which is to say, Daniel Brown appreciates the fact that in his 65 years on Earth he's gone from a segregated Austin High School and an all-white Knoxville city government to today, but that's really not why he wanted to serve the remainder of now-Gov. Bill Haslam's term. He swears he had no idea he'd actually be selected; he says he thought he'd just throw his name out there and see what happened. (Indeed, it took 11 rounds of voting for the Council to narrow five would-be mayors down to Brown.)

Really, you get the feeling it's more like Brown felt it was his duty to volunteer his name. And it does makes sense that a Vietnam veteran and retired postal worker would have a strong sense of duty. Sheryl Rollins, the president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP, has known Brown for 36 years. She says he's always had a deep sense of mission.

"I had no idea that he would take a leaning towards politics now, in the later part of his life, but I would not have been surprised if he had gone into the church," Rollins says. Brown is an active member of Knoxville's First A.M.E. Zion Church; his older brother Warren was once the pastor at Oak Grove A.M.E. Zion. Warren is now a bishop in the A.M.E. Zion Church, responsible for the spiritual leadership of churches in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., London, Angola, and India, among other places.

Rollins says Brown could have easily followed his brother's path into the ministry. Or he could have been a business success like his other older brother Russell, who was the CEO of an aerospace information technology company in Huntsville, Ala., until his death from cancer last year.

"He had his choices, but he chose to stay here," Rollins says.

While Brown may indeed care about making a Knoxville a better place, his vision for the city during his term is limited.

"My vision? There are just two things: stability and a smooth transition," Brown says. He explains he wants to continue to build on the work of Haslam and that's it (while continuing to also represent the interests of his constituents in the 6th District, of course).

But even the interim mayor has to handle the city's annual budget, no easy feat in a rosy economy and a downright dour one this year. Brown admits the budget will be a challenge, but he is hopeful there won't be the need for any tax increases. So hopeful that he mentions it twice.

"As we go along with the budget process, there may be some belt-tightening in some departments," Brown says, but declines to specify how much "belt-tightening" may be necessary. "I'll have more specifics when it gets closer to April." Brown also says he doesn't anticipate doing anything "major" with the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, although he notes he is a supporter of the initiative.

Even if the rest of the year goes as smoothly as Brown envisions, even if he never has to take an unpopular stance, even if never puts forth a signature initiative of his own, Rollins says she has no doubt the interim mayor will make history.

"Not because he's African-American, but because he has no interest in doing anything other than what's best for Knoxville," Rollins says, adding, "You couldn't have a nicer person or a better person in that chair right now." She notes that in her conversations since Brown's appointment, she has heard nothing but positive feedback from both the black and white communities in Knoxville. "I have not heard one negative comment—and that is unusual in this community, let me tell you."

All of which is to say, even though he's sick of talking about it, Brown's skin color is still a big deal. In a good way.

"Things are changing in Knoxville, and I think this is indicative of that. A city that will not invest in all of its citizens will not succeed," Rollins says. "You know Knoxville—this did not have to happen."

Brown does know. As much as he hopes "one day in this society we can get past this issue of race, where it won't even be a newsworthy thing," he's aware of his symbolic potential. He says he hopes his term will "encourage young people" and show them they don't have to limit their possibilities. Young people like his two grandchildren, who are 6 and 2.

When asked if the 6-year-old understands the significance of his new job, Brown laughs.

"I was on the phone with my daughter last night, and she said she had been trying to explain it, and he said, ‘You mean, he's over the whole state?' So no, he's not old enough to grasp what's going on, I guess," Brown says. "But he will one day."