The Schumpert Years

Tommy Schumpert's term as Knox County executive has been marked by a handful of major events.


* In his first proposed county budget, the newly elected Schumpert asks for a 26-cent increase in the property tax rate. Some county commissioners balk, proposing budget-slashing plans with increases of 10 cents or less. But after a few epic meetings, the 19-member commission approves a 25-cent increase on an 11-7 vote. Schumpert gets credit for the passage: "I think most people that knew much about politics were pretty surprised when he got a tax increase early on without more difficulty than he had," says County Commissioner Mike McMillan (who voted no).


* Schumpert campaigns for months on behalf of a referendum to unify city and county governments. Advocates say it would be more efficient. Opponents worry about non-city residents coming second to city interests. The referendum ultimately fails.

* Convinced the Knox County Regional Farmer's Market near East Towne Mall is an expensive drain on the county's revenues, Schumpert proposes a new lease arrangement to gradually remove the county from its financial obligation. Some commissioners object, calling the plan too expensive, but it finally passes after Schumpert threatens to simply sell the facility outright.


* With the city reigniting its annexation of county property (there was an annexation moratorium during the unification campaign), Schumpert and his staff lobby state legislators for protection. The result—a bill making it harder for cities to selectively annex prime commercial sites—defies Nashville political odds by making it through the state Senate. The state House of Representatives will take it up next year.

* After months of gridlock, County Commission approves a site for a new justice center in downtown Knoxville. Schumpert gets both praise for sticking by the 20-year-plan and criticism for not doing enough groundwork to find an acceptable site sooner. Commissioner Leo Cooper is in the latter camp: "They tried to fast-track it instead of covering the bases. I think they botched that."

* With efforts to relocate the Knoxville Smokies inside city limits failing, Schumpert takes the lead in a joint city-county gambit to build a new baseball stadium somewhere in West Knox County. A few proposed sites run into objections from neighbors, and the Smokies grow increasingly restless. The outcome is still in doubt.

People like Tommy Schumpert. But is that enough to keep him in office?

by Jesse Fox Mayshark
photos by Aaron Jay

A little before 4 p.m. at the City County Building on Monday, Nov. 17, it was all handshakes and huzzahs among the county government honchos gathered for the monthly spectacle known as a Knox County Commission meeting. After nearly 10 years of discussions and court orders, and an excruciating 12 months of ping-ponging public outcries and deliberative delays, the Commission—at the urging of County Executive Tommy Schumpert—had agreed on a site for a new jail and courts complex. Schumpert, a compact guy with white hair and a puckish face that blushes easily, was in the hall outside the main assembly room, joking with commissioners and thanking them for their votes. His left arm was around the shoulder of Mike Ragsdale, the poised, polished commissioner from the suburban 5th District. On his right was Howard Pinkston, the scrappy car-salesman-cum-commissioner from South Knoxville, who passed along to Schumpert an observation from a veteran politico in the afternoon audience: "He says you're so nice, you ought to be a Republican."

Schumpert laughed. Ragsdale laughed. Pinkston laughed. But the comment was more than a joke—it was a reflection of a couple of complicated realities Schumpert faces as he begins the last year of his first term as the county's chief executive and looks ahead to 1998's re-election campaign.

Tommy Schumpert is a nice guy. Pretty much everybody allows him that. Even his critics, even off the record, can't seem to find much that is venal, petty, or vindictive in his temperament or track record. But he is also a Democrat in a county that has never favored that orientation. And the issues he holds dearest—planning, efficiency, balancing the books—aren't the kind that always generate electoral passion.

In a way, Schumpert is a good case study in politics done the way most people say they want it done: without frills, without rhetoric, without a lot of spin. But how effective that approach is, in both running a county and courting public favor, is open to debate. Schumpert's detractors see him as a man either indifferent to leadership or incapable of it, a career bean-counter under the sway of Knoxville's establishment power brokers.

The man most likely to put Schumpert to the test—the only one who's offered himself as a possible challenger—was the one that afternoon with the county exec's hand on his shoulder. The ambitious Ragsdale has for months put off for months making a public announcement about running, but he's thinking hard about it. If he does, Schumpert—and everybody else—will get to find out where nice guys finish when it comes to politics.

