It's 7:30 in the morning, and the sun's not yet fully up outside Powell Elementary School. But as Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett walks down the hall, fist-bumping students and hugging teachers, you get the feeling he's been awake for hours.
Actually, he probably has been—Burchett's somewhat of an insomniac, an affliction that may or may not be influenced by his propensity for Mountain Dew regularly supplemented with iced tea. Yet Burchett's animation isn't simply that of the highly caffeinated, or the perky morning lark. Instead, the mayor seems to feed off the energy of the kids that are quickly filling the cafeteria.
If you haven't spent a lot of time with Burchett, you might just assume this is typical political glad-handing, even if the hundred or so fourth- and fifth-graders who come to see him won't be eligible to vote for him for a very long time, long after he's left his mayoral post in 2018. (Although Burchett refuses to officially confirm that he'll be running for reelection next year, it seems likely. It also seems likely he'll be unopposed, at least by a serious candidate.)
But if you have spent a lot of time with the mayor—or if you have just read through his Twitter account—you can tell his enthusiasm for hanging out with kids is real. You also get the feeling that a lot of days, he'd rather be eating lunch in elementary school cafeterias (despite his frequent complaints about the quality of Knox County Schools food, especially the pizza), rather than hobnobbing at business lunches at Bistro at the Bijou or Chesapeake's.
This, in a nutshell, is what people love about Tim Burchett. It is also what drives other people crazy. His detractors complain that Burchett is better at being a man of the people than being a politician, but the truth is more complicated. He may be more comfortable fishing in his trademark Carhartt jacket than in a tuxedo at a benefit, but his unassuming bonhomie is occasionally belied by his sheer ambition. This is a man, after all, who first ran for statewide office at 29 and whose closest friends are convinced won't stop until he's in Washington.
"He comes across as a folksy, down-home guy, but behind that is a cunningness, a cleverness, a slyness that a lot of people don't recognize," says community activist Julia Tucker, who's known Burchett since he was 7 and considers herself a close friend. "If I had to pick an animal to describe him, he'd be a fox. He's just nobody's fool."
So when you're watching Burchett answer question after question from the students at Powell Elementary, it's hard to know how many of his responses—some of which sound like excerpts from a stump speech—are for the benefit of the reporter in the room. But it's also hard to deny that Burchett has this weird combination of bluntness and authenticity that most politicians—at least, most politicians that have been in office almost 20 years—would never dare to express.
A student asks if it's hard being the mayor. Burchett replies, "Sometimes it's hard. Every aspect of your life is under a microscope. Your relationships, everything." It's an odd, veiled mention of his highly publicized divorce last summer, which turned into a campaign finance scandal after his wife Allison showed bank statements documenting questionable expenses to the News Sentinel.
Then another student asks about his Republican affiliation. Burchett sounds genuinely frustrated as he says, "I'm just sick of both parties. I'm just sick of everything."
Finally, the teachers signal to Burchett that it's time to wrap it up. Kids line up for fist bumps on their way out of the room. And then one student squeezes in a final question: "Do mayors ever get bullied?"
"Yeah," Burchett responds. "The superintendent tried that one time. He didn't get very far."
Timothy Floyd Burchett was born Aug. 25, 1964, to Charlie and Joyce Burchett. If you want to understand anything about Tim, this is where you start, with his parents. In fact, the first time you sit down with Burchett and ask him about himself, he immediately starts telling you the story of how his parents got engaged. (His father sold his motorcycle to buy the wedding ring.)
Burchett was the third child, the baby of the family after his sister Joyce Burchett High and his brother Charlie, Jr., who are five and three-and-a-half years older respectively. Mrs. Burchett was 40 when she had Tim, and her husband was 41, but growing up with older parents didn't affect his closeness to them.
"I'm an unrepentant momma's boy. I love my momma," Burchett says.
And it's true. Given the chance, he will bring up either one or both of his parents in any given conversation, whether speaking to students or presenting his budget to Knox County Commission. Burchett even lived with his parents (when not in Nashville) until well into his late 30s.
"Dad was his very best friend," his sister says. "Tim really took care of him. They just understood each other, that's the best way I can put it."
