Mad? Angry? P.O.'d? Let's Vote!

A county election primer

Are the voters still pissed off?

That's the question that hovers over every campaign leading up to the Knox County election on Thursday, August 7. Last February the voters rose up in record numbers and turned out any name they recognized. Experience didn't matter—ask Mike Lowe. Money didn't matter—ask George Stooksbury. Good commercials didn't help—ask Lee Tramel.

The throw-the-rascals-out tsunami was a reaction to a year-long scandal surrounding Knox County government. The Sunshine lawsuit turned out 12 officeholders appointed in an all-day deal fest on Black Wednesday. County Mayor Mike Ragsdale wasn't on the ballot (fortunately for him), but the financial questions surrounding his office added an additional odor.

After 16 years as a vote-getting juggernaut in the Trustee's office, Lowe couldn't win the primary for Property Assessor. As the deputy County Clerk with extensive political experience and plenty of money, Stooksbury lost the Democratic primary to Amy Henley-Vandergriff, who spent just over $200. Tramel had more money than any other commission candidate; he ran hard and ran third.

So, are the voters still mad? Will they pick and choose the candidates this time around, or will name-recognition and experience again be a liability? Perhaps—but some of the challengers aren't exactly new faces either.

The courthouse political machine has been dominated by Republican officeholders for decades. It has been decimated by term limits, scandal, and a voter backlash, which should be good for the Democrats. It is possible the Democrats could hold almost one-third of the County Commission seats and maybe one of the county-wide offices by the time the election is over.

Early voting turnout has been lower than February. A survey of experienced political watchers garners a lot of puzzled responses and few predictions. Maybe voters don't have clearly identifiable targets. Maybe they aren't as angry as they were. Maybe they are sullen, angry, and have given up on change. From story comments on websites, it is apparent lots of people would love to go vote against Ragsdale, Commissioners Paul Pinkston and Greg "Lumpy" Lambert. But they aren't on the ballot this time. February offered lots of targets of opportunity in the appointed office holders re-appointed after the Sunshine lawsuit. This election does not offer many clear-cut choices.

The Knox Charter Petition effort may gin up some additional interest in the election. Commission refused, thus far, to put the suggested amendments on the ballot, and a petition drive is under way. If the signatures are obtained, the amendments will be on the November ballot, but some voters may be angry the process wasn't automatic. There are two charter amendments on the ballot this election, a provision allowing recall (known as the Ragsdale amendment) and an amendment to reduce the number of signatures needed to get an item on the ballot. Both should play havoc with county government going forward, but no one seems to be sorry about it.

The most popular topic in this election is whether incumbent Republican Sheriff Jimmy "JJ" Jones will win what should be a walk instead of a run for election. He is opposed by former Knoxville Mayor Randy Tyree, a Democrat. Tyree isn't exactly a fresh face—he has been around long enough to have a street named after him. He has little money and has had a hard time generating much free media, either. On WBIR's Inside Tennessee, Jones said he has raised over $250,000. Tyree said he had raised $45,000 but hopes to raise more by election day. But Tyree has shrewdly continued to run against former Sheriff Tim Hutchison, who narrowly defeated him in 2006 before being term limited. Few of Jones' supporters will say it out loud, but they look at the February results and shudder.

But Jones isn't the long-serving Hutchison. He has support from prominent Democrats, like District Attorney General Randy Nichols. Nichols' office has to work with the sheriff's office every day and he is solidly for Jones. A prominent Democratic contributor and criminal defense lawyer, no fan of Hutchison, said Jones' tenure is a breath of fresh air. Jim Andrews, a Democrat who ran against Hutchison in 2002, has endorsed Jones. Jones supported Andrews against Hutchison in 2002, and even opposed Hutchison himself in the Republican primary. Jones has almost 30 years in law enforcement; the last time Tyree had anything to do with law enforcement, the popular television crime show wasn't CSI. It was Starsky & Hutch.

Tyree's law enforcement heyday was the 1970s, when he headed a Knoxville undercover operation called "Aquarius" aimed at drug use on the University of Tennessee campus. He parlayed the media coverage involved in arresting Fort Sanders drug dealers into being elected mayor of Knoxville in 1976.

