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Lucky Sperm Club Elections

For a time, it looked like Democrat County Executive Tommy Schumpert would be unopposed for re-election. His prospective Republican opponent from central casting, outgoing County Commissioner Mike Ragsdale, opted out in order to keep his more secure and more remunerative role as chief administrator for architects Barber & McMurry. With fat cat Republican financiers solidly behind Schumpert, it didn't appear that anyone else could even mount a respectable money campaign.

But what about an unrespectable one? Along came a GOP renegade named Scott Davis who decided he could make mutated political hay against Schumpert by attacking his own party's fat cat stalwarts. He labeled them the "lucky sperm club" and portrayed Schumpert as putty in their hands. This brand of populism was calculated to marshal the same sort of bubba coalition that had routed the establishment forces in 1996's vote against consolidation of city and county governments.

But it wasn't just the big wigs who thought Davis resembled the "bad seed." His dubious business ethics, foul mouth, and hot headed style, not to mention his dearth of experience running anything, turned off a lot of voters of all stripes. In the end, they played it safe and returned the stolid Schumpert to office for a second term by a 60-40 margin.

A Few Upsets

In what some saw as the major upset of the political season, newcomer Cathy Quist upended 18-year incumbent Lillian Bean, who had built a political patronage machine on the strength of her Circuit, General Sessions, and Juvenile Court offices. Fueled by revenue from Big Lil's patented Bean Suppers and good will generated by her "I've been reading about you" greeting cards, the Bean Machine picked judges and cut deals to decide who was in and who was out. Quist won by a landslide.

Attorney General Randy Nichols' campaign got an assist from his opponent, Republican Jimmy Kyle Davis, when the victim of a rape Davis had highlighted in a TV commercial deploring Nichols' "soft on crime" attitude came forward and denounced Davis. The Davis campaign was a one-legged stool built on the issue of plea-bargaining and never really took hold. The last days of the Davis campaign, with the rape victim blasting him all over town, were not pretty.

Republican Jamie Hagood triumphed handily over Democrat Robert Bratton in a south/west showdown over the 17th District House seat. South Knox County Commissioner Bratton, known as a campaign machine, was on the defensive most of the summer and was unable to overcome the avalanche of greenbacks the young Hagood dumped into the race, which surely became one of the most costly in the state. Hagood is known as a Friend of Don (Sundquist).

Loopy Low Tax Looper

Knox County's three state senators—good Republicans all—got into a bit of hot water with the state party at the funeral of their late Senate colleague Tommy Burks, who was murdered in his pumpkin patch in October. Senators Ben Atchley, Bud Gilbert, and Randy McNally announced that they would support the candidacy of Burks' widow, Charlotte Burks, who had decided to wage a write-in campaign for her husband's seat. Her opponent was Republican Byron (Low Tax) Looper. Gilbert's graceful "I'll stand wherever Charlotte Burks wants me to stand" statement played well everywhere but in state GOP headquarters and the Governor's Residence, which issued churlish declarations of party loyalty. When Looper was charged with Burks' murder, the GOP brass changed their tune, and said they were for Charlotte too.

Noisy Ordinance

After way too much noise about noise, Knoxville City Council finally amended a decades-old city ordinance that, among other things, outlawed the use of outdoor amplified music at commercial establishments.

The ruckus began almost two years ago when several Old City and Cumberland Avenue nightspots began plying customers with outdoor music (on the patio, natch) during warmer spring and summer months. The music prompted a few complaints from residents of the aforementioned areas, touching off an ongoing debate as to whether or not the city truly wants to encourage loud, vital nightlife.

After more studies and research committees than we could possibly remember, council finally approved an amended ordinance on Oct. 16. The new ordinance sets decibel limits, permitting up to 65 db's from 7 p.m. to midnight and 60 from midnight to 7 a.m. in residential areas. The commercial limits allow up to 80 during the day, and no more than 75 from midnight to 7. Although club owners grouse that the limits will put a damper on business, the retooled ordinance does allow outdoor music, which was technically illegal according to the old law.

And They Call It the Superchamber

After consolidation of city and county governments got resoundingly rejected in a 1996 referendum, business oligarchs who'd promoted it turned their attention to merging the community's economic booster groups instead. After all, "speaking with a single voice" on economic development issues had been a major theme of the abortive consolidation campaign.

With a lot of arm twisting, the oligarchs managed to bring the Greater Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Organization and the Central Business Improvement District under one roof. They also cut a deal with the Knox County Tourist Commission whereby its director would report to the head of the new entity that was christened the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership. Then there were "strategic alliances" with the Knox County Development Corp., which specializes in industrial parks, and the Knoxville Sports Corp., which has been singularly successful in attracting a host of sporting events to Knoxville.

A nationwide search for an 800-pound gorilla to head this Superchamber, as it got labeled, came to the conclusion that the best guy for the job had been right here in Knoxville all along. Hence the selection of Tom Ingram, political operative par excellence and sometime entrepreneur, to the $200,000-a-year post.