'Just Tommy'

Next year promises to be an electric one, electorally speaking. With contested races expected in everything from judgeships to the school board, and open seats all around, the last few months have seen a scramble of potential candidates trying to stake a claim. Democrats in countywide offices are especially vulnerable in GOP-heavy Knox County. Attorney General Randy Nichols, for example, has already drawn a prospective opponent—former state Rep. Jimmy Kyle Davis—with massive Republican backing.

But less than 90 days before the Feb. 19 filing deadline for candidates, Schumpert—who just barely defeated Republican incumbent Dwight Kessel in 1994—sits without a definite challenger.

"To be honest, I guess you get hopeful," he says, leaning back into a high-backed chair in his river-view office on the top floor of the City County Building. "There are people who run unopposed. I've never done that and I really don't expect that. But it's something I don't sit around worrying about either."

Not many people really expect Schumpert to get a free pass to a second term. But the fact it's even a ponderable possibility is testament to Schumpert's perceived strength after three years on the job. And that strength derives in no small part from the simple fact that he's hard to dislike.

Schumpert's niceness isn't an easy thing to quantify. It's not the hearty handshake-and-wisecrack jollity of many workaday politicians, nor the we-are-the-world empathy of a social activist. He is friendly and polite in a more detached way, sociable but a little restrained. He answers questions, whether from the press or skeptical county commissioners, without a hint of guile (albeit in a wandering syntax guaranteed to frustrate soundbyte-hungry reporters). He can get angry, but it shows itself mostly in a tightening of his jaw and a slight sharpening of his tone. And by all accounts, he doesn't hold grudges from one issue to the next.

"He is who he is, and it comes across in everything he says and does," says John Griess, the West Knox Republican who chairs County Commission. "He's not one person to the media and another off the air. He's just Tommy."

On the surface, Schumpert is an uncomplicated man, a good ol' boy in the old-fashioned complimentary sense of that term. A 58-year-old grandfather of two, he lives with his wife, Charlotte, in Fountain City, the North Knoxville suburb where he went to Central High School and later taught business classes and coached playoff-caliber football and baseball teams. When Central assistant principal Earl Hoffmeister was elected Knox County school superintendent in 1976, he recruited Schumpert as his finance manager. After 13 years in that post, Schumpert ran for county trustee in 1990, attracted by the fiscal nuts and bolts of the office, which collects and disburses county revenues.

"I liked accounting," he says of his long career as a number cruncher. "Accounting has to be right. It has to balance."

In 1994, he took the bold step of challenging the well-ensconced Kessel because he says he thought the county could do a better job with its long-range planning. He also thought the famously vindictive turf battles between Kessel and Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe were counter-productive. And so was born a campaign based on looking ahead, budgeting efficiently, and getting along.

County executive is an odd job, with a somewhat misleading title. Although it's tempting to see the position as a kind of public-sector CEO, the reality is less straightforward. In addition to a cantankerous and unpredictable board of directors—the 19-member County Commission, which has final say over everything—the executive must contend with a powerful school superintendent and sheriff, who have a large degree of control over their own budgets and staffs, and the entire county court system, with its myriad elected officials. Still, he's the one responsible for fitting all the pieces together into a coherent whole, a role Schumpert thought he could fill.

In a comment as typical for its straightforward sentiment as its awkward grammar, he says, "With being schools and trustee, I had I guess as good a knowledge as anyone could have to run for county executive."

He also had the advantage of dissatisfaction with Kessel among many traditionally Republican civic leaders. "The city and county at that point were butting heads on everything," says Holston Gases CEO Bill Baxter, who played ball for Schumpert at Central (and who has recently been named to Gov. Don Sundquist's cabinet as commissioner of economic and community development). "Something needed to give."