Incumbent Trustee Fred Sisk, the least known and most charismatically challenged incumbent, survived the February primary. He had several opponents, and he was not a high-profile target. In this election he faces Robert Bratton. Bratton isn't a fresh newcomer, either. He's a former County Commissioner and a current school board member. He was warned off visiting a school in his district after a sexual harassment complaint by a female janitor; the school system settled and sealed the case. Perhaps he hopes people will forget his problem and remember Sisk is an appointed incumbent. Which is worse, sexual harassment or incumbency? In Knox County, it's hard to say.

In the Court Clerk's race, Republican candidate Foster Arnett has the edge in money and support. He is from a prominent family, was spokesman for the Knoxville Police Department for 15 years, after having worked at all three local television stations. Amy Henley-Vandergriff was an under-funded underdog in the race even before her husband assaulted her and a male companion in the parking lot of a West Knox County restaurant, leading to a couple of days of lurid headlines.

Republican Sherry Witt has been in the Register of Deeds office for over two decades and was deputy when she was appointed to fill the seat. Her opponent is Democrat and painting contractor Scott Emge. Like Jones, Witt has experience and money and you would think she would be a shoo-in for the job—she has run the office for years. Emge has criticized her for hiring her former boss, Steve Hall, as her deputy when she replaced him. Hall was easily re-elected every time he ran and often led the ticket in total votes. Watch the returns on Jones and Witt on election night to gauge whether there is a hangover from the February race.

County Commissioner Phil Ballard upset Lowe in the Republican primary in the Property Assessor's race and faces a challenge from Democratic candidate Andrew Graybeal. Graybeal has been running hard against the established order, promising to "equalize" assessments and accusing the office of giving some people a break on assessments. Ballard is a first-term commissioner and beat an established machine politician. But Graybeal argues he is getting support from incumbent assessor John Whitehead and is a continuation of the established order. Ballard has ruled out hiring Whitehead as his deputy, but, noting Whitehead's service since 1972, did not rule out hiring him in some capacity.

Robert Bedwell is running as an independent.

The most important widely ignored job up on election day is the position of Criminal Court Judge. Democrat Ken Irvine was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen when newly re-elected Judge Ray Jenkins fell ill and then died. Irvine is being opposed by Republican candidate Session Court Judge Bobby McGee. The low-profile race features two talented jurists, but neither seems inclined to break out with a heavy media campaign—unless they are saving it for the last minute. Members of the local bar have been lying low; you don't want to show up in either's court after having been outspoken for their opponent.

The County Commission has been much in the news: reviled, castigated, and held in almost universal contempt. Interim commissioners have made more news than the candidates to replace them, but William Daniels, Elaine Davis, and Victoria DeFreese will not be on the ballot. The seats are to finish the terms of term-limited Commissioners and will end in 2010.

Before the primary, retired state Sen. Ben Atchley and former County Executive Tommy Schumpert put together a committee to vet the candidates. Everyone endorsed by their Public Trust PAC in the primary won, primarily because they had a stamp that said "not a Black Wednesday candidate." This time around they have endorsed all but three commission candidates for the general election.

Let's run them down:

FIRST DISTRICT, SEAT A:

SAMUEL MCKENZIE, Democrat (Incumbent)

Our Problems:

"The number-one problem facing the citizens of the First District is economic development. We have to improve the lives of a great deal of our citizens by providing living-wage jobs for the crosscut of our community (both blue and white collar). With TVA Alcoa and Oak Ridge having slowed down on creating "career" positions, we must attract new businesses."

Your General Priorities:

Fiscal Responsibility

"Fiscal responsibility doesn't mean cutting (the) budget only—(but) doing the right thing!"

The Issues:

Number one: Education

Folksy Nickname:

No sir!

ALBERT BAAH, Republican

Our Problems:

Nepotism and cronyism

"The worst and most potentially damaging to the government because everything including trust emanates from here. This is where the lack of character and integrity is first identified and is recognized in the quest to make the position a career."

Your General Priorities:

Governmental efficiency

The Issues:

Education

Folksy Nickname:

"‘Folksy' nickname is Bulldog because the breed is known for its tenacity. And, tenacity exemplifies my passion for alleviating nepotism and cronyism in county government."

