Is outspoken County Commissioner Scott Davis really the jerk his political enemies say he is?n

by Betty Bean

There's something about Scott Davis that makes people mad—makes them tell stories like the one about secret tape recordings unmasking him as a potty-mouthed hothead, about his real estate dealings, about fallings-out with powerful pols.

There's something about this good-looking, well-dressed, well-educated, articulate, youngest member of County Commission elected four years ago with the blessing of most everybody who is anybody that just flat pisses some people off. Especially now that Davis has decided to run for county executive against notoriously nice incumbent Tommy Schumpert, who is standing for re-election with the blessing of the aforementioned everybody who is anybody. The same bunch that used to like Scott Davis.

How does Davis account for this fall from grace? Does it bother him?

"No," he says. "I just didn't turn out to be who they thought I'd be."

So who are "they," and just what did they think he'd be?

"Knoxville is controlled by a powerful few. I call them the Lucky Sperm Club. Well, I'm not a member of the Lucky Sperm Club, and I'm not beholden to anyone," says Davis, who sports a Sigma Chi ring but says his parents, Brandt and Jean Davis, made significant sacrifices to send him to Webb and that he hasn't taken a dime from them since he enrolled at UT at the age of 18 (he is 34 now).

"If you want somebody who's sitting around the country club with the Lucky Sperm Club, you should be for somebody else. The power base loves a weak leader, because they can control a weak leader. I have a passionate desire to break the chains of power that have held this town back. I want to do what's best for Knox County—not just a powerful few."

Davis, an intense, dark-haired man who once gathered his papers and stalked out of a committee meeting after denouncing his gabby colleagues for wasting his time, has worked as an investment counselor, in marketing for Whittle Communications, and is involved in West Knoxville real estate investing. He is married, and he and his wife, Hope, have three daughters: Meghan, Sarah, and Anna. Is he really the villain many portray him as?

Attempts to run some of the major rumors to ground were made difficult because the Davis-haters mostly aren't talking. Not to reporters, anyway. The alleged holder of a secret tape recording, for example, did not return telephone calls, and it was Davis himself who confirmed the existence of the tape. The major players said to be mad at Davis over his involvement in a controversial Northshore Drive rezoning deal did not respond to a telephone call nor to messages delivered through intermediaries. Raking for muck turned into snatching at vapors except for a story about one powerful pol: John King, a heavy-hitting Republican and perhaps the most successful of the several well-connected lawyers who regularly represent clients before County Commission.

King, who accessorizes his custom-made suits with cowboy boots, is the kind of professional who knows that today's bitter opponent is tomorrow's potential ally. He knows he can't afford the luxury of staying mad, but he is said to make an exception to his no-grudges policy in the case of Davis.

King would not confirm reports that he and Davis have been feuding ever since Davis called him a liar and refused to shake his hand last year. But informed sources say Davis, who had in 1996 bought a piece of property on Northshore Drive and optioned it to a developer who was not to the liking of the neighborhood, publicly refused to shake King's hand and called him a liar after he learned that King was advising the neighbors who were opposing the project. King had initially refused to take the case because he was recuperating from a recent surgery, and had informed Davis that he would not be involved. Later, he was persuaded to change his mind and agreed to advise the neighbors regarding zoning ordinances.

Davis admits that he blew up when he learned that King had reconsidered his involvement and admits he continued to behave badly for some time afterward.

"I was an ass. There's no question about it," he says. "I'm an extremely competitive person, and John beat me. He won. Unfortunately, I'm not a gracious loser. Show me a gracious loser, and I'll show you a loser."

King, who says he makes it a policy not to get involved in County Commission races, refuses to comment beyond conceding that he has offered a measure of encouragement to Phil Guthe, who signed up to run against Davis for re-election (this before Davis decided to run for county executive instead).

"I told Phil—at a time when there was considerable animosity being directed toward me by Davis—'That's fine; I don't have a friend in that race...' Having told him that, I don't see how I could back up on it," King says. "Any difficulties there may have been between Commissioner Davis and me are in the past, as far as I'm concerned."

Davis agrees: "John and I have kissed and made up."

As for his involvement in land deals like the one on Northshore, Davis is utterly unapologetic.

"I was accused of using my influence with County Commission and MPC to get zoning. That is 100 percent false. Number one, I didn't apply for the zoning. Number two, the density being requested was lower than the property across the street and adjacent. Number three, that's what I do for a living.

"We are part-time legislators. What I do to feed my family may at times conflict with what I do on County Commission, but I never, ever lobbied anyone on County Commission or the Metropolitan Planning Commission."

Davis says he has hewn to the county's conflict-of-interest and recusal guidelines and stayed in contact with the county law director to make sure he was on the right side of the rules.

County law director Richard Beeler confirms that contention.

"I don't know of any occasion when Commissioner Davis has violated the legal requirements of the charter," he says.

As for the phantom tape recording, Davis says he has heard about it and admits that he "said horrible things" to the developer. And he says he'd say them again to the man who allegedly went back on a promise to build no more than six or seven houses on seven acres of land in Davis' parents' West Knoxville neighborhood.

"The gentleman asked for my help, and my mother, her neighbors—the people I grew up with—started raising cain. I told them that development was consistent with the neighborhood and told my mother if she wasn't willing to buy the property she should keep her mouth shut. I went to bat for this guy against my own mother..."

Soon thereafter, Davis says he soon started getting calls from the neighborhood about an alarming development.

"They'd say 'Those one acre lots? Why is he laying out 55-foot lots?' He did, like, 12 of them..."

Davis called the developer, who informed him that he had discovered an old, pre-MPC zoning designation allowing trailer park lots, and that all previous promises were officially off. Davis says he was shocked.

"I hit the roof. I probably used very few publicly usable words to him. And I would still say horrible things to him."

Common wisdom was Davis enjoyed the support of Mayor Victor Ashe when he was elected four years ago to the 4th District Commission seat being vacated by Ashe aide Joe May. This is Ashe's home district, and he has traditionally taken considerable interest in these races.

"I was tagged as Victor's boy," Davis acknowledges. "I was running for office for the first time, and I needed all the friends I could get. I believe I've shaken that perception [of "belonging" to Ashe]..."

He led the charge to secure an appointment as General Sessions Court judge for Tony Stansberry (a candidate favored by political bosses Bobby Toole and Richard and Lillian Bean, among others) and acknowledges that his zealous participation in the process created an impression that he was not just Ashe's "boy."

"I supported Tony because his wife is a friend. She and I grew up together. I haven't seen or spoken to Bobby Toole in 3 years. I'm independent..."

He knows that his friendship with former colleague Rudy Dirl raised some eyebrows, particularly after Dirl pleaded guilty to federal drug charges.

"Rudy is a friend. I'll never deny that. He will always be my friend. Friendship isn't broken because somebody made a mistake."

(It must be acknowledged that Davis cannot be singled out on this score. Dirl, an easygoing, likable guy, enjoys the friendship of many—some of whom are in public office, some of whom are not).

So here is this guy Davis in 1998. Running unopposed for the Republican nomination to Knox County's highest office. In August, he will go against an avuncular Democrat almost twice his age who is embraced by all the former Friends of Scott.


"Because I care passionately about the direction we're headed in. Because I want to change the way this county is run. Tommy [Schumpert] is a wonderfully nice man, but 'nice' isn't always productive. I'm in a no-lose situation. If I don't get elected, I'll go back to making money; but the most painful experience any adult can endure is regret. And this way, I'll go to my grave knowing I tried."