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Bill Haslam

Madeline Rogero

Mayoral Candidates Start Squaring Off

  The Patrician Vs. the Populist

Bill Haslam and Madeline Rogero: A study in contrasts

by Joe Sullivan

Madeline Rogero is fond of saying that she's probably the only person who's ever worked for Cesar Chavez, Dolly Parton, and Colin Powell.

From her youthful stint as an organizer for Chavez's United Farm Workers Union to her recent posts as executive director of Parton's Dollywood Foundation and the Knoxville arm of Powell's America's Promise, she believes they all contributed to her preparedness for the job she's seeking now as mayor of Knoxville. They also serve to sharpen the contrast between Rogero and her principal rival for the mayor's office, Bill Haslam, who has spent most of his adult life as an executive at his family's Pilot Corp.

Rogero's contrasts with the scion of one of Knoxville's most prominent families really hark back to her birth. Rogero grew up as the daughter of a plumber who moved the family from her Florida birthplace to Dayton, Ohio when Rogero was a teenager. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, but she didn't achieve this distinction until after devoting three years to the first of many populist causes she has championed over time.

Following her junior year at Ohio State in 1974, Rogero joined the ranks of the United Farm Workers Union trying to improve the lot of field hands. Along with raising funds to help the workers, she promoted the Chavez-led union's boycott of Gallo wines and certain brands of grapes and lettuce. Her mission took her from Columbus to Chicago to California, all on an allowance of $5 a week plus room and board. She considers the experience she gained invaluable.

"I learned how to reach out to people, how to structure meetings, how to state your case and to get people involved," she says. "A lot of people think the powers-that-be are in charge and there's no way to challenge that, but I learned that it can be challenged and that it can be done in a peaceful way."

Along the way, Rogero married one of her co-workers, Mark Pitt. After the birth of their first child, Pitt took a job with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in Greenville, SC. There, Rogero completed her undergraduate degree at Furman and gave birth to their second child. Then, in 1981, Pitt moved to Knoxville to head a three-state territory for the union, and the couple bought a house in the Deer Creek subdivision in Northwest Knoxville.

Soon after she got here Rogero (or Rogero-Pitt as it was until a 1983 divorce) began to put her organizing skills to work. A temporary trailer park to provide housing for the 1982 World's Fair had been proposed for nearby Ball Camp Pike. Rogero recalls that, "I got involved with several other neighborhoods in trying to stop it because it was a really bad location." In the course of doing so, she worked with planners on Metropolitan Planning Commission staff and realized, "Boy, I really love this stuff. Planning is all about understanding how a community works and planning in a way that makes sense for future growth...And so I went to Planning School at UT."

Her 1987 master's thesis contained a plan for the formation of a Knoxville Citizen's Organization designed to maximize public participation in community goal setting and decision making. "A citizen participation process is critical—critical so that folks will have faith in government and also critical in the end to making good decisions," she asserts. For all of her organizational experience and activist bent, Rogero says she wasn't in a position to take the lead in implementing her plan, which never came into being. " I was working as a planner at TVA and was the single parent of two young children, but it really came down to a money issue. If there had been a Cornerstone Foundation in Knoxville at that time it probably would have happened, just as the Lyndhurst Foundation funded Chattanooga Venture on which my plan was patterned."

Rogero remained much involved in the community through serving as president of the Whittle Springs Middle School PTO and as an officer of the Oakwood-Lincoln Park Neighborhood Organization. By 1990, she found the time to run for County Commission, predictably on a citizen-participation theme. The participation included enlisting hundreds of volunteers to help in her successful effort to unseat a 24-year incumbent in the North Knoxville district where she then resided. The volunteers served as everything from envelope stuffers and phone bankers to human billboards (human billboards, for the uninitiated, are massed sign bearers standing at intersections).

It was a model grassroots campaign, so much so that Leadership Knoxville singled her out to describe the nuts-and-bolts of it to a forum for prospective candidates for local office more than 10 years later.