Analysis: Sam McKenzie won the Democratic primary, which is usually tantamount to victory in East Knoxville. He has the support of the elected officials in the district—fellow Commissioner Thomas "Tank" Strickland, Vice Mayor Mark Brown, school board member Sam Anderson, and state Rep. Joe Armstrong. McKenzie got a Public Trust PAC endorsement, Republican Albert Baah did not. Baah is running an anti-machine candidacy and arguing it is time to break up the establishment control over the district, but he isn't likely to have any more success than McKenzie's opponents in the primary, who made the same argument. McKenzie was appointed to commission after winning the primary and should retain the seat.

SECOND DISTRICT, SEAT B:

CHUCK BOLUS, Republican

Candidate did not submit answers or photo.

AMY BROYLES, Democrat

Candidate did not submit answers.

Analysis: Chuck Bolus is a Republican appointed to this seat but removed by the Sunshine lawsuit. Being sworn in early on Black Wednesday in order to help select a fellow commissioner drew widespread anger. He is opposed by Amy Broyles, who had run for the seat before and who won the Democratic primary over Cortney Piper. The district, north of downtown and mostly lower-income, leans Democratic, so Broyles would be favored, even if Bolus didn't have a target on his back. There is some sentiment that Piper's voters might vote for Bolus, figuring to beat Broyles and then beat Bolus in 2010, but strategic voting is more of a parlor game than an actuality. Broyles got a Public Trust PAC endorsement. Bolus, not surprisingly, did not.

FOURTH DISTRICT, SEAT A:

RUTHIE STONE KUHLMAN, Republican

Candidate did not submit answers.

FINBARR SAUNDERS, Democrat

Our Problems:

"The bottom line is it's not what I think is important—it's what my constituents think is important. The voters have stated that their number-one issue is restoring trust in government. The voters want change. The Charter Amendments are giving voters the opportunity to discuss changes to our county government, and our voters have the right to be heard. There must be a public discussion about these amendments, and we must come together in proposing a change to our county government!"

Your General Priorities:

"We must rebuild trust and civility in county government. Our Knox County Commission must be open and accountable. Through my contact information and through my financial disclosures, I have tried to be as accessible and as transparent as possible."

The Issues:

"Education must be #1. As I have said in the past, a good education IS good economic development! We must have an educated workforce to support the changes that are coming into this area and for the businesses that we hope to attract to this community."

Folksy Nickname:

"With a name like ‘Finbarr,' you've got to be kidding!"

Analysis: Finbarr Saunders won the Democratic primary; he is a long-time Bearden resident, very active in historic preservation, and has many influential friends. His opponent is Ruthie Stone Kuhlman, who is a long-time resident, active in the community, and she worked for former Mayor Victor Ashe. The Fourth District is centered in Bearden and includes Sequoyah Hills and Rocky Hill. Both candidates are well-known, and they have a lot of mutual friends. There will be a lot of lying about who voted for whom after the election. Both got a Public Trust PAC endorsement. Rated a toss-up.

FOURTH DISTRICT, SEAT B:

STEVE DREVIK, Democrat

Our Problems:

"Nepotism and conflicts of interest are certainly the most important issues—without good governance and decisions being made for the right reasons, everything else becomes irrelevant. The nepotism proposal is well-written, but may be supplanted by a proposal already before County Commission. I feel that Knox Accountability's approach to conflicts of interest are too weak and don't go nearly far enough. I would like to see a much tougher COI rule.

"With strong anti-nepotism and strong conflict-of-interest rules, the need to bar county employees really becomes unnecessary. Last on the list would be making the fee offices appointed (although I do favor removing politics and making them more professional positions) and reducing the size of commission (which I personally feel would make it much less accessible to ‘citizen commissioner' candidates that aren't heavily funded by special interests)."

Your General Priorities:

"Open government and fiscal responsibility—I see the two going hand in hand. The public needs to have a full eye as to how business is done (including the influence of campaign contributions), and how their money is being spent. With strong Open Meetings, Open Records, and Conflict of Interest disclosure requirements, we can address the other issues (efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and constituent concerns)."

