Tale of Two Governments

Ragsdale had the savvy team to outshine laid-back Haslam

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

When Mike Ragsdale came into office, he quickly assembled a team more suited to run a larger organization than the Knox County mayor's office. Considering all the elected constitutional officers like the sheriff, the trustee and so forth, the mayor's office has a much smaller area of responsibility than the city of Knoxville, for instance.

But Ragsdale and his friend Mike Arms, together since being roommates in college, had bigger things in mind. They had an ambitious agenda for Knox County, establishing a record suitable for glossy mail-outs in a future gubernatorial campaign. They had Cynthia Finch as the unofficial ambassador to East Knoxville, John Werner handling finance, and they had public relations veteran Mike Cohen (later replaced by Dwight Van DeVate). They also had a political operative named Tyler Harber, left over from the campaign, whom they lodged in a county job.

When Bill Haslam became mayor of Knoxville he assembled a good collection of department heads, but on his immediate staff he had a noticeable lack of political operatives. Politics is about more than winning elections: It's about building public support to execute public policy.

Cynical observers (OK, I confess, but I wasn't alone) thought Ragsdale would be a highly successful officeholder, able to mobilize public opinion to execute his ambitious agenda and build up an impressive résumé heading county government. Haslam appeared to be determined to be the anti-Victor Ashe. The former mayor manipulated the media to a fare-thee-well to push his agenda and score points against his enemies, real and imagined. Haslam appeared to be clueless when it came to the politics of his job.

Not that Haslam didn't have a good public relations staff. He has Margie Nichols, a veteran television news director, and he had the inestimable Amy Nolan running the press office, succeeded by the unflappable Randy Kenner. They answer media inquiries and put out notices of public events, but they run a decidedly low-key operation compared to the local government we are used to.

So how has it turned out?

Well, it turns out having a political machine revved up and ready is not such a good thing when it's executed poorly, the goals are a mistake and dirty tricks are a major component in the execution. Let's pass a wheel tax to build a downtown library most of the citizens think is unnecessary. No? Then we need to build a new high school almost in Oak Ridge and rezone the students in our base in West Knoxville.

The overtly political nature of Ragsdale's operation became obvious early on. He used Harber to run campaigns in an effort to ensure Ragsdale majorities on the school board and on County Commission. It might have been a good plan, except they lost all the races and ensured the school board and County Commission would have majorities hostile to the interfering county mayor.

Harber's sins are well documented, but Ragsdale was able to distance himself from those excesses in a he-said-he-said defense. The mainstream local media decided to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt. They overlooked a series of lies so obvious that some of us began to be nostalgic for Baghdad Bob.

But Ragsdale and Arms, the Damon and Pythias of local politics, have a relationship in which they each reinforce the inherent stupidity of the other. One of them has a dumb idea and the other is quick to agree it's brilliant. Whether it's declaring they didn't know where the stolen emails came from, or that they didn't read them or that they didn't know what Harber was doingâ"all things that were revealed to be lies.

They just got through firing the finance director for buying expensive dinners and alcohol on a county credit card, and they then set up a special account to take corporate contributions to pay for the booze at receptions for Oak Ridge big shots Arms needs to cultivate in his role as an executive for a DOE contractor.

A lot of the credit card abuse came from frequent visits to Nashville to â“reform the BEPâ” and get more money for Knox County schoolsâ"a real coup for the administration. Their meetings with Gov. Phil Bredesen, followed by press conferences trashing the administration, had Bredesen foaming at the mouth, according to people close to the situation. State Sen. Jamie Woodson, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, negotiated with Bredesen to get the education and tax plan he wanted in return for BEP reform. But it came in spite of the bumbling efforts of Arms and Ragsdale to try and put a hammerlock on the governor.

While Ragsdale and Arms have bumbled their way through one scandal after another for five years, the â“cluelessâ” Haslam is sailing to a second term with solid accomplishments and a popularity rating that is off the charts.

Makes you wonder what politics has come to.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .


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