The Tree-Hugging Republicans of East Tennessee

They really do exist! Meet some red-blooded right-wingers who still believe in old-fashioned conservation

In 2006, Tony Norman ran for County Commission as an environmentalist. It made his supporters nervous, but he persisted in doing so even after being warned by lawyer/lobbyist John Valliant, a political ally of Norman's late father, who served as a commissioner during the '80s.

"I was just starting to campaign, and he said, ‘Norman, why don't you get on your stinkin' bicycle, get you a sandwich board, write "F--k you, vote for me" on it, and ride down Sutherland Avenue. If you even mention the word environment in your campaign you might as well do that.'"

Norman is one of a handful of Grand Old Party faithful who insist that taking care of the land and the water and the air is as fundamentally conservative as keeping taxes low.

Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, and Dawn Coppock, author of the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, which takes a faith-based approach to banning mountaintop coal removal, say some of their best friends are Republicans.

"We get along better with Republicans than Republicans get along with each other," Coppock says. "I am totally aware of the anti-environmentalist, extremist branch of the Republican Party. I know about them and they are powerful, but they are just one faction. I think the other Republicans have been trying to sort out what is a partisan issue and what's not."

Hoyos agrees, reeling off the names of some surprising supporters from the hard-right side of most issues:

"Raymond Finney really separated himself from his party by championing the mountaintop removal bill. James McMillan understands that these are law-and-order issues—even if you're a developer bringing houses and jobs, you've still got to follow the law. We couldn't do what we do without James. He's our best volunteer. Tony Norman is very smart and is willing to make decisions that are sometimes unpopular within his party because he understands the importance of preserving resources for the future. Victor Ashe has been one of our supporters for a long time and is now a board member. Laura Cole has the patience of a saint dealing with Knox County. These are serious environmentalists and serious Republicans."

Tony Norman

Knox County has schools and jails and libraries to run, potholes to mend, and patronage to hand out; but the bedrock truth is local government is a battleground where developers and their opponents fight a never-ending war over the land and how to use it. Knox County Commission, dominated 14-5 by Republicans, is ground zero. The few consistently "green" votes are mostly Democrats, and developers usually win.

Tony Norman, one of the few local Republicans who doesn't flinch at the environmentalist label, aims to change that.

A first-termer, Norman's late father Rex Norman served on commission and had always been a dependable pro-business vote. Tony was recruited and supported by the pro-development former sheriff Tim Hutchison to run against incumbent Wanda Moody, who had filed a series of lawsuits against Hutchison.

What Norman's early supporters hadn't bothered to learn was that father and son didn't agree about much.

"We were on opposite sides of political issues most of the time," Norman says. "So we didn't talk politics. I was a classroom teacher. I just focused on my educational efforts and the only politics I did were things I believed in."

Although some of those early supporters label him a "turncoat," his environmentalist tendencies shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. He spent 30 years teaching natural sciences in Knox County classrooms—20 years at Farragut High School, 10 years at West. He taught ecology and environmental science with an emphasis on water quality studies in conjunction with TVA's Water Quality Monitoring Network.

"TVA saw this educational opportunity and a way to change their image by promoting water quality. The educational component was a natural. So for 25 years of my career, I used creeks and streams as the backbone of my courses and did everything else from that perspective," Norman says.

After he was approached about running, Norman, who has since retired from teaching, decided he needed to do it.

"My mindset is environmentalism, and I decided that I needed a new venue. The political avenue opens up and I'm like, ‘Maybe this is what I'm supposed to do. I think doors open up and you get pushed forward and there's a reason, because I really don't have the experience or the background to do this job, yet people are saying they'll support me if I do. Maybe it was meant to be.' I was very naive."

The truth of what was expected of him didn't really become clear until Jan. 31, 2007, Black Wednesday—the day when Hutchison and Mayor Mike Ragsdale battled over control of appointments to fill out the unexpired terms of sitting commissioners who were ousted by a court decision enforcing term limits.

"I suddenly saw what I was supposed to do and why they supported me. I had to make a decision, and what was I going to do? Am I going with these people who recruited me, or am I going to go on my own? Black Wednesday was a cleansing for me, and for Knox County."

On environmental issues, Norman says, "We've been out of balance for 50 years, but things are changing. There's a new willingness on commission to listen to reasonable arguments for certain environmental issues. And I don't really see it as a partisan issues, although, yes, the Democrats are more favorable up front. But usually we can drag a few of the guys in. Rick Briggs gets it. Ed Shouse gets it. I think Mike Brown gets it. And there are others who get it, depending on the specific issue.