Charlie Burchett Sr., was a longtime dean of students at the University of Tennessee who first ran for the old Knoxville school board in 1965. Those close to Tim say his interest in politics started as a child, watching his dad's interactions.
"He was a smart little boy," says Tucker, who served on the school board with Charlie. "Timmy would want to sit inside and listen to the adults talk instead of going out to play." Tucker recalls Burchett as being a somewhat shy child who was also the apple of his parents' eyes.
"I wouldn't say he was spoiled, but he was definitely indulged some," Tucker says.
High describes a idyllic childhood full of camping trips and bike rides and athletics events attended by both their parents.
"We ate breakfast together and we ate dinner together, and there was always a lot going on," High says. "It wasn't perfect, but it was a good childhood."
High says Tim is in a lot of ways still that same kid, even at age 48.
"He's never fit into a box, ever since he was little," High says. "We would go camping and we were at Myrtle Beach one time, I just remember him going off by himself, out in the sand dunes, metal detecting. He must have been just five or six."
His brother Charlie concurs.
"Whatever he was interested in, he did it. He didn't seem to care if anyone else did it or not," Charlie says. "But even though he never did the trendy stuff, he always had a ton of friends."
Burchett's popularity at Bearden High School led to positions in student government. He also became the captain of the football team his senior year.
"He worked hard to be on the team, because he wasn't that fast and he was pretty scrawny for a wide receiver," says Charlie. (Burchett calls himself "the runt of the football team.")
After graduation in 1982, Burchett enrolled at UT, where he eventually majored in technological and adult education. He was heavily involved in his fraternity, Sigma Chi, and served as its president (and unofficial designated driver). Burchett says he was "a grateful C student" who "reached up from mediocrity" to finally finish school.
"It took me six years to get out of college, and I didn't even drink or smoke pot," Burchett laughs. Although he admits he has had a beer once or twice over the course of his lifetime, Burchett, a Baptist, is a non-drinker.
"I'm not passing judgment on anyone who does [drink]," Burchett says. "That's just the way I was raised. My dad never had any alcohol in the house ever."
After college, Burchett started a mulch company, which eventually landed a contract with the city to process its brush collections. But accusations of mulch "tainted" with bacteria decimated the company. The EPA later issued a report that the mulch was safe and presented no danger, but Burchett had already been forced to close the business in early 1994. "That was my first awakening to politics," he says, still with a trace of bitterness. "No one before or since has been under that much scrutinity. It was a hachet job."
Burchett says that's when he decided to run for the state Legislature. But his sister says there was never any doubt in her mind that politics was where Tim would end up.
"He's a whole lot like my dad. He always wanted to make a difference," High says.
Tucker says she wasn't surprised either when he started campaigning in 1994.
"Was I surprised at the ease he got elected? Maybe," Tucker says.
After four years in the state House, Burchett ran for the District 7 state Senate seat in 1998. In 2008, he launched his campaign for Knox County Mayor while finishing out his third term in the Senate. He was elected in August 2010 with 88 percent of the vote after a resounding primary victory over former Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchinson.
Almost three years after his election, Burchett has slowly grown into his corner office on the top floor of the City County Building. The room is dominated by a large, framed American flag, his uncle's. He also has space dedicated to dozens of political cartoons featuring his legislation and exploits over the year. (There are a lot about roadkill, skewering his notorious 1999 bill to legalize the eating of wild animals killed by vehicles.) And among the signed photographs of prominent politicians are a few framed items of Lynyrd Skynyrd memorabilia, Burchett's favorite band.
Burchett keeps a pair of binoculars handy, the better to look at planes and barges passing by. At times he seems like a kid, joking about the last time he had a pizza party for the Sertoma Center and got in trouble for serving Mountain Dew. When he's presented with a contract to allow the purchase of new police motorcycles, he seems more concerned with the motorcycle specs than the cost.
As his assistant Diana Wilson runs down his calendar, Burchett accepts invitation after invitation, whether to a ribbon cutting or a benefit or a lunch with a constituent he's never met.
"I rarely turn anything down," Burchett says. "Too many politicians insulate themselves."