With a contributor list that looked not unlike those of Ashe and other West Knoxville Republicans, and strong campaign support from his former school colleagues, Schumpert emerged as a viable candidate. (The general consensus is that he was also helped by a lack of organization and drive in Kessel's re-election bid.) Even so, he barely eked out a victory, taking just 51 percent of the 67,000 votes cast. And the spread of the results was telling—Schumpert bested Kessel handily among city residents, but in the county areas, where the feuds with Ashe were viewed more favorably, Kessel had the upper hand by nearly 4,000 votes.

The question for Schumpert (and, presumably, Ragsdale) as the next election approaches is how much of that support he'll hang onto. As one political observer asks, "Tommy Schumpert was elected by Republicans mad at Dwight Kessel. Are those Republicans now going to go back to the Republican [ticket]?"

A Quiet Approach

A recent poll gives the outlines of an answer. Conducted by University of Tennessee political science professors Bill Lyons and John Scheb (who run a political consulting firm called Decision Resources), it showed Schumpert with 41.5 percent of support from 294 Knox Countians surveyed, and Ragsdale with 36.7 percent (with an error margin of plus or minus 5 percent).

Lyons concedes such a survey, taken before Ragsdale has even announced and months before the onslaught of TV ads and yard signs, is of limited significance. But for an incumbent, such a slim margin so early isn't good news. And the poll identified Schumpert as a Democrat and Ragsdale as a Republican, which almost certainly hurt Schumpert among those unfamiliar with either candidate.

"You can't begin to make any inference about any outcome from this," Lyons says. "[But] it tells you a couple of things, which can be pretty important. Number one, despite the popularity of Tommy Schumpert, a well-known Republican could challenge him."

Two other facts are pertinent, Lyons says. "There are a reasonable number of people, more than you would expect, who don't have any opinion of [Schumpert]." On the other hand, "Those that do seem to be generally positive...We've never found very many negatives."

Schumpert's supporters attribute the lack of strong opinions to the executive's deliberately low profile. The only major county officeholder without a full-time public relations staffer, Schumpert is less prone to ribbon-cutting photo opportunities than, say, the media-savvy Ashe.

"He's not a flashy leader," says 2nd District Commissioner Madeline Rogero, a Democrat who considered running for executive herself in 1994. "He's not necessarily great with the PR and the media. He's just kind of the quiet guy, and he's got good staff around him, and he kind of plugs away and plugs away and plugs away, and he doesn't bring a lot of attention to himself."

"It's just my style, I guess," Schumpert says. Legs crossed and arms folded in his lap, he exudes a kind of genial discomfort at talking about himself. "I try to make what I think are good decisions and good recommendations and try to build a consensus. And it may mean you end up giving a little bit, but you give if you think it's not going to really alter your main purpose."

One of the executive's stumbling blocks to greater public visibility is his self-confessed lack of eloquence. He speaks slowly, drawing words out into extra syllables, as if he wants to consult with each one before letting it go. When he says "plan"—which is often—it comes out "play-un" (although one supporter notes he has learned to say "fiscal" instead of "physical"). It's a characteristic that lends itself to easy parody, as in a "Forrest Schump" skit at the local media variety show Front Page Follies a few years ago. But to the extent that it creates a sense of Schumpert as a good-natured plodder, admirers say it's also misleading. As proof, they point to his record.

Among the accomplishments they list are: getting a 25-cent property tax rate increase passed by commission in 1995, which funded the county's ambitious capital plan; keeping a tight rein on county budgets (there have been no tax increases the past two years); pushing an anti-annexation bill at least partway through the state Legislature (see sidebar); and putting his campaign watchword—planning—into action.

"I think on the money side, the tax side, it's been an excellent job," says Commissioner Mark Cawood, a conservative Karns Democrat. "Tax rates have been kept low...On that, I'd have to give him an A."

Rogero gives Schumpert credit for "standing his ground" during the justice center debate, insisting on a 20-year plan for the center even though it was a hard sell politically. "He didn't take the easy way out and figure he'd be out of here in eight or 12 years and let somebody else worry about this in 20 years," she says. "This is coming right up on his re-election. It would have been so simple to pull back on the long-range plan."