"I hope to influence development in a positive way, not prevent development. And if they view me that way, I can be an ally to them. I'm just not going to support development in areas where it's not sustainable. A developer's got to fit the demands of our hydrology, our topography and out geology.

"It's like Aldo Leopold said: ‘Value the land.'"

Victor Ashe

The Woodlands III project, a 100-acre urban forest dotted with pristine, spring-fed ponds, sits high on Cherokee Bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. Its acquisition is a priority project for environmental groups, and this fall the Knox Greenways Coalition voted to donate $5,000 to the Legacy Parks Foundation to apply to the purchase of the property and keep it from becoming a high-end student housing project.

"It's the most important project we've ever had," says longtime greenways and Sierra Club activist Will Skelton. "Visualize a multi-story condo property on top of that hill… that's what's going to happen if we don't buy it."

Another member suggested asking former mayor Victor Ashe, freshly arrived back home from a four-year year posting in Warsaw as ambassador to Poland, to match that sum.

"No!" Skelton said. "I'm looking for real money out of Victor."

This got a collective chuckle because Ashe's thrifty habits have long been joke fodder among friend and foe alike.

Perhaps his considerable reputation as a shrewd and frequently ruthless political operator has overshadowed Ashe's considerable credentials as an environmentalist. But the truth is he was green back when nobody but Kermit the Frog was talking about it. In 2006, Ashe gave $250,000 to the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum—an unsolicited donation that is the largest single gift ever to that organization. He is also financial supporter (and is now a board member) of the Tennessee Clean Water Network.

As a state legislator, he was the prime sponsor of the Natural Areas Preservation Act of 1972 and was named Legislator of the Year by the Tennessee Conservation League. He followed that up with an air pollution control bill based on the research of renowned University of Tennessee chemistry professor Gleb Mamantov and legislation curtailing strip mining. After serving 15 years in the General Assembly (six in the House and nine in the Senate), he lost a 1984 U.S. Senate campaign against Al Gore Jr. Soon thereafter, Ronald Reagan appointed him executive director of the President's Commission on Americans Outdoors.

"That gave me the job of looking at the outdoor recreational needs of the U.S. for the next 20 years," Ashe says. "It was clear to me that there needed to be a prairie fire of greenway development, as well as funding for land and water conservation to be used to help local governments acquire land.

"You know what the most favorite park in the United States is? The one down the street. That's where you spend time as a family."

He was elected mayor in 1987 and set out to expand the city's parks and greenways. He worked at monitoring and enhancing the water quality of the Tennessee River. He declared war on the Knoxville Utilities Board over sewer-contaminated stormwater runoff.

Ashe likes to quote Theodore Roosevelt, whose most tangible legacy was a vast expansion of the national parks system, as the role model for green Republicanism. (He says Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander fit the mold, too.)

"Obviously, if most people look at the years I was mayor, in terms of things that happened, they would point to the tremendous growth of the park system and greenways… I tried to add five or six miles of greenways every year."

Ashe's robust approach to creating public lands wasn't always appreciated, and the city's condemnation of farmland in the northwest section of the city to create a park that has since been named for him was particularly contentious.

"Sometimes the issue of property rights runs up against conservation efforts, and obviously there has to be a balance between the two and you have to ask, where do the equities lie? You pass on what you inherit or you let it become a shopping mall or a subdivision or a highway. The issue becomes what's the right balance. You have to have shopping centers; you have to have roads. My goal as mayor was to have good parks in every area of the city. I wouldn't say conservationists are right every time, but, land—God's not making any more of it."

What are the chances that he'll pony up for Woodlands III?

Pretty good:

"That effort to save the Cherokee Bluff land is a great one," Ashe says. "It ties in with Island Home, Ijams, Ft. Dickerson, and Ft. Higley. I'll personally do something."

Raymond Finney

When the Tennessee Conservation Voters organization released its 2008 Legislative Scorecard, the highest-ranked Republican member of the General Assembly was Sen. Raymond Finney from Blount County. Finney scored six points, easily eclipsing most Democrats and all Republicans, many of whom had negative scores.

A retired physician who grew up in Knoxville, Finney was chief of pathology at Blount Memorial Hospital. The ultra-conservative senator got TCV bonus points for sponsoring the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, which would prohibit mountaintop removal coal mining, a practice by which coal companies permanently alter the landscape by blowing the tops of mountains.