On Commission, Rogero was above all else a champion of center-city schools and adherence to MPC's sector plans for development throughout the county. Perhaps her toughest vote early on was to consolidate Fulton and Austin-East into a new center-city magnet high school. "My children were at Fulton and closing it was very unpopular in my district. But we couldn't get the votes to save it, and the best alternative was to build a downtown magnet," she recalls. As it turned out, plans for the new magnet high school also failed to muster a commission majority, and that often-fickle body reverted to renovations of Fulton and Austin-East in which Rogero now takes pride.

She's also proud of her opposition to rezonings sought by commercial developers that were inconsistent with MPC's sector plans. "I support following sector plans...[because] I believe homeowners and developers need to know there's some predictability. I wish I had been more successful, but sometimes all you can do is fight the good fight," she allows.

After two terms on commission, Rogero bowed out in 1998 and briefly took the post of director of the Dollywood Foundation, which supports programs for children in Sevier County. But when Knoxville's Promise was formed in 1999, she was quick to take the helm of an organization focused on fulfilling the potential of kids here. The fulfillment process is based on keeping the five promises that Colin Powell enunciated when he launched the program nationally. And Powell's successors have singled out Knoxville's Promise as a model in mobilizing community resources to fulfill those promises. Indeed, although Rogero left her full-time post when she launched her campaign for mayor, she has continued to act as a consultant to the national organization on recent trips to conferences in Detroit and Charleston.

At age 50, Rogero sees her quest to be mayor as a cumulative fulfillment of all the roles she's played over time. "What I've been fighting for since I was on county commission and as a neighborhood leader before that and as a planner is the same, but it's at a different level now.... What I've done in Knoxville and who I am now is so much a product of that plus all of those different kinds of experiences I've had here. If you're going to lead a town like Knoxville, then to have that breadth of experience is important. You have a better grasp of the complexities of what we're dealing with in this city."

One complexity that Rogero faces is the pronunciation (Rohero) or spelling of her name—depending on which way you look at it. Her forbears settled in Florida (from the Mediterranean island of Minorca) in the 1760s. While she's proud of her heritage, Rogero says, "Just call me Madeline."

Rogero waves aside the notion that she lacks Haslam's executive experience when it comes to running city government. "How many mayors have we elected who managed large organizations?" she asks. "Victor Ashe, Randy Tyree and Kyle Testerman were all lawyers. The key is hiring good folks to get the job done. And contrary to what some people say, government shouldn't be operated like a business. There's a different process that should be accepted.... You have to spend taxpayer money wisely, and running a not-for-profit on a shoestring is perhaps better experience and better for the taxpayer than somebody that's used to corporate lunches and airplanes."

She also thinks her legislative experience makes her better qualified. "You have to get the votes on City Council, and I understand how a legislative body works and what their roles and responsibilities are to their constituencies.... The way that you govern is different than anything else you've done."

Rogero's dark brown hair is cut shorter now than it once was, and it's tempting to put the label "dressed for power" on the tailored suits she wears, "Depending on the job you have, you have to look and dress accordingly," she says, and she goes on to acknowledge that," I think as a woman, you have to prove yourself more." But she also sees advantages. "I think you're trusted more because women have not typically been part of the power structure and they're not part of the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that people are tired of."

Two years ago, Rogero got married once again—to Gene Monaco, who is a civil engineer and construction manager. They live on Woodland Pike in South Knoxville, so Rogero believes she's got a North-South axis working for her in her bid for mayor. But a much larger percentage of the votes cast in recent city elections have come from West and Northwest Knoxville.

How well Rogero's populist identity and message will play in the affluent western suburbs is a big question mark in her campaign. "A lot of people are afraid of Rogero. They think she is too liberal," says City Councilman Steve Hall, whose Northwest Knoxville district has a conservative bent, as does Hall. But Rogero is convinced that her emphasis on better planning for neighborhood and environmental protection, along with her stress on consensus building, will be well-received in all parts of the city.

April 3, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 14
© 2003 Metro Pulse