That points to another plus for Schumpert advocates—his essentially nonpolitical nature. They note he kept most of Kessel's top officers—well-respected staffers like finance director Kathy Hamilton and solid waste manager John Evans—passing up the political perk of handing out plum jobs to friends and supporters. And they say his support of unification came despite its possible political costs to him (if it had passed, Schumpert might have been tossed into a dicey three-way race for "county mayor" with Ashe and Sheriff Tim Hutchison).

Schumpert's cautious in receiving such compliments—in part, probably, because the "nice" label has been a double-edged sword, a code word among his doubters for "not tough enough." He's careful to point out he's done some things—like eliminating his community services department, laying off 10 employees—that don't conform to the mold.

"That's not easy," he says. "People would not say that's the nice guy. But as we studied that and looked at it, that was the best way for us to deliver a service and be more efficient."

Trouble Spots

Schumpert supporters say he's well-situated for re-election. "It's hard to beat an incumbent, and I think Tommy's going to be hard to beat," says County Commissioner Pat Medley, a West Knoxville Republican who praises Schumpert's nonpartisanship. "I don't care if it's Mike Ragsdale or...well, Pat Head Summit could probably beat him, but I don't think she's interested."

Others aren't so sure. Many of Medley's fellow Republicans see Schumpert's support—especially among traditional GOP voters—as soft. They think, given a choice, Republicans will vote their party line. Opines Leo Cooper, a GOP commissioner from North Knox County, "I think if a real strong Republican candidate were to come into vogue and run a good race, Tommy would be in the race of his life."

That's what Ragsdale will be banking on if he decides to run. The two-term commissioner has already announced he won't run again for his West Knox County commission seat. Popular in his district, Ragsdale is well-regarded by many of his Republican colleagues, who tout the range of his appeal, from country-club GOP circles to Christian conservatives to the important young-voter demographic.

"I believe that if Mike Ragsdale ran, even Ragsdale would be shocked at the amount of Republicans and young people supporting him," 8th District Commissioner John Mills says enthusiastically. "I think he has a good business mind, and I think he could bring leadership."

In his months of indecision about running, Ragsdale has been careful not to criticize Schumpert and says he has "a good working relationship" with the county executive.

"I make it a practice not to critique the work of other elected officials, either positively or negatively," he says, speaking carefully. "I think our community has made some strides, but there's some way to go."

At the same time, he says he's had conversations with Schumpert sympathizers who say they're willing to back him.

"I think if I were to become a candidate for county executive, you would see many of those people support a Mike Ragsdale candidacy," he says. "It's fair to say people have talked to me about that possibility."

Among the prominent likely backers is reportedly Hutchison, with whom Schumpert has had a cordial but sometimes strained relationship. Although the two have had only a few skirmishes—most notably over the legality of Hutchison building a training facility with anti-drug enforcement money—many commissioners sense underlying antipathy. "There's definitely some tension there," one says.

The politically potent Hutchison declines to comment, but his support would mean a lot (although more so in the areas where Schumpert is already weak).

Not all Schumpert skeptics are so reserved. For most of the executive's term, his loudest critic has been Commissioner Scott Davis, a young Republican from West Knoxville (and close ally of Ragsdale) who is uncompromisingly harsh in his views of county leadership.

"It's frustrating," Davis says. "Right now Knox County is a ship lost out at sea in a violent storm, and the captain's fallen overboard. And the captain's Tommy Schumpert."

Some commissioners say Davis has stepped up his attacks this year on Ragsdale's behalf, allowing Ragsdale to sit by and play the diplomat. It's an accusation both men dismiss, Davis calling it "expected political rhetoric."

Davis sees Schumpert as a life-long bureaucrat who doesn't understand the workings of the business world (a favorite conservative mantra about government), a weakness he says shows up most markedly in industrial recruitment and retention. Noting layoffs at Philips Magnavox and Levi's, and the choice of companies like Clayton Homes and Ruby Tuesday to locate their headquarters in Blount County rather than Knox, he says Schumpert has failed to be a visible force for the county.

"His phone doesn't have buttons on it," he says. "It rings, but he can't dial out. We are a responsive government, not a progressive government. We respond to crisis; we do not avert crisis."