The Issues:

"Education is the driver linked to our economic engine, to our crime issues, and the overall strength and well-being of our community. Education, however, can't move forward until we resolve the budget crisis, so that rises to the top. To resolve the budget crisis, we have to expand the budget-planning process and compare each department's efficiency with peer municipalities, to identify where cuts are more easily absorbed. Across-the-board cuts punish departments that have been good stewards of the public funds, while letting off those who waste it."

Folksy Nickname:

"I was having a debate with a fellow manager about refunding some money to a partner company that got screwed over in the Enron debacle. We effectively ended up being paid twice for the same work, while the partner company (who brought us the work in question) racked up huge losses. I suggested we could refund the extra work we were paid for, since we would have never gotten the work without the partner. The fellow manager looked at me like I was crazy, and said ‘What are you—Mr. Ethical?' He said it like it was a bad thing? I guess there's worse nicknames; I'd take ‘Mr. Ethical' any day."

What will Knox County look like in 2025?

"Flying cars. Not really, but it's fun to toss out that prediction every 20 years or so."

ED SHOUSE, Republican

Our Problems:

Waste, fraud, and abuse

"The abuse of power by insiders is what has shattered the public's confidence in county government."

Your General Priorities:

Open government

"The lack of open government resulting in ‘Black Wednesday' and subsequent deal-making has cast a shadow over county government. The public needs to be assured that those days are behind us. The lack of fiscal responsibility has resulted in the county's debt growing at an unsustainable pace (to over $600,000,000)."

The Issues:

Taxes & county budget

"Knox county should consider a ‘pay-go' policy, in which new, expensive projects should have a revenue stream adequate to fund them, instead of going deeper into debt."

Folksy Nickname:

"My real name is Edward, so Ed is an adequate nickname for me."

Analysis: Ed Shouse is a former Knoxville City Councilman and, like Tyree, has been around long enough to have a street named after him. He beat Tramel in the Republican primary. He is opposed by Steve Drevik, a Democrat, a newcomer to politics who has been ubiquitous at commission meetings, community forums, and campaign events since the primary. Both got a Public Trust PAC endorsement. Shouse has higher name recognition from his council service, has more contributors, and would seem to be the favorite. Unless it's a liability. Or not. Or maybe it is. Or maybe not.

FIFTH DISTRICT, SEAT C

RICHARD BRIGGS. Republican (Incumbent)

Our Problems:

"Lack of efficiency and accountability"

Your General Priorities:

Fiscal responsibility

The Issues:

"Education is the top priority. I have a passion for education and acknowledge our schools as a top priority. We now live in a global marketplace which demands an educated, skilled, and capable workforce. Communities prepared to meet the challenges of a competitive world will prosper and enjoy a high quality of life. A great public school system is the 21st century foundation for the community's workforce and the cornerstone for industrial recruitment and economic development. The school system needs to partner with government, labor, business, and industry to insure every student leaves the system ready to compete in the modern marketplace.

"The commission is a partner with the school board and should provide the resources for the best education possible for the students of Knox County. The message to our teachers, principals, and school administrators: We recognize the value of the important work you do and we must do everything we can to support you.

"The message to parents and students: Our children are the future of our country. The school board and County Commission have the solemn responsibility to equip the graduates of the public school system with the skills they need to succeed and prosper."

Folksy Nickname:

"I guess the best nickname for me would be simply ‘Doc' since I am a physician. Also, one of the seven dwarfs in Snow White was named Doc and we have done skits at parties with the parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, etc)."

DON SPROLES, Independent

Our Problems:

Waste, fraud, and abuse from a lack of oversight

"In my opinion, of the problems you listed, ‘waste, fraud, and abuse' is the most potentially damaging. I worry that we have to concern ourselves with this issue with our county employees, with or without oversight. Nonetheless, we should not tolerate any waste, fraud, or abuse due to a lack of oversight or any other reason in our county government. We are dealing with taxpayers' dollars and it should always be used as wisely as possible."

Your General Priorities:

Fiscal responsibility

"Fiscal responsibility with taxpayers' monies is always the most important responsibility. If County Commission can achieve this, the other priorities listed will be much easier to handle."

