Mayor Victor Ashe gets around—the state, the country, the world. What does his jet-setting mean for the city he supervises?

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

It was the last skit of the evening at the 1998 Front Page Follies, the annual media satire show hosted by the East Tennessee chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The crowd—an unholy mix of politicos, public relations executives, corporate media people, and a smattering of actual reporters, editors, and news directors—was, as usual, antsy for the evening to end.

The final spoof opened with assorted actors in the roles of Mayor Victor Ashe, Deputy Mayor Gene Patterson, and city special events coordinator Sue Clancy. "Congratulations, Mr. Mayor," the would-be Patterson boomed. "Your record of accomplishment is the envy of mayors everywhere."

"Yes," Clancy chimed in. "Thanks to your dedicated globe-trotting, Knoxville holds the record for international sister cities." This was accompanied by a slide of a world map speckled with orange dots. Surveying it, Ashe climbed atop a chair and (imitating Leonardo DiCaprio) proclaimed, "Whoooeeee! I'm the King of the World!"

Toward the end of the skit, the players were joined by a fourth actor who rushed on-stage in the persona of then-State Sen. Bud Gilbert. "Victor," he said, "I'm glad I caught you in town."

The skit got decent laughs, particularly because the real Gilbert—who was then considering a run against Ashe in this year's mayoral race—happened to be in the audience. But it was most notable because it was the closest anyone has come to publicly talking about a mayoral trait well-known to anyone who keeps an eye on Knoxville city government: Victor Ashe likes to travel.

Although he claims to keep no formal record of his trips, in 1998 alone Ashe made a host of voyages, both domestically and abroad. Among the countries he visited were Brazil, Italy, India, Japan, Greece, and the U.K. Some were on business, some were personal vacation, some were a hybrid. The mayor hardly makes a secret of his nomadic ways. But as he prepares to run for a fourth and final term, Ashe is cautious in what he says about his roamings.

The talk has been there for some time. Ashe—who likes to call himself the most accessible mayor in Knoxville history and who is certainly the most visible politician in the city in terms of public appearances—professes surprise that it would be a subject of conversation. But the people who talk about politics in Knoxville agree, albeit strictly in an off-the-record way, that it could be a vulnerability. The words "absentee mayor" get thrown around. More broadly, Ashe's frequent flying raises questions about just how much, after 11 years and hundreds of City Council meetings, the mayor really likes being mayor.

There's no good gauge of exactly how much out-of-town travel is the right amount for a public official. In last year's county executive race, challenger Scott Davis criticized incumbent Tommy Schumpert for not traveling enough to recruit new business and industry.

"I don't think there's any way of getting a cookie-cutter answer," says Randy Arndt, spokesman for the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C. "The travel activity of public officials should be part of the public record and that should be open to public accountability...But to say how much [travel is appropriate], that's the test of saying, well, what are you trying to accomplish."

All cities are different and all mayors are different, so comparisons are hard to make. But as a point of interest, Metro Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen—who oversees a municipality with three times the population of Knoxville—rarely uses his passport.

"He's only taken one trip overseas in an official capacity in the seven-plus years he's been mayor," Nashville public information officer Mark Drury says of his boss. "And that was when American Airlines launched an inaugural flight, a direct flight from Nashville to London. Mayor Bredesen took that flight, and he paid for his own seat on it."

Asked about sister cities, Drury says Nashville does have a couple. But while Nashville delegations visit them from time to time, Bredesen doesn't join them.

Ashe, on the other hand, has shaken hands and broken bread with politicians and businessmen across several continents. He offers two explanations for his wanderlust. The first is that it's part of the job.

"Basically, travel for the city is to promote the city in some way," he says. That includes trips to Nashville or Washington, D.C. to lobby for state or federal funds, as well as his many trips as a member and one-time president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The second reason is that he simply likes globe-trotting. He took overseas trips with his parents as a boy, and he developed a taste for cultural adventure that never subsided. (His mother, Martha, is still an inveterate and enthusiastic traveler.) Now, he says he's trying to pass the same experiences on to his own children. That's why he took an extra week after a trip to Knoxville's Japanese sister city last fall and took his grade-school-age son on a quick circumnavigation.