It's a theme that crops up in conversations with several Republican commissioners, suggesting it could be a major issue in the 1998 election.

But Baxter, who's about to assume direction of economic development for the entire state, says it's a hard case to make. "I think it's very unfair to blame a county executive or a mayor or someone else for the Levi's situation," he says. "I think there's precious little they can do to reverse those kinds of decisions."

On the other hand, Baxter's exactly the kind of Chamber of Commerce insider Davis accuses of having installed Schumpert in the first place.

"The powers that be, the old Knoxville power establishment, absolutely love someone like Tommy because he is the perfect puppet," Davis says. "They couldn't control Dwight; they completely control Tommy. If he got a call from [them] that said, 'Mr. Schumpert, I want you to go down to the fourth-floor balcony of the City County Building and jump into the river,' he would say, 'What time do you want me to do it?'"

There are other naysayers. Commissioner Diane Jordan, a Democrat who represents an inner-city Knoxville district, is unimpressed with Schumpert's commitment to minorities.

"He has no African American directors or anything," she says "He's not been considerate in even asking for any board selections from my community...My community went out and voted largely for Mr. Schumpert, and they've not been represented."

And Mills and his fellow 8th District Commissioner Mike McMillan say East Knox County residents still bear a grudge about the executive's failure to name someone from that area to the Charter Commission that drew up the unified government proposal.

"I would think that if a strong Republican candidate was on the ballot, there would be a fair amount of support out here for them," McMillan says.

Ready to Run?

For the moment, it appears Schumpert can count on maintaining a good portion of his GOP establishment support. Businessman/civic leader Sam Furrow says he didn't know Schumpert was a Democrat and doesn't care. "I don't think he's done anything to gain disfavor," Furrow says. "Subject to Superman coming along that would have obviously better credentials, I don't think that's a burden he has to deal with."

Baxter says he's already made a contribution to Schumpert's re-election bid. He's also dismissive of the significance of party affiliation, noting, "The infrastructure of both parties is weaker now than it has been at any point in my lifetime."

Schumpert says he's already raised some $80,000-plus for next year's campaign (his '94 bid cost in the area of $160,000). But there are other unknowns for him. He can't take for granted the grassroots school system support he had in his '94 campaign. Teachers were unhappy with skimpy raises in the 1997-98 county budget, especially after making a detailed four-year salary proposal to Schumpert in the spring.

"During those meetings, Mr. Schumpert appeared to support our four-year rolling salary plan," says Karen Peterman, president of the Knox County Education Association. "But when the school budget was sent to County Commission, he had cut $5 million from it, and that flew in the face of his apparent support [for teacher raises]."

Peterman says KCEA won't make endorsements until interviewing all candidates next year, but she says the organization plans on being "very active" in the elections.

Ragsdale faces some trials of his own. If he runs, Schumpert supporters promise to resurrect the issue of his job as an executive at powerhouse architecture firm Barber & McMurry. Since the firm does a lot of business with the county, Ragsdale has had to recuse himself on several major votes, including all of those on the justice center. Although Ragsdale insists it's a nonissue—"I think everybody and their brother's looked at it, and I think everybody's concluded it's not a conflict"—the prospect of more discussion of it can't be appealing to his government-dependent employer. His boss, Robert Parrott, has said publicly he looks forward to Ragsdale leaving County Commission.

Ragsdale may also have a hard time drawing a clear line between himself and Schumpert, since he has publicly opposed the executive on few issues. Still, as Lyons' poll suggests, it might be enough for him to simply be a Republican.

If Schumpert's party affiliation is his biggest liability, it's worth wondering why this least political of politicians adheres to it. But he has his reasons, and they're typically, well, Schumpertesque. They suggest that if he loses next year, it may well be for the same reasons he was elected in the first place.

"My father was with TVA. He came from Mississippi," Schumpert says. "He was working at Watts Bar then and he came on to Knoxville. Coming from Mississippi, my dad's a Democrat, and I just came from that background. Never was that political in a party thing...Some people talked about [changing parties] a little bit, but I did not consider myself a big political party person either way. If anything, I was brought up as a Democrat, so I felt like I would run and do what I could."