Burchett's proclivity for attending so many events—and the time out of the office it requires—has drawn criticism from some. The News Sentinel reported in 2011 that Burchett had missed 80 percent of the meetings of boards, committees, and panels on which he serves—a percentage that Burchett admits hasn't changed much.
"I just think you need to send the most qualified person to the meeting," Burchett says. He says it makes more sense for finance director Chris Caldwell or his chief of staff, Dean Rice, to attend meetings of the investment committee or the pension board because they understand it better than he does.
"You put the best people you can on the field, and my role is to oversee all that," he adds.
However, Burchett has come under fire for some of his appointments, too, like when he selected his friend and fraternity brother Burton Webb as finance director last spring without realizing Webb was under indictment in Kentucky for theft. Even before that news broke, Webb's hire was criticized due to his lack of professional financial qualifications.
"That has been his biggest mistake—hiring his buddies," says County Commissioner Amy Broyles, who has been vocally critical of Burchett at times. "I had really high hopes that he was going to be a good mayor. But he tends to work more through the good ol' boy network. ... I think if he sought input from more people he'd be a better mayor."
Burchett says the perception that he's isolated in his office and relies too heavily on his advisors—Rice, Caldwell, Community Outreach Manager Jonathan Griswold, and Communications Director Michael Grider—isn't accurate. Yet, per Rice's direction, Burchett declined to let any of his staff members be interviewed for this story.
Burchett was also pilloried last summer by many, including the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, for his opposition to a tax increase that would have funded a $35 million increase in funds for Knox County Schools. His relationship with Superintendent Jim McIntyre grew frayed, and although both claim now to get along, it's clear that the two men will never be more than collegial. When asked about some of Burchett's public criticisms of him, McIntyre freezes up, as if trying to compose his face from showing exactly what he feels.
"What's great about the mayor is you never have to worry about what he's thinking, because he'll tell you," McIntyre finally says. Still, KCS got everything it asked for in this year's budget—a 3 percent, $13 million increase. "We decided to start small in a lot of ways," McIntyre says.
Burchett has a much better working relationship with Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, to the point where he spun her around the room at a pancake breakfast this winter.
"I like him," Rogero says. "There will be times when we disagree, but we don't let that impact our relationship. ... A lot of coordination at all levels of our administration is something we both insist on."
As for the Chamber, Burchett says he's friends with CEO Mike Edwards but feels like he needs to look out for more than just their interests.
"I have a role and it's not just to downtown—it's a great big city—and they don't always pay attention to the small working folks," Burchett says. "I have a role as county mayor, and it's to be objective."
It's unclear how seriously Burchett takes any criticism of his performance, especially that leveled by the media. Since his divorce was finalized, Burchett hasn't owned a television. He says that despite his regular radio appearances—he's generally a guest of at least one local morning show a week—he doesn't keep up with that much news, especially if it's about him. And especially if it's in the News Sentinel.
"I don't take the paper. We don't get it in this office. If I want to know what people are thinking, I'll go down to Vol Market or out to the schools. When you're doing something wrong, people will let you know," Burchett says.
Right now, at least, Burchett doesn't seem to be doing anything wrong. His budget was presented last week with almost no comment. In the course of a day with him, I lose count of how many people come up to him and shower him with praise.
There's the staff at the library in Karns, who seem really excited that Burchett takes the time to hold meetings in every single one of the library system's 17 outposts.
There's a woman named Roberta Fogel who comes up to me unprovoked and offers, "I think he's the best mayor I've ever seen. He's done such a good job with the cash mobs and selling property we didn't need. He's a great person. And he's honest," she says.
There are the sorority girls in line at Vol Market #3 on Western Avenue, who flirt a little bit with the bachelor mayor before ordering their lunches.
There are the women who walk into his realtor's office while he's waiting to sign the papers officially selling the house he bought with his ex-wife ("Too many memories," he says); they gush about how funny he is and what a great job he's doing for small businesses.
And Burchett is a really funny guy. He's quick with a quip or a joke, often at his own expense. He bumps fists instead of shaking hands. He has nicknames for everyone, like "Big Sexy" for Grider. He calls female reporters (like me) "Girl," but he does it in such a way that it never comes across as sexist.
