Roddy, Rogero Stand Out in First Mayoral Candidates' Forum

There's no way around it: The two women running for office seemed to know more than the two men

So there she or he was. Probably. Knoxville's next mayor. For the first time on Monday night, all four of the remaining declared contenders for the city's executive post shared a stage and their thoughts about the future.

If the financial disclosure forms turned in last week marked the kick-off of the mayoral campaign, Monday's forum at Church Street United Methodist Church was something like an opening drive, a first chance to test the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and their relative positions. Or, now that the football season has ended, maybe it would be better to think of it as a spring training baseball game. Between the Final Four. On their way to the Stanley Cup of the mayor's office.

Okay, whichever sports metaphor you prefer, one thing was pretty clear: The game was on Madeline Rogero's home turf. The forum was sponsored by the Council of Involved Neighborhoods, an association of groups from low- and middle-income areas of the city that Rogero has long experience with, from her days with the East Tennessee Community Design Center through her time as a North Knoxville county commissioner and into her most recent job as director of the Department of Community Development under Mayor Bill Haslam. The nine questions asked by moderator (and WATE news anchor) Lori Tucker were drawn up by COIN and revolved around the kind of ground-level neighborhood concerns that Rogero has spent most of the last 20 years working on. So she could have expected a sympathetic crowd—and a good thing for her, too, because she turned out to have laryngitis and could barely speak above a whisper.

Still, there was no obvious sign of favoritism from the attentive audience, which was large for a rainy Monday night and for so early in the political season. Somewhere in the vicinity of 200 people turned out, though their demographic makeup confirmed some stereotypes about who pays most attention to local politics—the vast majority had either gray hair or no hair at all. It was a crowd more likely to relate to Ivan Harmon's warm talk about his grandchildren than Mark Padgett's earnest paean to his 13-month-old daughter.

But if Harmon, 63, and Padgett, 32, were at opposite ends of the age spectrum, they were conspicuously joined by their gender, something inadvertently emphasized by the seating order onstage. Through an accident of alphabetization, Harmon and Padgett were on the left, and Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy and Rogero on the right. The men were in dark suits, the women in colorful jackets (red for Roddy, turquoise for Rogero). There were other obvious differences. Harmon and Padgett are both "from here," and sound like it—if you want a mayor with an East Tennessee accent, you're going to have to take one of them. Roddy and Rogero are not, and don't.

Beyond such surface particulars, there was another gap that became obvious as the forum proceeded. There's no way to say this without sounding sexist, but... the women really sounded like they knew more than the men. (Sorry, guys.) On topic after topic—the Office of Neighborhoods, code violations, the Magnolia Avenue and Central/Broadway redevelopment plans—Harmon and Padgett tended to reply with generalities and promises of accessibility and accountability, while Roddy and Rogero cited specific projects, agencies, and initiatives, many of which one or the other (and often both) of them had worked on.

That is to be somewhat expected, of course. Roddy has been on City Council for the past seven years, and would hardly be doing her job if she couldn't speak knowledgeably about current city services and goals. Likewise Rogero, whose work under Haslam put her in the middle of dealing with neighborhood concerns. Padgett, by contrast, runs a private company called eGovernment Solutions, which sells software and website services to local governments—but not in Knox County. (His father, Mike Padgett, was the longtime Knox County Clerk, which would have created obvious conflicts had Padgett sought any contracts here.) Harmon has also served on City Council, but not since 2001, when he was term-limited off. Since then, he has served two terms on County Commission and worked in the city's Stormwater Division.

The differences in background showed up clearly on some questions in particular. Asked about the Magnolia and Central redevelopment projects, both Harmon and Padgett said they would start by first going to the local neighborhoods and "ask what they want the next mayor to do," as Harmon put it. But Roddy and Rogero noted that in both cases, that has already happened. "Both of these plans are the result of extensive neighborhood involvement," Rogero said, adding that what's lacking in the case of Magnolia is city funding to actually do the designated infrastructure improvements.

Responding to a question about the possibility of citywide curbside recycling, Harmon and Padgett sounded wary, wondering how much it might cost. Roddy and Rogero both said that study had already been done, and the city has in fact been working toward universal curbside pick-up for the past four years. Roddy said the city has $700,000 in federal stimulus money designated to buy the first wave of household bins and added, "By reworking and equalizing our solid waste collections, we can make citywide curbside recycling feasible and workable without an additional charge to the citizens of Knoxville."

Of course, the questions were on a relatively narrow range of topics. Apart from one on the future of the South Knoxville waterfront, there was little asked about economic development, which Padgett in particular is trying to make the centerpiece of his campaign, presenting himself as an energetic CEO. "It doesn't take someone who's been in government for 20 or 30 years to make a difference," he said, in one of the evening's few obvious shots by one of the candidates toward any other.

The most likely flashpoint of the evening, a question about the endlessly embattled Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, elicited fewer sparks than might have been expected. Harmon and Padgett were both vigorous in decrying the plan's "scattered-site" approach to "permanent supportive housing"—i.e., placing small clusters of housing in neighborhoods around the city. Harmon opined that "we need to get the churches more involved," and suggested it might be best to keep all the homeless housing and services in one central location. Padgett said, "It's never going to be okay on my watch to put a new housing project in the backyard of someone's thriving neighborhood."

But Roddy and Rogero, who have both been involved in the Ten-Year Plan through their roles with the city, did not exactly mount a spirited defense of the current effort. Although they both said they were committed to the plan's principles, both said there was a need to de-politicize it and get more neighborhood involvement and buy-in. "We have not done an adequate job of engaging the community," Roddy said. Rogero agreed: "We need a new direction that has broader community and political support. Sometimes to take a step forward, you need to take a step back."

(UPDATE: That "new direction" is already under way. On Wednesday, the city and county jointly announced the resignation of Ten-Year Plan director Jon Lawler and his deputy, Robert Finley. In what County Mayor Tim Burchett called a move to "hit the reset button," there will now be a lengthy public process to evaluate options for future homeless housing.)

It is still early in this campaign. Three of the four have already accumulated campaign chests that will keep them going for a while—Roddy reported raising $99,000, Padgett about $90,000, and Rogero about $44,000. The amiable (and recently retired) Harmon reported only $16,000, but he seems intent on running a no-frills race that will largely involve a lot of door-knocking; he has begun a "Walk Across Knoxville" to visit every neighborhood in the city. (Similarly, Padgett several times announced a somewhat awkwardly named "Hands On Knoxville Listening Tour.") And future forums may broach topics that play more to either Harmon's or Padgett's strengths. It is also fair to wonder how much knowing the details of any given neighborhood concern will really matter when it comes down to the campaign dog days of 30-second radio spots.

But in the first quarter, or inning, or round, Roddy and Rogero showed up ready to play.