coverstory (2008-04)

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2008 Knox County Primary

Has there ever been a Knox County primaryâ"a primary!â"that has captured as much public interest as the one coming Feb. 5?

Probably not. But never before has county government exposed its shortcomings so thoroughly in the media. Last yearâ’s three-ring circus of rampant P-card abuses, runaway lobster lunches, term-limited offices, Sunshine Law violations, assorted legal battles, and an internal war between power-hungry factions didnâ’t entertain anyone except for jaded journalists. The People are Pissed.

So this time we have a primary that might mean something. As a result of the state Supreme Court decision upholding a term-limits provision in the county charter, there are eight empty seats on County Commission. Commission will look at the primary results in picking replacements to serve until the August general election (which will probably cause even more controversy). So choose carefully.

To help you wade through the unprecedented number of would-be public servants, weâ’re providing analysis on the races by political columnist Frank Cagle, an overview of the candidates who answered our unlikely questions, and a handy guide on how to vote, just in case youâ’re wondering.

Step right up and spin the wheel...

The Replacements

Which faction will control County Commission? You get to decide! But hereâ’s the dirt on the eight races for those empty Commission seats. by Frank Cagle

Itâ’s almost like a parliamentary election: Knox County voters will pick Commission candidates district by district, but the cumulative total will give one faction or the other control of the Knox County Commission. But the countyâ’s legislative body wonâ’t be taken over by Labor or Tories, but rather by forces aligned with County Mayor Mike Ragsdale or the anti-Ragsdale faction.

Itâ’s the â“pay-it-backâ” crowd versus the â“letâ’s-move-onâ” boys.

While the over-arching theme of this election is which faction controls County Commission, each office is a separate story line. Not every seat or candidate will be part of the bitter battle over control of Commission, but all will be forced by key votes to take sides.

Voters angry with the incumbent Commissioners and wanting to throw them out may be disappointedâ"incumbent Commissioners are not on the ballot until 2010. This election is about the eight vacant positions as the result of the state Supreme Court upholding a term limits provision in the county charter. The Commission has voted to look at the primary results from Feb. 5 in picking replacements to serve until the August general election, which will finally select people to serve the remaining two years on the term. Picking a primary winner as a placeholder (bestowing incumbency) means picking between the winners of the Democratic or Republican primary, a system likely to produce even more controversy. But thatâ’s an issue for after the election.

Campaign skills, name recognition, money raised, and the backing of key supporters usually wins elections. We offer this subjective view of the conventional wisdom in the eight Commission races, mindful that the voters in the recent New Hampshire primary demonstrated that the choice is up to you the voter and no one else.

1ST DISTRICT

The 1st district, which runs from Holston Hills to downtown Knoxville, includes the predominately African-American neighborhoods in East Knoxville. The seat has traditionally been Democratic, the primary will be the election, and it is in the control of the east-side machine headed by the Fab Five: State Rep. Joe Armstrong, Vice Mayor Mark Brown, Sam Anderson, a school board member and operations director for the city of Knoxville, Commissioner Tank Strickland (city director of community services), and former Commissioner Diane Jordan.

Sam McKenzie is the prohibitive favorite. He has been groomed by the leadership for some years; they secured his appointment to the KUB board and have given him their blessing in this race to replace the term-limited Diane Jordan.

Jordanâ’s son Josh was appointed to replace her but he was removed by the Sunshine lawsuit. The younger Jordan picked up a petition to run, but didnâ’t turn it in. Lewis Logan, a previous Diane Jordan campaign manager, picked up a petition but didnâ’t follow through. This cleared the field for McKenzie, an ORNL official.

McKenzie is opposed by African-American candidates Pete Drew, a construction manager, Evelyn Gill, a Knox County special-education teacher, and Therea Cox, a TVA retiree. Drew is a former state representative from the neighborhood, but hasnâ’t had a win since briefly switching to the Republican Party back in the 1980s. Cynthia Stancil, a sales representative for a steel company, is a white candidate and there is a rumor she is being supported by Democrats fed up with the machine running East Knoxville and sometimes supporting Republican candidates. The theory is the African American vote might be split among several candidates and she would pick up enough votes in Holston Hills, Park Ridge, and downtown to win. Ainâ’t gonna happen.

