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 Commissionat
the urging of County Executive Tommy Schumperthad 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 jokeit 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 dearestplanning, efficiency, balancing the booksaren'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 testthe only one who's
offered himself as a possible challengerwas 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, Schumpertand everybody
elsewill get to find out where nice guys finish when it comes to politics.
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 opponentformer state Rep.
Jimmy Kyle Daviswith massive Republican backing.
But less than 90 days before the Feb. 19 filing deadline for candidates,
Schumpertwho just barely defeated Republican incumbent Dwight Kessel
in 1994sits 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 directorsthe 19-member County Commission, which has final
say over everythingthe 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
tellingSchumpert 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 oftenit 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
"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 advocateshis essentially
nonpolitical nature. They note he kept most of Kessel's top
officerswell-respected staffers like finance director Kathy Hamilton
and solid waste manager John Evanspassing 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 complimentsin 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 thingslike eliminating his community services department, laying
off 10 employeesthat 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."
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
supportespecially among traditional GOP votersas 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 skirmishesmost notably over the legality of Hutchison
building a training facility with anti-drug enforcement moneymany
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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."