Knoxville Elections '11: Is There a Vision?

After a year of talking, the candidates for Knoxville mayor are still fleshing out their ideas

A lot of what we want a mayor to do is pretty mundane. We want our streets to be safe, clean, and well maintained. We want someone to pick up the trash. We want our creeks not to flood, and our taxes to stay reasonable. We want our public money well stewarded, not handed out to bozo consultants or big campaign donors. When storms knock down a thousand trees, we want to see guys in cherry-pickers with chainsaws the next day, cleaning them up.

But not many people run for office promising to just fill potholes and keep the streetlights on. Granted, Ivan Harmon's current campaign is kind of close to that. He has branded himself "Knoxville's Neighbor Mayor," and one of his ads credits him with fixing an elderly woman's mailbox. But for the most part, candidates for even local office like to present themselves as big thinkers, leaders with serious ideas and a mission of some kind. This may be ego on their part, but it also reflects what people seem to want in an elected representative: a sense of forward motion, a plan, a vision. For as long as there have been leaders, there have been people asking them, "Where are we going?"

Knoxville in 2011 is at what feels like an important juncture. Most of the candidates for mayor and City Council have promised to build on the momentum of the past decade, which saw the redevelopment of downtown and the emergence of some new faces in positions of civic influence. For most of Bill Haslam's mayorship, the city seemed to be evolving (if that's an allowable verb in these parts), growing out of its old parochialism and petty feuds, more open to new ideas and ways of doing things. How much of this you can credit to Haslam depends on how much weight you place on personality. The seeds of much that flowered under him were planted before he came to office. But Haslam was alert enough not to trample on the buds and to help them flower, and his easygoing demeanor and mostly low-drama administration made the city seem like a more congenial, optimistic place than it had during the prickly, combative years of Victor Ashe. Haslam also benefited from contrast with the turbulent county government, where change also came but at a much higher cost to all involved—something closer to revolution than evolution.

Things have slowed down in the last few years, for a lot of reasons. The tanking economy doomed some prospects, like the Sentinel Tower, and delayed others, like the South Waterfront. Haslam's disengagement as he ran for governor, and the subsequent care-taking administration of interim Mayor Dan Brown, put city government in kind of a holding pattern. In the meantime, the new administration of County Mayor Tim Burchett has shifted local political attention and energy to that side of the City County Building.

But whatever you think of Burchett's first year in office—whether you're impressed by his fiscal discipline or distressed by his tight-fistedness, whether you see his attempts to finance a new Carter Elementary School as creative or confused—it's clear that not much in the way of big thinking or direction-setting is going to come from his office. Burchett is a true-believing small-government conservative whose ambitions for Knox County do not seem to extend much beyond keeping taxes low. That's a pragmatic approach, but it leaves a sizable gap in local leadership. The next city mayor will have the opportunity to fill that role, to provide a sense of what kind of city Knoxville wants to be now and to work to make it happen.

It would be hard to make a case that any of the candidates running have fleshed out a vivid picture of Knoxville's future. But between them (and many of the City Council candidates), there is a sort of collective vision. Most of them talk about building on the successes of downtown by extending a similar mix of infrastructure investment and development incentives out in all directions: north along Central Street, east along Magnolia Avenue, south through the waterfront, and west via a re-imagined Cumberland Avenue. All of those projects present their own challenges, and in reality any mayor will probably be doing well to show real progress on one or two of them in a first term. But it's at least a concrete set of ideas. Likewise, the goal of linking the city's various greenways and providing a comprehensive walking/biking network is easier to say than do—but it is a real goal.

And not a trivial one, either. Many of the candidates articulate well the importance of amenities like neighborhood commercial centers and transportation options in bolstering the city's quality of life, as a place where people want to come to, and want to stay. They take almost for granted the importance of historic preservation and the inherent value of Knoxville's older neighborhoods, neither of which were true of local politicians a generation ago. The city has come a long way. The question becomes, then, who is best equipped to take it farther.

