Primary Focus: The Democrats

Yes, There Are Democrats Running for County Mayor

On March 29, the Rev. Ezra Maize, a Democratic candidate for Knox County mayor, called a press conference on Market Square. It wasn't to announce a policy initiative, a fund-raising milestone or any of the usual things candidates call press conferences for. It was mostly just to remind the media, and everyone else, that there actually are Democratic candidates for Knox County mayor.

Maize's complaint that he and his fellow contender, Michael McBath, have been treated like afterthoughts is a fair one. But it also reflects some political realities: Maize and McBath are not only Democrats in a strongly Republican county, they are also both African-American (no black candidate has ever been elected county-wide) and first-time political candidates. In campaign finance disclosure statements this month, Maize reported having $580 on hand, and McBath said he had raised and spent nothing at all. Republican Tim Burchett, the top fund-raiser in the field, had more than $103,000.

Still, both have been gamely pursuing office, in very different ways. Maize, 40, is following a more or less traditional political path: He is pastor of First AME Zion Church in East Knoxville and was president of the Knoxville NAACP chapter from 2006 to 2008. Explaining his motivation to run for office, he is fond of saying (as he did at a debate on April 6), "If pastors don't know the issues, how can we lead our people?"

For a local government outsider, Maize has done some homework. He talks about the county budget at a fair level of detail, and is at least passingly familiar with issues like Public Building Authority's contracting practices. But his rookie status sometimes shows, as when he let the domain name on his campaign website lapse the week that early voting started. (He was apparently unaware that the site was down until Metro Pulse called him to ask about it.)

McBath, meanwhile, wears his lack of governmental know-how almost as a badge of honor. A production employee of WVLT, Channel 8, McBath is just 25 years old and has adopted a campaign slogan that explains why he shows up at candidate forums in jeans and untucked shirts: "No Suit, No Ties, No Lies." He is the first county mayor candidate to produce his own online rap video (a riff on Jay-Z's "99 Problems," in which McBath exclaims, "I got 99 problems, the mayor race ain't one.") Still, as his debate appearances have shown, his candidacy is sincere. His responses to questions about issues tend to boil down to vague promises of honesty and cleaning up government, but he speaks convincingly about problems of crime and joblessness that he has seen in city neighborhoods.

And afterthoughts or not, once the primary is over, either Maize or McBath will still be in the running for the general election.