A lone Republican, Albert Baah, a used car dealer, is unopposed on his partyâ’s ballot. Bottom Line: McKenzie will join Strickland in the time-honored tradition of playing one faction off against another to get things for the 1st District.

2ND DISTRICT

The 2nd District (north of downtown) is heavily Democratic and the primary election in this one is among the most spirited. Amy Broyles, a progressive who challenged veteran incumbent Billy Tindell last year, is opposed by Cortney Piper, an environmentalist from the Clean Water Coalition.

The districtâ’s other Commissioner is Mark Harmon, easily the most liberal member of County Commission. He is supporting Broyles who would be a simpatico seat mate. Piper has the support of several traditional Democrats and some of the biggest local Democratic contributors, like Jim Jennings. Piper also has the support of several Democratic lawyers.

Broyles, counting her race against Tindell, has been running for the seat for two years. Piper is young, photogenic, and energetic. They are opposed by Chuck Williams, a Navy veteran and substitute teacher and student at Pellissippi State.

The winner of the primary will face Chuck Bolus, the only Republican running. Bolus was appointed, and then removed by the Sunshine lawsuit. Given the liberal views of Broyles and the environmental activism of Piper, either of them will prompt a fund-raising bonanza for Bolusâ"unless the business community decides to write off the seat. A Republican can win in the 2nd. It was represented by Republican David Collins until he was upset by Harmon. Bottom Line: Broyles is likely to win in the end and Harmon picks up an ally. Votes will then be 17-2 instead of 18-1.

3RD DISTRICT

The 3rd district doesnâ’t have a vacant seat.

4TH DISTRICT

The 4th district, centered in Bearden, is the only district that currently has no representation on Commission; there are two seats open. The Democrats hope to pick up one of them and each race has a strong Republican candidate who was appointed to the seat last year and then removed by the Sunshine lawsuit.

Seat A has a competitive Democratic primary. Elaine Davis ran last year and lost and is trying again. She is opposed by Finbarr Saunders. Saunders is a longtime community leader. Saunders, who has a lot of Republican friends, would be a strong general election candidate against the Republican nominee.

In the Republican primary Richard Cate is well-funded and one of the best known candidates. He was the director of the now-defunct Downtown Organization and he has worked for the Homebuilders Association. He was appointed to the seat last January and removed by the Sunshine lawsuit. Aside from a funding advantage, Cate benefits from having three opponents.

Ruthie Kuhlman is a longtime resident and well known in the communityâ"which is an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on your point of view. Kuhlman once worked for former Mayor Victor Ashe (and, full disclosure, was my executive assistant when I was deputy to the mayor).

Walter Wojnar is in the hotel business. He once ran the downtown Holiday Inn for Franklin Haney and joined other downtown hotel managers to lead a referendum to prevent city financial participation in the construction of a convention center hotel.

Williams Daniels, a construction company owner who offered a bizarre tale last week of attacks on his candidacy, is also running.

Bottom Line: Will Commission pick a Republican primary winner for a Republican district to fill the open seat until August, or the popular Democrat Saunders? It will be the major controversy of late February unless Saunders asks not to be considered.

The other seat in the 4th District may be decided in the Republican primary. The race has former City Councilman Ed Shouse opposing Lee Tramel. Tramel was appointed last year and then removed by the Sunshine lawsuit. He works for the Sheriffâ’s department and while on Commission was one of the leaders in the investigations of financial problems in the mayorâ’s office. He is a prodigious fund-raiser and has helped run local campaigns in the past, including those of Sheriff Tim Hutchison. He has active support and an endorsement from state Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, who has worked with Tramel on law enforcement legislation.

Shouse was a Council ally of former Mayor Ashe but was term-limited out. He ran a losing race for the state Legislature in 2004.

Jim Smelcher, a former teacher and insurance agent, who is also running, was nominated for the post at the infamous Black Wednesday meeting last year, but didnâ’t have the votes to defeat Tramel. Insurance agent Logan Brummitt is also on the Republican ballot.