Finney is deeply involved in the anti-abortion movement and maintains the website "Abortion and the Bible" (abortion-and-bible.com). He publishes newsletters devoted to biblical prophecy, believes the family is the cornerstone of Western civilization, and thinks high taxes and high energy costs endanger families.

"I believe true conservatives should strive to protect families, not to promote the development and accumulation of more ‘things,'" he says.

In the summer of 2008, Finney ran for re-election and was narrowly defeated. He's not sure how much the mountaintop-removal bill played into his defeat, but he knows it didn't enhance his popularity with party leaders, and he knows he had difficulty raising money.

So how come he sponsored the controversial bill—hated by big coal, TVA and the chamber of commerce—and authored by Knoxville lawyer Dawn Coppock?

"Dawn's bill blended Christian faith and the environment," Finney says. "She called me to see if I would be interested, and I told her I agreed with what she was trying to do.

"We got it through the Senate Environmental Committee. All nine members voted for it except Tommy Kilby (a Democrat), but it died in the House. I could have gotten it through the Senate. All the Republican members of the Environment Committee voted to take it to the floor. But it was the only bill anyone asked me not to go forward on."

Finney says Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (who is now running for governor) and one other legislator asked him not to run the bill.

"Ron came up to see me, and I think he was trying to talk me out of it, but when you talk to Ron Ramsey, you're never sure. I never could get a straight answer. I gathered that he would be happier if I'd just let that bill die. He did say members of the caucus didn't want to vote for it, but they didn't want to vote against it. I said ‘Ron, there are lots of bills I'd just as soon not have to vote against.' Liquor bills, which I oppose for health reasons, for example, but that's our job down here. It can't be all apple pie and things we feel good about.

"It's my impression that many senators down there are pro-development. I didn't believe in global warming theory, but I had a couple of interests: First of all, I don't think we should use up all our resources in one generation. We need to be good stewards of what God has given us. And this is a prime example of what I oppose—taking those beautiful Cumberland Mountains, blow the tops off them and destroy all those beautiful hardwood forests. And developers? When they see land, they see a place where roads need to go.

"We're taking fertile farmland and planting a subdivision here, a subdivision there with no infrastructure. The more fossil fuel we burn—I don't know whether it adds to global warming, but it sure makes the air dirty. So this is a common sense approach. I'm interested in conservation.

"Also, this is a national security issue—we're putting more and more money into the hands of our enemies to buy petroleum, and the nation is just absolutely dependent on foreign petroleum sources."

Laura Cole

One early morning during hunting season, a young man in head-to-toe camouflage knocked on Laura Cole's door at Favored Rogue Farm; a shiny new diesel truck sat in her driveway behind him.

"He'd been bow hunting and shot a deer that came onto my property. He wanted to go pick it up," Cole says. "I told him no because I didn't like the fact that he was hunting near my horses and my father's house. He told me he's doing the ethical thing by asking my permission and said not to worry because he was raised in the country and he'd never hurt horses. He said he doesn't like living here and he's moving back out to the country as soon as he finishes building houses in the subdivision.

"For me that crystallized the whole consumer attitude: Buy it, rezone it, clear cut it, build a subdivision on it, sell it and move onto the next greenfield. That's how it goes. Consume everything and don't worry about what you leave behind because you don't have to stay. There's always another field."

Cole is a UT graduate in computer science and business with graduate work in information sciences. She worked for TVA for 29 years and was an information management consultant when she retired a year ago.

"The last few years that I worked at TVA, I got involved in policies and procedures and with making changes to current processes. I like to be where change is. When you change, you have to be a beginner again, and most people don't want to be a beginner again," she says.

She believes in fiscal responsibility, property rights, and a strong national defense, as might be expected of a military brat. Her father, Dewey Cole, was a major in the Air Force and now lives in the old farmhouse on her property. Her stepmother was an elected judge in Indiana.

She belongs to the 8th District Republican Club and was appointed to the Metropolitan Planning Commission by Mayor Mike Ragsdale. She is a stickler for sustainable development and is frequently on the losing side of lopsided votes on development issues at MPC meetings.

In 2002, her yen for new experiences and love for horses led Cole and her husband John Gresham go buy a 71-acre farm owned by Kristopher Kendrick in east Knox County's Sunny View community. They named it for her favorite horse and went to work. They gutted the old farmhouse and rewired it. They rebuilt the tumbled down barn. They had big plans for an equestrian community with miles of trails that would connect with cooperating neighboring properties. Cole hoped to board and train horses and provide a place for equine therapy for children with disabilities on her beautiful, rolling land, which is bisected by a clear, blue line stream.

