franktalk (2008-01)

Us vs. Them

Frank Talk

Knox County governmentâ’s a mystery if you â“ainâ’t from around hereâ”

by Frank Cagle

A neighbor and I were talking about another fellow in the community. He observed that the fellowâ’s family is not very well thought of. â“His family moved in here after the war.â” It took me a couple of beats to realize which â“warâ” he was talking about. It occurred in the 19th Century. I guess my 26-year tenure in East Tennessee didnâ’t count for much. Of course, in context, moving in here after â“thatâ” war made you a carpetbagger.

But there is a common dismissive phrase among East Tennesseans: â“He ainâ’t from around here.â” It usually denotes someone who has been obnoxious, advocates some kind of government meddling like they have â“up north,â” or maybe he just talks funny.

Knox County has a lot of people who ainâ’t from around here. If I interpret the official statistics correctly (an iffy proposition, since I was an English Lit major) then 20 percent of the Knox County population has moved here within the last 15 years.

When you consider the number of new people in Knox County, when you look at the Gang of 500 that runs the local economy, it is a marked contrast with the people down at the courthouse. I think the cultural differences among native East Tennessee families and the immigrants may explain a lot about the tension in Knox County politics.

The University of Tennessee brings a lot of students to town, from around the state and from elsewhere. The law school disgorges a class every year of an even more diverse population. Many of the attorneys, business leaders, and the professional class stay in Knoxville and settle down. They soon assume leadership roles in their professions.

There has been a steady influx of professional people settling in West Knoxville and working at Department of Energy facilities in Oak Ridge. A realtor sells them a house, shows them how to get to Oak Ridge, West Town Mall, and Turkey Creek and theyâ’re happily oblivious to the rest of the county.

Then there are the retirees coming here from up north, because we donâ’t have a state income tax and because they can sell a cracker box in Chicago for enough money to buy a McMansion in West Knoxville, or, more likely, a home on Tellico, Douglas, or Cherokee Lake.

Yet the makeup of the Knox County Commission, the fee offices and the employees of the county and the sheriffâ’s department, tends to be from old-line Knox County families. There are from here, they are part of a network of friends and family connections, and they tend to treat county offices like they own them. After all, in many cases, it has been the family business for generations.

Mike Ragsdale came to UT from a rural county and then settled here, in West Knox County. He is the first West Knox Countian to ever be elected as the countyâ’s chief executive. He is comfortable with the professional class of immigrants who comprise the legal, business, media, and government bureaucrats who run Knoxville. He and his Chief of Staff Mike Arms have cultivated contacts with DOE and its contractors in Oak Ridge. They are less sure-footed dealing with the â“localsâ” that comprise the rest of county government.

Most of the Knox County Commission and county employees in general have little in common with Ragsdale and his (at least one-time) supporters in the legal, business, and government service.

When members of the â“immigrant classâ” look at Paul Pinkston, Lumpy Lambert, and Ivan Harmon, they ask themselves how these people came to be running county government. When the â“nativesâ” look at these people, they see people who talk like them and have the same values. They are outraged at higher taxes for a frou-frou library downtown. They are incensed at grant money being spent in â“blackâ” East Knoxville. They are mad about people buying liquor, lunches, and lobster on the county dime.

In the coming election it is conventional wisdom among the power structure that the good old boys will be turned out. But the good old boys who comprise the majority of the local population may have a different idea. Stay tuned.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst . You can reach him at .


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