Almost all politicians are good with names and at making you feel like they really care when they're listening to you complain about some problem you want them to fix. Burchett's not just good. He's one of the best I've ever seen.
"He's so approachable," High says. She says she can't go anywhere with her brother, even to church, without people coming up and bending his ear. "What you see is what you get with him, and that's always how it's been."
"He's pretty genuine," adds his brother Charlie. "He pretty much is who he is. He doesn't change much depending on who's around him."
Broyles is more circumspect.
"When I spend time with him away from work, I have a blast. He's really funny," Broyles says. "But he is above all a political animal. He panders. ... He's much more entrenched in the good ol' boy patronage thing than he lets on."
Longtime friend (and sometimes Metro Pulse contributor) Betty Bean disagrees.
"The silk-stocking crowd, as Cas Walker used to call them, did not support Tim Burchett. He's a populist," Bean says. "He's not a typical anything."
Bean has known Burchett for 23 years. She worked on his campaign for mayor, despite her work as a journalist. "I've defended Tim many, many times, and I've criticized him a few times publicly too," Bean says. "But he really is in essence a very kindhearted person."
The kind heart comes out on a recent Saturday night. It's about 11:30 p.m., and Burchett is looking pretty tired as the smoke wafts past him at Marie's Olde Town Tavern. We've been here for a little while—long enough for me to finish one beer and Burchett's friend Buck Cochran to finish a can of Coke.
Cochran's a big karaoke fan, so our night started at Toot's Little Honky Tonk in Happy Holler and then moved downtown to Marie's. It's surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night, and Marie herself comes over to talk to us. She loves Burchett. Everyone in the bar loves Burchett. I'm not allowed to pay for my beer, nor Cochran his Coke. (We both leave generous tips.)
Burchett's nights out with Cochran are something he at first was reluctant to go on the record about. Neither man drinks alcohol, so it might seem odd that they have a standing date for karaoke on Saturdays when Tim isn't at one gala or another. (Burchett, it should be noted, doesn't sing.)
But that's just how Burchett is. He's known Cochran since college days, when they were both active in the Young Republicans. And in the ensuing years, when Cochran went through a few rough patches, Burchett stood by him, ready to help pick up the pieces. It's a really weird thing to see in a politician, someone so ready to help his friends who provide no political advantage whatsoever.
"He's a good friend," Cochran says. And in my time spent with Burchett, I see several other instances of him helping out people he's known for a long time that just need a little something here or there—a clunker car to get to work, a recommendation for a job, a phone call.
"I think that's something most people don't know about Tim, is how much he does care, especially about the underdog," his sister comments. "He's very much about fighting for what's right, not about doing what's convenient. And that's the way he's been since he was little."
Even Broyles agrees.
"He has a tremendous capacity for compassion. He's a really sweet boy, and he's got a big, big heart," Broyles says.
High says her brother's heart has only grown since the death of their parents. Charlie Burchett Sr., died in November 2008 and his wife followed almost exactly three years later.
"It's been really tough for all of us to lose our parents, but with all he's been through, you can see more of a tender heart to people who are hurting or in need," High says.
The most publicized incident of what Burchett's been through is, of course, his divorce last year. Burchett married Allison Beaver in 2008 after dating her for "about a year." He says they met at a charity event for Children's Hospital; Allison says they had actually met a couple of times before he asked her out at Oysterfest, a different charity event, after Allison poked fun at the date Burchett had brought.
Burchett says they opted for an impromptu wedding in June after plans for a formal fall wedding had spiraled out of control.
"We seriously had people in the media asking if it was going to be open to the public," Burchett recalls.
Instead, one day when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen was in town, Burchett asked him if he'd perform the wedding. It was so spur of the moment, Burchett says, that Allison's father had to borrow Rep. Joe Armstrong's coat and tie to walk her down the aisle.
"It was the second time I ever saw my daddy cry," Burchett says. "We had a reception at Long's, and by then the press was on it and it was all over."
Burchett declined to comment on his divorce or the allegations of campaign finance impropriety. "I'm not going to rehash all that," he says. "That's all over. I'm not going to open up old wounds."