The Issues:

Taxes and the county budget

"Taxes and the budget they provide us will always be the most important issue. Without revenue, we cannot afford to do the other items. My platform is one of fiscal responsibility which at times necessitates hard choices."

Folksy Nickname:

"I would have to go with ‘the Lunchbox guy,' which is what a lot of folks call me already."

What will Knox County look like in 2025?

"I frankly don't know. But I hope and trust it will be the great place to live that it currently is; and with a modern, efficient and cooperative government."

Analysis: Richard Briggs won the Republican primary and was appointed as an interim commissioner. He has been fiercely independent, declining campaign contributions and asking common-sense questions on commission. He is opposed by Don Sproles, an attractive candidate, an attorney who operates the Lunchbox restaurants with his wife. But Sproles is running as an independent in the heavily Republican far-west district. The Public Trust PAC endorsed both. Briggs is self-financed. Sproles has lots of friends, but there is talk about urging Briggs to run as a reform candidate for County Mayor in 2010.

SIXTH DISTRICT, SEAT A

BRAD ANDERS, Republican

Our Problems:

"I think that waste, fraud, abuse and the lack of oversight has been our worst enemy and I hope that we have learned a valuable lesson. A more open government will hopefully eliminate this problem in the future. I think we can fix most of the problems listed in the charter amendments with some rule changes and letting the term limits be in effect for two election cycles. I would never vote to take away elected offices, such as commission seats, like what happened with the school superintendent because I feel the people should have a choice in who serves in these positions. Eliminating positions right now would be knee-jerk reaction to a problem that was not caused by too many commissioners.

"We should have another check and balance in the way money is spent and I am for some kind of Inspector General to oversee contracts and appropriations so that waste and fraud are eliminated for Knox County Government. All appropriations should be done in the open and I believe all financial statements should be available online and appear every month so that we know where our money has gone. We should also do away with any no-bid contracts. The conflicts of interest should be stated before debate and the member that has conflicts should not be allowed to debate or vote. An open government will also eliminate some of the problems that have been pointed out and we would get to see a transparent and open form of government that is fully accountable to the people."

Your General Priorities:

"I feel having an open government is vital to all of the other issues being solved. We must be more efficient and I hope we will be more fiscally sound in the new commission. I think that when you prioritize items for you district they must also work in the plans of the county. I know we have concerns here in our district and I hope to bring some much-needed improvements to the Sixth District, (but) we must be aware that they cannot negatively affect the county as a whole."

The Issues:

"All the listed issues are important and help make our county a better place to live and work. Having a great education system and having good public safety are very important. The education system has a huge impact on our business growth and our ability to recruit the right kinds of businesses to the area. If your crime rate is high, you could be losing potential new business and residents as well. Those two items drive a lot of what happens in the county on a day-to-day basis. Of course, being responsible with the tax structure and budget affects how well those two functions are carried out, so it is important that we have a responsible budget that reflects what is important to the county. Development must be done with forethought and be done in accordance of what is good for those that are affected by it. We must make sure we put the proper development in the proper places when we do our zoning and planning. In regard to hiring qualified employees, the county should always hire the best and brightest we can to fill our empty positions."

What will Knox County look like in 2025?

"I hope Knox County has completed the road projects they began to pave in 2006. SmartFix will be a documentary on Discovery HD and we will all remember where we were when they put a McDonald's in space. We will all look back to when we rode on the ground in cars and had to use the interstate for travel to other states. We will be talking about when Coach Pearl brought Tennessee basketball back and how his legacy lives through Coach Bradshaw. Hopefully, we will be the best in the state in education and have at least one international headquarters for a Fortune 500 Company."

KATHY BRYANT, Republican

Our Problems:

"Nepotism and cronyism have become serious issues for Knox County government. The public has an expectation that individuals in government positions whether elected or hired are advanced in their careers based on their skills and experience and not because of who they know where. Citizens do not have any trust in government's ability to function well and we have to make changes that will restore that trust. There are many citizens in the county who have no connection to anyone and they need to step up and be willing to serve in elected and hired county government positions."

