"County mayor is not a sexy job," says State Senator Tim Burchett. This is true.
Start with the obvious. The next executive administration in Knox County is going to be carrying a lot of political baggage—namely, the baggage of the Mike Ragsdale administration. Ragsdale, who ran unopposed in both the 2002 and 2006 general elections, has in the past few years become something of a human symbol of political dysfunction in county government. At this point, it's exhausting to repeat the litany of misdeeds—proven, alleged, or merely perceived—now connected to the county mayor's office. Remember that time when someone in this administration, apparently scrambling to come up with something, claimed they used a P-Card to buy fuel at the pumpless downtown soda-and-wiggery J's Mega Mart?
It's pretty much a foregone conclusion that former sheriff Tim Hutchison is going to run for mayor in the 2010 election. A number of other potential candidates—Commissioners Mike Hammond and Richard Briggs, as well as watchdog accountant Lewis Cosby—have also expressed interest. But, as of right now, Burchett, relatively young at 44, and with no prior experience as a member of Knox County government, is the only one who's officially put his hat in the ring.
At first glance, standing in a long, noisy line at Wright's Cafeteria in West Knoxville, Burchett looks like an archetypal Republican. His smile is large and sunny. His hair is pushed back and slightly puffy. His dress is conservative: a gray tweed overcoat thrown on top of an Oxford shirt and not-at-all flashy red tie. He does indeed identify as a "small-government guy, not a Big Brother type." This is typical language from Burchett, who's famous for evoking the specters of Communist China, Cuba, and the Soviet Union in his speeches.
Still, there's another side to his reputation. Well, two if you count his famous 1999 roadkill bill. But, that aside, Burchett is viewed by many in Nashville as an eminent compromiser, which is to say that he is willing to work with the other party on getting legislation through, often. In this short session alone, Burchett's already sponsored 131 bills, and 62 of them have been introduced in the State House by Democrats.
The most lusted-after designation in modern politics is "bipartisanship," or some derivation thereof. When applied to a bill in the Legislature, it simply means "supported by both major parties." But, when applied to a person, especially a political candidate who has to run as the member of one of the two major parties to get a viable nomination and ultimately win, it sort of slips into the rhetorical ether. Like many words invented by politicians, it's a fleeting, fluid word. Sometimes it's convenient and useful, other times it's not. Just recently, in the wake of the TVA Kingston spill, he's joined forces with the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, sponsoring a bill that would ban wet coal ash storage.
Geography certainly plays a part here. Burchett's district, State Senate District 7 is about as politically and culturally socioeconomically diverse as Knox County gets. It stretches from deepest Farragut to East Knoxville, covering downtown, Lonsdale, and, of course, Burchett in West Hills.
"I'm an urban, center-city politician," Burchett says. "A lot of my constituency is working class or poor. That's who I want to help."
It's in that spirit, maybe, that he discusses the state of Knox County Schools, which are facing a $16 million budget shortfall for next year, and even that's assuming that Superintendent Jim McIntyre gets the $370 million he's going to request from the county.
"You get the request from the schools, and a counter-offer from commission. I would tend to side with the schools' needs," he says. McIntyre is planning on getting rid of 63 teachers, as well as trimming 10 percent from the administrative budget. Burchett, the son of two teachers, says he'd rather trim as much as possible from the Andrew Johnson Building, KCS administrative headquarters, which he thinks is overstaffed. "When KCS first took over that building, someone asked them what they were going to do with all that space," he says, then looks down disappointedly. "They said, ‘We're going to fill it,' and that's what they did."
The Conservatively Moderate Conservative
Being a moderate Republican isn't always going to fly for Burchett. This is, after all, Knox "61 percent for McCain" County. And he is, after all, still going for a nomination.
"What do I say to people who ask about my conservative credentials?" Burchett says. A lot. Past, present, and, odds are, future.
Let's check out his record.
Abortion rights: In 2007, Burchett was one of 17 Senate co-sponsors of Senate Joint Resolution 127, which would say that nothing in the state constitution guarantees the right to an abortion. It passed the Senate then, but failed in a House committee. Same thing in 2008, when it was reintroduced. Both times, other senators tried to attach additional amendments that would allow abortion in the case of incest or when it's medically necessary, or for rape victims who are minors. Burchett voted to have those amendments tabled.
Guns: Burchett owns a carry permit himself. He wants guns in restaurants that serve alcohol, in national parks, and in wildlife refuges. Also, he once held a group of young vandals trying to break into a warehouse he owned at gunpoint, feeding them cookies as they waited for the police.
Shiftless welfare recipients: Have them drug tested. Who cares if it's against federal law?
And, finally, immigration....
With a half-smile, Burchett says he plans to attend a meeting with the Minutemen up in Halls after lunch. "You know, I'll meet with anybody who wants to talk to me," he says.