For her part, Allison says the marriage had been falling apart long before Burchett walked out of their home in mid-March 2012. She says she hasn't communicated with him since, except through their lawyers.
"You have no idea of the junk that I went through, and I was just supposed to sit there and smile," Allison says.
Last summer, before the divorce was finalized, Allison showed the News Sentinel bank statements and canceled checks that indicated funds from Burchett's mayoral campaign chest had been deposited in the couple's personal account. She alleged that Burchett had instructed her to deposit the funds, and the issue eventually went before the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance. In an affidavit submitted before that hearing, Burchett claims the expenditures were all done by Allison without his knowledge for her own personal use, including $11,147 on clothing and $9,350 on mortgage payments for the condo she owned before the marriage.
But Allison bitterly refutes the affidavit's allegations of financial impropriety.
"I feel like I was thrown under the bus," Allison says. "This entire affidavit is a joke and it is saddened by the fact that many in the media as well as the Registry of Election Finance took anything the mayor swore to as the gospel."
The couple's divorce was finalized late last September.
Metal detecting is still one of Burchett's main hobbies—he even helped land a national metal-detecting convention that will be coming to Knoxville in October. Riding through town with him, he will casually point out site after site where he's found an old bullet or coin. He likes to joke that metal-detecting is his form of therapy.
"I tell people it's cheaper than a psychiatrist," Burchett says.
He also still spends as much time as he can fishing and tinkering with motorcycles, although he's yet to ride again after his motorcycle wreck last October that left him with a shattered wrist.
That accident was followed the next month by a bout of pneumonia that landed Burchett in the hospital for a week. Coming so soon on the heels of his divorce and the death of his mother, it was a rough year.
"That's just my life. It's never boring," Burchett says with an acerbic laugh, then pauses reflectively. "I do, a lot of times, ask God why I'm put in these situations, but it always seems to work out. A guy told me one time, ‘You have an incredible knack of landing on your feet.' But I think that's more by God's grace than Tim's luck."
Still, things seem to be looking brighter for the mayor this spring. He has a nine-month-old puppy, Roscoe, whom he adores. And Burchett's recently gone public with his new relationship with Kelly, a widowed mother of one and recent Knoxville transplant he met in line at a UT football game last fall. He's been wary about bringing her "under the microscope," he says, to the point where he declined to provide her last name. His friends who have been allowed to meet her seem to like the willowy brunette whom they describe as very different from Allison.
"She seems really great," says Tucker. "I hope it works out, if that's what he wants to happen."
On the political front, Burchett says he will "probably" run for reelection next year, but he won't address the rumors that he has been asked to run against Sen. Lamar Alexander. "I have a budget to pass before I do anything," Burchett says.
If he doesn't push for D.C. in 2014, will he push in 2018? For, say, Rep. John Duncan Jr.'s congressional seat? Burchett equivocates.
"Congressman Duncan does a good job and I'm enjoying being mayor right now. That's a long way out," Burchett says. But he will say that if he did run for the seat, he'd wait for Duncan to retire first. "That'd be foolish to run against him," Burchett says.
Neither of his siblings say they've ever discussed the possibility of Tim running for a national seat, but Tucker seems to think it's likely.
"I would be disappointed if he did not continue a life in public service—I won't say politics," Tucker says.
Broyles seems even more confident Burchett will eventually run. "I think that's what he's had his eye on this whole time. He's been trying to out-Duncan Duncan this whole time," Broyles says.
Burchett likes to regularly make a point about how he's never been away from Knoxville for more than two weeks in his entire life (and even that was in Nashville), which seems like it could make D.C. a tough adjustment. But he also misses the inner workings of the Legislature—"like crazy," he says. "I miss the relationships, the friendships. And it's an ego trip." Burchett also still maintains a close friendship with Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen from Memphis, who was in the state Legislature with him before running for Congress. Yet, as Burchett points out, "In politics, five or six years is many lifetimes. ...
"I'll still come in here every morning and think I am the luckiest human on the face of the Earth. And I get paid a crazy amount of money to do what I do," Burchett says. "I enjoy being county mayor."