Your General Priorities:

The concerns of home district constituents

The Issues:

Development

Folksy Nickname:

"Cotten Candy—my maiden name is Cotten and all my parents' friends wanted them to name me Candy."

What will Knox County look like in 2025?

"Knoxville in 2025 will have a completed interstate system and the "Orange Route" will be only a memory. District Six will have completed several road projects including Karns Valley Dr., the red light at Ingles in Karns, and Emory Road through Powell will be nearing completion. The beauty of East Tennessee will continue to be a draw to the area for business and industry as well as for families. Our transportation issues will be focused on mass transit and continuing to improve our air quality. Our schools will be focusing on preparing students for life after high school (college, technical schools, or the work force). I am confident that Knox County will be in less debt and more able to fund the most important projects. Growth and development in the area will be focused on sustainability and involving communities in the process. Citizens will not feel that the area has changed too much but that we have continued to move forward to make Knoxville attractive to those visiting, choosing to live here, and choosing to bring their business and industry here."

Analysis: Republican Brad Anders got the endorsement of the Public Trust PAC, while opponent Democrat Kathy Bryant did not. Anders also got the nod from the Knox County Education Association. The district is Republican, though it was represented for some time by conservative Democrat Mark Cawood. Whoever wins gets to be the seatmate for frequently quoted Commissioner "Lumpy" Lambert; the district runs from Karns to Powell. Anders seems to have the edge.

EIGHTH DISTRICT, SEAT B

DAVID WRIGHT, Republican

Analysis: The far eastern portion of the county has Republican David Wright unopposed. Wright has also been the interim commissioner for the area and got the PAC endorsement.

NINTH DISTRICT, SEAT A

MIKE BROWN, Republican

Our Problems:

Waste, fraud, and abuse from a lack of oversight

Your General Priorities:

Concerns of home district

The Issues:

Taxes and county budget

Folksy Nickname:

"If I had to pick a nickname I guess it would be ‘caretaker' as I have spent the last 37 years trying to watch out for, and defend, my community against unnecessary and unwanted negative development."

What will Knox County look like in 2025?

"By the year 2025, I think that our county can be the hub for a vast array of technological businesses due to our close proximity to Oak Ridge, UT, and a bunch of great, smaller tech schools and colleges that give everyone who has the desire and the get-up-and-go to get the training they need to succeed in our ever changing and fast moving society."

CHUCK WARD, Democrat

Our Problems:

Waste, fraud, and abuse from a lack of oversight

"I believe this could be the most damaging to Knox County. There are several areas that are suffering from budget cuts and I feel these cuts could have been prevented with more oversight and communication. Many of our fraud problems need to be addressed more openly and without backroom antics."

Your General Priorities:

Open government

"With open government, we can address the genuine concerns of our constituents and make sure they are not kept in the dark like they have been in the past."

The Issues:

Taxes and the county budget

"We need to reassess our county taxes and fairly collect what is due. This will solely help stimulate our county budget needs."

Folksy Nickname:

"‘Selfmade': Once a job has begun / Stick right with it 'til it's done / Whatever the job great or small / Do it well or not at all"

What will Knox County look like in 2025?

"Full of growth, opportunity, more wonderful waterfront, and happy citizens with a trustworthy county government."

Analysis: Mike Brown won the Republican primary to represent South Knoxville, defeating the appointed Commissioner Tim Green. The question in this race is whether voters voted for Brown or voted against Green, who was appointed on Black Wednesday. Will they stick with Brown or go with new candidate Chuck Ward? The Democratic candidate dropped out and the party has nominated Ward. Ward has been an enthusiastic candidate and may represent a pick-up for the Democrats. Brown and Ward got Public Trust PAC endorsements. South Knoxville is the home of Paul Pinkston and the lately famous interim Commissioner Victoria DeFreese. Who's favored? Who knows?

The best guess at this point is that voters will be more measured in their voting than in February, though incumbency will still be a liability for some. Those on a jihad to get rid of the rest of the incumbents will have to wait until 2010.

(Bill Lockett is unopposed for law director and unopposed school board candidates are Indya Kincannon, Cindy Buttry, Karen Carson and Bill Phillips.)

Candidates' responses collected by Charles Maldonado and Robert Baldus


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