The winner of the Republican primary will be running against Democrat Steve Drevik, an environmental business owner. Bottom Line: Shouse no longer has the Ashe machine backing him, but has other old-line establishment support. Should Tramel return to Commission, he will re-join the posse rounding up misappropriated money.

5TH DISTRICT

The 5th District, far west Knox County, is wide open. Frank Leuthold held the seat after an appointment last year, but is not running for the two years left on the term. The winner of the five-person Republican primary will face an independent candidate in August in Don Sproles, owner of the Lunchbox, a popular downtown eatery.

Courthouse observers say the race could be between Dr. Richard Briggs, a heart surgeon and Iraq war veteran, and John Schoonmaker, head of the Council of West Knox County Homeowners. But no one is confident in predicting this race, which also includes Kyle Phillips, a Whirlpoool sales analyst, Jim McEvers, an ORNL retiree, and Thomas Baer, a Navy retiree and engineering consultant. Briggs is an Army colonel who came to Knoxville to work at UT Medical Center. He is now on the St. Maryâ’s board. Schoonmaker has run for a 5th District seat before and lost, as did Phillips. Phillips also lost a race for the legislature. Bottom Line: Someone will win and will need directions on how to find downtown Knoxville for Commission meetings.

6TH DISTRICT

The 6th District, Powell/Karns, leans Republican but was represented by longtime conservative Democrat Mark Cawood until he was term-limited. Charles Connatser is the Democratsâ’ best hope of retaining the seat. He is a union business agent and is perhaps the best-funded candidate in the district race. Kathy Bryant, an educator in early childhood development, is running against Connatser.

District pols see the Republican primary as a toss-up between Brad Anders and Matthew Jones. Jones is a juvenile probation officer and Anders is a Knoxville Police Department sergeant. Jimmie Shelton, a retired businessman, and Walter McDaniel, retired from the city where he was an OSHA compliance official, are also on the GOP ballot. Bottom Line: Pick between a county cop and a city cop.

7TH DISTRICT

The 7th District does not have a vacancy.

8TH DISTRICT

The 8th District (East Knox County) has no clear favorite in the Republican primary, and there are no Democrats running. The largely rural area breaks down into a number of small communities on either side of the Holston River, from Carter to Gibbs to Mascot to Corryton. There has been little opportunity to develop new leadership over the years, as there has been little turnover in Commission seats. Longtime Commissioner Mike McMillan inherited his seat from his father. John Mills held the other seat. Many potential young leaders have left the family farm and moved on to West Knoxville or out of the area.

Kay Frazier, a Register of Deeds employee, has run for office before and began as the best-known candidate. Gailen Porter, a salesman for Clayton Homes, and Dave Wright, an AT&T retiree, appear to be generating the most interest. James Eubanks, an ImagePoint employee, and Maurice David Freed, a Knox County school system employee, are also running as Republicans. Bottom Line: The winner can always rely on asking: What would John Mills do?

9TH DISTRICT

The 9th District (South Knoxville) has Tim Greene running for the seat he represented for most of last year. A group of community leaders recommended Greene for the appointment; he avoided most of the controversies while on Commission, and is favored to defeat Michael Brown, a retired life insurance and financial planning consultant, in the Republican primary. C. Vernon Rose, a Postal Service retiree, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary

Greene was nominated for appointment by South Knox Commissioner Paul Pinkston and has Pinkstonâ’s support in the election. Paul Pinkston (with his late brother Howard) has run politics south of the river for a numbers of years. Pinkston Motors on Chapman Highway, when Howard was the Commissioner, was always the place to talk politics and the first stop for any candidate campaigning in South Knoxville. Bottom Line: The Pinkston machine rules!

The Courthouse Crowd

Who's Who, and who will win, in the races for countywide offices by Frank Cagle

Knox County courthouse offices, except for sheriff, do not usually receive much attention in local elections. Incumbents normally stayed until they retired, then an heir apparent moved in for a smooth transition. The only voters who cared were county employeesâ"the fewer the candidates, the less time they had to spend out going door to door to save their jobs.

Recent office holders Mike Lowe, Steve Hall, and John Whitehead have had about 80 years of courthouse experience between them.

But the state Supreme Court decision upholding term limits decimated local government and the Feb. 5 primary will establish a new political order.