"We went around the world and we had a great time," he says. "I enjoyed showing him things like the Tower of London, Big Ben, the London Zoo, and the Taj Mahal...I think most fathers, if they had the opportunity to do a similar type of thing, they would jump at it."

So how much exactly does he travel? That's hard to say for sure. He estimates three to four weeks of person- al vacation time a year and another three to four of business trips.

Ashe's expense accounts back to mid-1997 show that he takes an official trip of some sort at least once a month. All were domestic, ranging from Key West, Fla. to Salt Lake City. But those were just the trips where the city actually paid part of the tab. (Ashe proudly and rightly says his travels cost the city very little—a total of $6,249 from July '97 to September '98.) On most of his travels, including his visits to Knoxville's sister cities in Japan, Poland, and Greece, the well-off Ashe pays his own way (on sister city trips, he also draws from his leftover campaign funds). That does save taxpayers money, but it also leaves no official account of when Ashe is in or out of town. For example, although he went to Brazil last spring for five or six days at the invitation of the United States Information Agency to give some advice to city officials there, that's not in the financial log because he paid out of pocket.

Courts have generally held that the calendars of public officials qualify as public documents and are therefore open records. Ashe, however, says he simply has no records to open.

"I don't keep a calendar," he says. "The only records I know of are what the city pays for." He acknowledges having a daily appointment calendar, but he says those records are discarded, not saved.

For his part, Ashe says even when he's out of town he's not out of touch. He calls his staff at least once a day and often more to check on city affairs. Deputy Mayor Gene Patterson, not surprisingly, backs him up.

"We are not immune from phone calls and e-mails," he says. An example: after the Vols' national championship win, Ashe called Patterson around 12:30 a.m. After an initial round of "How 'bout them Vols?", Patterson says the mayor asked for details on Cumberland Avenue revelry—was it getting out of hand, were there any problems, etc. Ashe also called police officials for a first-hand report.

"As mayor, you're mayor seven days a week," Ashe says. "I'm not complaining. ...But most people are off Saturdays and Sundays. I'm not off Saturdays and Sundays or any time an event occurs. That's just part of your job."

He also touts his willingness to return to town for official business, usually City Council meetings. By his calculations, he was at 160 of the 169 Council meetings between 1994 and 1998. (Although he was notably absent from one last July—during his trip with his son—when several major items were on the agenda: the noise ordinance, Fort Sanders development, Community Television).

Ashe seems genuinely surprised that anyone would see his intercontinental mobility as a sign of flagging interest in his office.

"My interest level today is higher than it's ever been. I think this is the most exciting time to be mayor of Knoxville," he says. "If someone is suggesting that I have lost interest in being mayor, they don't know me at all. That's wishful thinking."

As evidence, he cites his continued willingness to get up at 4:30 a.m. to appear on local TV shows; his compulsive memo-ing of his staff on matters large and small, including potholes and street signs; and his regular "Mayor's Night In" and "Mayor's Night Out" outreach programs.

He has a point, of course. The PR-hungry mayor seems as high-profile as ever, turning up at civic events, ribbon-cuttings, and photo opportunities of all stripes. And there's nothing to suggest that he travels more now than he ever has. But that won't necessarily stop critics in an election year from asking how exactly it helps Knoxville to have a mayor who's had an audience with, for example, the Pope.

Ashe, as always, has an answer. When he was president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors—a position that required a fair amount of jet-setting—he led a group that went on a week-long jaunt to Israel. "A person who was on that trip—a guy named Saul Ramirez who was the mayor of Laredo, Texas—is now the number two guy at HUD," Ashe says. "And he was one of the persons I lobbied for our empowerment zone application. It enabled me to get into to see him real quick."

HUD announced last week that Knoxville is one of just 15 cities that will receive $100 million over the next 10 years for business and neighborhood improvements. Vice President Al Gore's lobbying for the city probably made the most difference, but Ashe contends his connection to Ramirez certainly didn't hurt.

Ashe's travels may well surface as an issue if the mayor faces any real opposition this year. (With Gilbert withdrawing last week, the only person publicly mulling a run is former mayor Randy Tyree.) But it's one the incumbent says he can handle.

"To me, the valid question is, and it would be a valid question for anybody, whatever time a mayor might be out of town, does it compromise his ability to do his job?" Ashe says. "That is a valid concern...My answer is an unqualified no."