The unfortunately nicknamed "terrorist fist-jab" was supposed to be anathema to Republicans after this past election. But the first thing Burchett does at this little cafeteria is employ the politically loaded gesture with a similarly dressed guy who walks up to him from a table. "How's it going, brother?" Burchett says to the man, who, by the way, is Jimmy Duncan III, before engaging in some small talk (which includes several uses of the word "dadgum").
Two smartly dressed Republicans, one of them a member of a Republican dynasty, heartily enjoying the secret handshake of the American leftist cabal. Could this be a sign of a more enlightened, more cooperative era?
Burchett suggested Wright's. Maybe it's because of the customer base, which is politically noteworthy: There's Duncan, but throughout the course of the meal, Knox County Administrator of Elections Greg Mackay also visits. Mackay's a Democrat, and his job may be in danger because of the recent Republican takeover of the Knox County Election Commission. Burchett's a fan of Mackay's, and now he offers him some reassurance; later in the meal, Lincoln Memorial University chairman Pete DeBusk approaches.
It's unclear whether some of the other diners are here because of Burchett, or if he's here for them, or if the place itself is just a magnet for this type of guy. Or maybe he's come here because, unassuming as it is, Wright's is a politically moderate choice. Suggesting lunch somewhere where everything tastes like pesto and sundried tomatoes may have said one thing; a pricey, windowless-so-as-not-to-tease-the-homeless type place with cuts of prime rib available in both "king" or "queen" size would have said another. This place just says "food." At most, it goes so far as to say "eats." Burchett's wife ("dadgum wife") Allison, who remains quietly and demurely businesslike throughout the meal, sits down first with a plate of roast beef. Burchett, who is slowed down by greeting everyone in the restaurant, follows soon after with a plate of fried chicken, generously glopped with gelatinous, cream-colored gravy.
The Campaign Ahead
There are some questions as to the extent of Burchett's experience, whether he's ready for the job. Burchett's never run for countywide office before. He's never even served in county government before.
Hutchison, probably his most formidable opponent for the Republican nomination, did it five times, serving 17 years, helming a 1,000-plus employee sheriff's department, until Knox County remembered it was supposed to be enforcing term limits.
Also, Hutchison has already out-fund-raised Burchett, without even officially declaring yet. As WATE first reported last week, Hutchison has more than $20,000 in his campaign coffers, money left over from his 2006 campaign for sheriff. Burchett says he won't begin fund-raising in earnest until May, when the current legislative session ends. He doesn't even have a staff yet.
"Nobody's going to want me to say this just yet, but I think we're going to need about $300,000 for this campaign," Burchett says. As far as he has to go to get to that amount, it's still not a lot for what promises to be a busy campaign season. In 2006, Mike Ragsdale raised $295,000 just to beat out one candidate in the primary.
Right now, Burchett's only raised a bit over $3,000.
"The good thing is that the big guys only have one vote just like everybody else," Burchett says. "You know, I've been outspent before. I haven't always gotten all the important endorsements, but I've still won."
Logically, Burchett's spin here is that he's a reform candidate, not a part of the county machine, and thus not sullied by it. To hear him say it, when it comes to this government, his inexperience is his biggest political asset.
"When County Commission had their whole thing," says Burchett, referring to Black Wednesday, "I had an old Democrat friend who said, ‘You know, Tim, I know that's been going on for years. The problem is they're rubbing our noses in it.' Anytime when you have groups of people in power, and they stay in power, they get arrogant and they get cocky."
Of course, Briggs and Cosby both have the potential to out-reform Burchett's reform. Cosby is the retired accountant who broke the mayor's P-Card scandal open, which may be all the credentials he needs. Briggs, who's known for self-financing his 2008 commission campaign, was a strong proponent of the Knox Charter Petition, even writing an editorial in the News Sentinel voicing his support for the group's ballot initiatives. This past week, following the revelation that employees of county fee offices had been inflating their salaries, Briggs got the ball rolling on a countywide payroll audit.
As for Burchett, during the last legislative session he sponsored or co-sponsored two bills that sought to strengthen and streamline Tennessee's Sunshine Law, both clearly stating that private meetings of public bodies are indeed illegal. He also sponsored a bill that prevented county commissioners from serving on local boards or panels they appoint. That bill has recently had the unexpected effect of grinding the Knox County Board of Zoning Appeals to a halt for a little while.
"This campaign is about restoring public trust in government," Burchett says, then begins a campaign anecdote about running into a Knox County employee in a lunch line. "Someone turned around and said, ‘Hey, you paying for that with a P-card?' That's something he's probably heard a thousand times. That guy didn't deserve that. The problem with Knox County is that people do not trust what is going on. I want to be transparent. No secret meetings, none of that stuff."