Rare Creatures

Dipping into the annual Sequoyah Hills Democratic Party Ice-Cream Social

Talahi Park is a rarity, a long, rectangular park lined with gingko trees and framed in a fence of concrete and ironwork that is, in style, a combination of Cherokee and Egyptian, fused in art-deco whimsy. This 1926 remnant of a short-lived planned community—it may have been a century before its time—would seem designed to attract rare beasts, and the duckbilled platypus of Knoxville politics has to be the Sequoyah Hills Democrat.

A Democratic Party Ice-Cream Social at Talahi Park on Sunday evening was dedicated to the proposition that the creature might not only survive, but prevail. Maybe 70, maybe 100 have emerged with the no-see-ums of a hot June evening to attend. Perhaps a dozen among them are politicians, not necessarily from the neighborhood, not necessarily Democrats, not necessarily even up for election, but just attracted by the prospect of Colene Siler's famous homemade ice cream.

She's held these parties for a few years now, and has a gallon each of seven flavors, including strawberry, blackberry, her famous caramel, and peach that, without artificial coloring, looks like vanilla but tastes like fresh peaches. She learned the technique from her mom, more than half a century ago, when they lived at the now-lost family neighborhood that was around Lake Avenue and 21st Street; a neighbor used to show Laurel and Hardy movies on his projector, and the Silers would bring ice cream.

One Talahi guest who remembers those days is Bob Scott, who's running for the Democratic nomination for Congress for the Second District, a seat no Democrat has held since 1857. "Eventually, it's gotta happen," he says, recalling that the Republican Contract With America called for Congressional term limits. "I think they really just wanted term limits for Democrats." Scott, a chemical engineer who was, for 26 years, on the faculty at Pellissippi State, wants to be the one to challenge perennial incumbent Jimmy Duncan, whose recent exhortations against "extreme environmentalists" offend the retired chemical engineer. "I don't think they're extreme. Duncan has some crazy ideas; he wants to return to the gold standard! He's probably not dangerous, because nobody's going along with him, but he's not making any progress, either."

There's a conviction here, based on polling data for precinct 24Q—everyone quotes a different race—that Sequoyah Hills is not what it seems from Scenic Drive and Cherokee Boulevard, where, during election cycles, Republican yard signs almost outnumber automatic sprinklers. "It's about half and half" Republican and Democrat, says psychotherapist Trish Maffeo. Attorney Tom Fine campaigned for John Kerry in Sequoyah four years ago. "We had a few doors closed in our faces," he says. "But most people wanted to hear what we had to say." Several mention specific people they know, attorneys or business folks, who are secret Democrats but can't go public for fear of alienating clients.

It's partly a fundraiser for local Democrats, and a campaigning opportunity for some, like County Commission candidate Finbarr Saunders, who's handing out yard signs. But no one seems unhappy to see one old Republican there, former County Commissioner Bee DeSelm, a benign spirit who seems on good terms with these Democrats.

Ed Miller, the genial retired journalist, is a longtime East Tennessee Republican. Back in '66, he was Congressman Howard Baker's first press secretary. "I never worked for anybody more honorable than Howard Baker," he says. "Bush has convinced me that I'm gonna be a Democrat," he says. "I'm for Obama."

Several in sandals, shorts, and wire-rim spectacles look like professors, and upon examination prove themselves to be. Retired University of Tennessee physics prof Tom Collcott likes Obama. "He's sophisticated," Collcott says. "Maybe that doesn't appeal to everybody, but it certainly appeals to me. It's nice to have someone who can speak in full sentences." He says his 100-year-old mother in South Carolina had supported Hillary Clinton. A few weeks ago, she announced, "Hillary's been misbehaving." Now she supports Obama.

"It's a graying group," acknowledges Gail Bier, a sometime international-programs facilitator who moved here from New Orleans after Katrina. She's right. Most attendees appear to be on the far side of 50, and though three or four young couples came, with small children, there doesn't appear to be anyone between, say, 5 and 35. "I don't know where the young political activists are," she says.

One rare exception is a tall, young guy wrestling with a baby who may have been unhappy with a diaper. He turns out to be novelist and screenwriter Shannon Burke, who moved into the neighborhood six months ago. The former Chicagoan is impressed with the neighborhood's political balance.

Former Mayor Randy Tyree is among the last to leave, wearing a Tyree for Sheriff button. "Sequoyah at one time was the establishment, so to speak," he says, recalling that he was beaten there two-to-one by the Republican Kyle Testerman in his first mayoral run in 1975. "A lot of that has migrated farther west. The people who have moved in tend to be more independent."

There's little to complain about but the heat, which seems to wilt a few, keeping them in the shade of the gingkos, and the democratic gnats. It's a cheerful party in an auspicious year. But a few do complain, in a polite, soft-spoken sort of way, that several local Democrats, especially those in impossible races, may be a little too polite and soft-spoken to be heard.