Of the candidates in the field, Harmon seems most like Burchett—no surprise, given that Harmon is the only Republican among the major candidates. He promises small-ball, practical government: spending little, adding a few miles of greenways, talking to "the people." His support, as measured in campaign contributions, comes from some old-line county Republicans and his longtime base in northwest Knoxville. But the relative meagerness of that support is a sign of how little enthusiasm Harmon stirs from the Republican establishment, even against two Democrats. At a forum last week, Harmon said he had only "about $19,000" on hand, and that's after lending his campaign $10,000. That is partly a reflection of old battles within the county party. Although Harmon has been at pains in this campaign to distance himself in any way from former Sheriff Tim Hutchison, he was long perceived as a Hutchison ally, which does not endear him to the country-club Republicans of West Knoxville. And the years of service that Harmon touts as his greatest qualification for mayor also mark him as a product of politics long past. The first body he was ever elected to, the old city school board, hasn't even existed for almost a quarter-century.

Some of the money Harmon's not getting has gone instead to Mark Padgett. The 33-year-old son of longtime former County Clerk Mike Padgett has made a far more credible run than many people expected when he announced his candidacy. That's partly because Padgett presents well: He's tall and good-looking, with a photogenic young family, and his public speaking skills have improved considerably over the course of the campaign. Where he could sometimes sound vague and unfocused at the beginning of the year, he now more often hits the political sweet spot of vague but focused. His theme is economic development, and he promises to bring jobs, jobs, jobs to Knoxville. That's a worthy goal, and Padgett has obviously impressed some in the local business community, racking up contributions from eminences like Jimmy Haslam (along with many other Haslams) and Jim Clayton. But the entrepreneurial experience that Padgett uses as his calling card has been called into question, including in our own pages by Wall Street veteran Joe Sullivan. Padgett has declined to even say how many employees he has, and refused to show his office to the News Sentinel's Georgiana Vines. What Padgett has done most impressively is raise an awful lot of money, from a combination of business owners, developers and contractors, and old-line politicos. Padgett would probably credit this to confidence in his abilities. More cynical minds (and there are plenty of those around) think some of Padgett's donors assume he will be more malleable in office than Madeline Rogero.

But before we get to Rogero, it's worth spending a few words on Joe Hultquist. Hultquist got in the race late, saying he partly wanted to raise issues that weren't being addressed by the other candidates. He has not dramatically altered the tenor or rhetoric of the campaign, but he has introduced some ideas. His proposal to take city utilities away from KUB and bring them back in house seems complicated and maybe quixotic, given KUB's entrenchment. But his suggestion that the city seek to direct more of its sales tax revenue specifically to schools that serve city residents seems worth exploring. And on issues of sustainable growth, Hultquist is knowledgeable and dedicated.

Of course, those are also areas of special interest for Rogero, who has a master's degree in planning and has  worked on neighborhood and community development inside and outside of government. She came into the race as the presumed front-runner, partly because of her strong run against Bill Haslam in 2003, and remains so. Her campaign has been smooth and assured, and she has racked up her own sizable list of donors and donations. After years in and around government, Rogero still doesn't have the practiced glibness of a natural politician. Her supporters no doubt admire her down-to-earth style, but it sometimes leaves her seeming more like a policy wonk than an executive. At campaign events, the crowd sometimes seems more excited about her becoming mayor than she does. If she is elected, it will be interesting to see how she grows into the mayor's role.

The biggest knocks against Rogero have come via grumbles that she is "too liberal," that her early experience organizing farm workers with Caesar Chavez somehow signals an anti-business bent (one that presumably escaped the notice of Haslam, who hired her as his director of community development). Those attacks might hurt her if she were running for county mayor, but the electorate of the city of Knoxville voted for Barack Obama in 2008, John Kerry in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000.

The biggest question for Rogero at the moment appears to be whether she can win over 50 percent of the vote in the Sept. 27 primary and avoid a run-off in the November general election. If she doesn't, whoever finishes second will have to try to muster a unified front against her. In that case, the competing visions for the city may become more clear.