"Plus, I always thought it would be neat to be in a community where you knew everybody. I moved around so much in the military that it was something I'd always wanted," she says.

They moved in not knowing that there would soon be a new residential subdivision development up the hill that would pollute their creek with muddy runoff. Cole appealed to the county to enforce existing stormwater regulations, but got no results. She took her case to County Commission where she received sympathy and promises of help, and she kept going back again month after month after month after month. She's still doing it, and there are some signs that she's being taken more seriously these days. Eighth District Commissioner Bud Armstrong has taken up her cause.

"I'm a military, red-blooded American woman," Cole says. "I believe in the American way. My father served in Korea and Vietnam. I'm a fan of property rights, despite what some people believe, but they just believe in developer rights. When I bumped up against the system, I couldn't believe that my rights were ignored and I was going to be collateral damage. I was treated like I was a rabid environmentalist for standing up for my rights. I'm sure some people will be shocked to learn that I am a Republican. They don't understand stormwater, so they minimize your concerns by saying you're against development. That's how they write you off and then they won't have to deal with you because ‘There's no sense in trying to deal with her.'"

James McMillan

It's midnight and James McMillan's windshield wipers are swiping away icy sheets of December rain. He's on the road in his three-quarter ton Chevy truck, doing what he does when it rains—taking notes and samples and videos and photographs to document the damage uncontrolled stormwater runoff is doing to Knox County's streams and land. He will report his findings to state and local officials and to the Tennessee Clean Water Network as evidence in legal actions.

McMillan, 49, doesn't call himself an environmentalist, a conservationist, or a naturalist. He doesn't quote Teddy Roosevelt but he will cop to farmer, hunter, workingman, neighbor, Republican. He made a run for County Commission in 2006 and placed a respectable second in the Republican primary against a better funded, better known candidate who had been running for the seat for most of a decade.

"When I first started hearing about environmentalists, I thought about crazy people that sat up in trees," McMillan says. "I'm not an environmental radical. People have a right to [do] what they want to on their property. But they don't have a right to overbuild and damage everybody else just to maximize their profits. The Republican view I was raised with was you pay your own way. You don't put the cost and the liability on somebody else. That was the moral backbone and the foundation of the Republican Party. And we always believed that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. I guess that could be a motto for tree-huggers, but it could be a motto for our country. That's the way I thought Republicans were supposed to be."

McMillan has no plans to run for office again, and says all he wants is for developers to comply with city, county, and state ordinances and quit polluting his property and everybody else's as they reach ever deeper into the countryside.

"This is the law," he says. "This is basic common sense and decency and I don't consider it any kind of tree-hugger stuff at all. This is about somebody taking other people's basic rights away from them. The other night I had 35-40 acres covered in water at 4 a.m. Yes, I've got a flood plain. It used to never flood at three-and-a-half inches of rain.

"They're changing the hydrology of my property at my detriment. I can't be everybody's cesspool."

Tomorrow morning he'll get up early to bottle-feed a calf that he describes as "too dumb to suck." If it rains some more, he'll be back on the road tomorrow night.

McMillan has waged a five-year war with developers and regulators and bureaucrats and politicians and lobbyists over stormwater regulations. It started in 2002, he says, when he got into an argument with a county official about worsening flooding conditions on his family's 179-acre Shannondale farm.

"He called me a dumb-ass farmer, and I didn't kill him. If that hadn't been such a big table between us, I'd of climbed across it and whipped his ass, but I didn't, and that was the first time I knew I had it in me to hold my own in a fight—verbally. Not with my fists," McMillan says.

Instead, he did something worse than deliver an ass whipping. He made himself impossible to ignore: He turned county government upside-down when he discovered and publicized an unenforced clause in the 2001 Urban Growth Agreement that required the county to adopt drainage standards "at least as strong" as those in the city; he got himself state-certified in erosion prevention and sedimentation control by taking classes taught by the Tennessee Department of Environment, and federally-certified by taking NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) training at the National Stormwater Center in New Orleans.

He is relentless.

"Once upon a time, the creek on our land had a rock sandy bottom. Now it's just pure muck. We could wade the creek in little boots when I was a kid. Now you have to have chest waders. I'm trying to honor the people that worked so hard for me: My grandfather, my great grandfather, they sacrificed to make a life for me. That's the Republican tradition. My dad's first priority was to the land and what he and his father before him and worked for all their lives. This is his farm and his legacy and I'm going to honor it for him and hopefully for the ones that will come along in the future."