There are a lot of people running for countywide office this year. Letâ’s dispose of a couple of races right away: Jimmy â“J.J.â” Jones will be the new sheriff and Sherry Witt will be the Register of Deeds.

Former Knoxville Mayor Randy Tyree ran a close race against Sheriff Tim Hutchison last time, but Tyree confused the anti-Hutchison vote with support for his candidacy. Against almost universal advice that he run for some other office, Tyree has chosen to run against Jones. Not only does Jones not have the baggage Hutchison accrued after 16 years in office, but he is also well liked by Democrats.

Witt has spent 23 years in the Register of Deeds office, working her way up to chief deputy. She has worked enough campaigns and accumulated enough political IOUs to have widespread support. Opponent Scott Emge has a house painting business, and, well, paints houses.

The Property Assessorâ’s race is up for normal election this year. Itâ’s an off-year election office and being on the ballot this time is not the result of the term limits debacle. The term is for four years. Mike Lowe, who spent 12 years as Trustee (and worked in the office before that), is running for Property Assessor. He is being opposed by County Commissioner Phil Ballard.

Ballard is in his first term on County Commission and Lowe has run county-wide and won four times.

Lowe, on the other hand, was term-limited, removed from office then had his deputy appointed to the post who then hired him as deputy. When the Sunshine suit removed Fred Sisk as Trustee it left, oddly enough, Lowe running the Trusteeâ’s office. If you even understand that last sentence, it might affect your vote. But whoâ’s really paying attention?

The office of Trustee is one route to running for County Mayor. Tommy Schumpert, for example, served as Trustee before running for what was then called County Executive. Lowe certainly had the same plan. His re-election as Trustee positioned him for a 2010 mayoral race. Then the term limits decision pitched him out of office.

There are seven people running for Trustee this time around and few of them could be characterized as Schumpert-esque. Sisk, who was Loweâ’s deputy, was briefly Trustee. At least long enough to send out property tax notices with his biography attached. He is being challenged by Steve Hill, a former three-term school board member, who works for St. Maryâ’s. L.B. Steele, a former Knoxville City Councilman, and some other people are also running.

The most interesting thing about this race is the unopposed Democrat who will be facing the winner come August. That would be Robert Bratton, a member of the school board, a former County Commissioner, and the subject of a sexual harassment complaint from a female school janitor. The complaint will be sealed and Bratton assumes it will be ancient history by August. Though one assumes his opponent will be able to recall it and bring it up.

The County Clerkâ’s race features some familiar faces. County Commission Chair Scott Moore, in mid-term, is running in the Republican primary. Foster Arnett Jr., who is decidedly not Foster Arnett Sr. (the late lawyer and political operative), is running. Arnett was at one time a local television news anchor and reporter and then a spokesman for the Knoxville Police Department for 15 years. He left the police department to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

Mooreâ’s race for County Clerk could be considered a referendum on the on-going battle that is County Commission. As chair, Moore has led Commission efforts to audit and investigate County Mayor Mike Ragsdaleâ’s office. He also presided over the infamous Black Wednesday meeting in which 12 county offices were filledâ"only to be unfilled by a judge after the News Sentinel filed a lawsuit over Sunshine Law violations at the meeting.

Mike McMillan is running as a Republican. So is Bryan Bates, a Knoxville Police Department veteran.

The winner of the Republican primary will most likely face Democrat George Stooksbury, who was deputy county clerk and was appointed to the post when his boss, Mike Padgett, was term-limited out of office. Stooksbury is being opposed in the primary by Amy Henley Vandergriff, who had been employed in the clerkâ’s office and was fired when she decided to run for office, or she was fired and she picked up a petition to run against her boss, depending on whose story you want to believe.

John Owings was appointed to the post of County Law Director after his boss, Mike Moyers, was elected to Chancery Court. Owings, who is now running for the post, has been in the middle of the County Commission mess, advising the body during the Black Wednesday appointment process, defending them (sort of) during the Sunshine lawsuit. He argued the Commissioners needed a quorum to violate the Sunshine Law. That brilliant advice removed 12 people from office. Owings is opposed by attorney Bill Lockett.

This was a race Tyree could have won.

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