The oligarchs allowed the Superchamber to have some democratic trappings in the form of an elected board of directors. But because they had ponied up a bunch of money to cover its overhead, they decided that a self-perpetuating Major Issues Committee was needed to call the tune on "big picture stuff." The committee, which came to be known as "the 12 white guys" actually seldom met, but it created an aura of exclusivity and paternalism that ran counter to Ingram's efforts to portray the new entity as being inclusive and participative.

Ingram also faced daunting challenges in trying to mesh its component parts. Under the "strategic alliance" with the Development Corp., one of the strategies of its executive director, Melissa Ziegler, was to let Ingram's phone calls go unreturned. The pugnacious president of the Sports Corp., Gloria Ray, spurned Ingram's attempts to get her office moved into the Superchamber's headquarters in the building that was originally the Deaf and Dumb Asylum on Henley Street. Then highly-regarded director of tourism Mike Wilds quit—a victim of too many bosses syndrome as he got caught between Ingram and the Tourist Commission that is still the source of tourism funding.

Damage control commenced in earnest this fall with decisions to: (1) disband the Major Issues Committee; (2) reconstitute the board of directors with more diversity; and (3) have the tourism director's reporting lines revert to the Tourist Commission in order to clear the way for attracting a successor to Wilds via another nationwide search.

Ingram's watchwords from the get go have been to "Get the talk right." But in order to succeed he's got to get more people listening. Perhaps as an attention getter, he's threatened to quit on more than one occasion, and unless more heed is paid to him he may just carry through.

County Rogues' Gallery

Just how much Tommy Schumpert accomplishes in his second term will depend in part on whether he's really energized to accomplish very much. But even assuming that he is, his ability to do so will depend all the more so on the concurrence of that most obdurate of legislative bodies, County Commission.

The 1998 elections brought six new faces to that 19-headed rogues' gallery. Taken collectively, the newcomers don't figure to change the commission's complexion very much on fiscal issues. But the male successors to two retired female champions of residential interests (Bee DeSelm and Madeline Rogero) do figure to swing the pendulum more in favor of developers in their endless battles with homeowners. And Sheriff Tim Hutchison appears to have gained even more sway over the county's executive branch on law enforcement issues—to the point that he's almost a law unto himself.

What's seemingly changed most of all in the wake of the election, though, is the assumption of a more proactive posture on the part of commission's dominant faction that makes it more prone to challenge Schumpert's authority and even to resemble a shadow government. In a setting where bedfellows can quickly shift from strange to stranger and party lines count for a lot less than geographic ones, this dominant faction is by no means monolithic. But it's making itself felt in a variety of ways.

First came the changing of the guard in the commission chairmanship. The fiscally progressive but ever-so-even-handed John Griess was replaced by the fiscally conservative and often imperious Leo Cooper. Then came the appointment, by an almost identical 13-5 vote, of that maitre'd of the care and feeding of commissioners, Ray Hill, to a newly-created post as its executive director. In November, the commission surprised Schumpert by setting up a committee of its own to take the lead in shaping how the county should proceed under the state's complex new urban planning law—a role that the county executive had envisioned for himself. And when it comes to collaboration between the city and the county on financing a new convention center, the News-Sentinel recently reported that Mayor Victor Ashe has been discussing the matter with Cooper. The new commission chairman has even taken the lead in venturing that the county will need a property tax increase next year, an especially bold step for someone who has opposed as many tax increases as Cooper has. But his views about how much is needed and those of a historic champion of school strengthening like Schumpert are almost certain to clash. Given the present lay of the land, it's not too difficult to figure whose view will prevail. At least, with Hill aligning the political chairs and tables on Cooper's behalf, there may be more cohesiveness on commission as contrasted with the chaos that has characterized budgetary deliberations in years past. But the wheels won't turn progressively.

Billboards Galore

Some of the weirdest machinations of the year arose from two billboards near the I-40/Pellissippi Parkway junction in West Knoxville. A board that had long since been designated only for on-premises advertising was miraculously opened for outside business when departing city development director Susan Brown made a last-minute decision to approve it (despite previous votes against it by City Council and the Board of Zoning Appeals). That prompted a foofaraw, eventually resulting in Brown's successor, Doug Berry, reversing her decision. But in the meantime, Douglas Advertising had rented the space out to Hampton Inn in a multi-year deal and effectively told the city, "Take us to court." The city, apparently, plans to do so (as soon as it gets done wrangling with a porno video store on Papermill Road.)

Meanwhile, another billboard—this one on the property of civic leader/heavy hitter Sam Furrow's Knoxville Motor Company—also provoked complaints about noncompliance with rules regarding outdoor advertising. Furrow, in a snit, said he'd only allowed his property to be annexed into the city on the condition that he could keep his billboard. Berry, despite howls of protest from those not enamored with roadside advertising, ruled the sign was indeed okay. The major concern in all of it is that allowing either board could open up the entire parkway—officially designated a "scenic highway"—to big fat signage. Billboard proponents used the somewhat circular logic that the Pellissippi Parkway isn't really "scenic" near the I-40 interchange—you know, because of all those billboards.