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  See How They Run

With five City Council seats up for grabs, candidates are gearing up for a long summer on the stump. Who will emerge from the pack? And how much difference will it make?

by Joe Sullivan

Maneuvers are commencing for the most sweeping changes of the guard on City Council in Knoxville's history (or at least in anyone's memory). Five of the nine seats on Council will change hands in this fall's city elections, primarily due to term limits that are forcing long-time Council members to take their leave.

More than 20 candidates are already starting to campaign for the five seats that will comprise a new majority on Council, and others may join the fray prior to the June 21 qualifying deadline.

They will initially square off in five separate district primaries on Sept. 25. The top two finishers in each district contest will then run city-wide against each other in the Nov. 6 general election.

The overriding question is whether the new guard will be much different than the old—and if so in what respects. Subsumed within this question are several others:

Will Mayor Victor Ashe continue to be able to mold majorities on most matters the way he has been up to now, or is he more likely to be challenged?

Will anyone emerge to assume the role of watchdog that maverick Councilwoman Carlene Malone has performed so diligently over the past decade?

Will developers or homeowner associations gain any edge in their unending tugs of war over zoning issues?

Will downtown redevelopment efforts gain or lose support, especially when it comes to putting big bucks behind them that could beget higher taxes?
The Generation Gap
Who votes and who doesn't makes a big difference
A big factor in city elections is the size and composition of the voter turnout. In 1999's mayoral elections, only 17,319 of the city's approximately 104,000 registered voters went to the polls. But even that was more than double the turnout in 1997's City Council election, when there was a serious contest for only one of the five seats that are being contested this year. In 1995, the last time there was real competition for several Council seats, a total of 12,482 votes were cast. While it's anybody's guess, this year's turnout appears likely to at least equal and probably exceed that total.
What's just as remarkable as the number of people who don't vote is the age of those who do. While they only represent about one-quarter of those registered, voters 60 and older accounted for almost one-half of the ballots cast in the 1999 mayoral election. Conversely, voters under 40, who represent 43 percent of those registered, only accounted for 16 percent of the votes cast. To say the obvious, these demographics have a lot of bearing on how candidates orient these campaigns.
The table below, which shows a breakout of registered and actual voters by age bracket in the 1999 mayor election, was prepared for Metro Pulse by William Lyons, UT professor of political science:
Age% of Registered Voters% of Actual Voters

The answers to these questions obviously depend to some extent on election outcomes. But while predictions are hazardous at this early stage, enough seems clear about the front-runners in most races to suggest that the extent of any change is likely to be small.

None of the front runners is overtly critical of Ashe or his administration. While the newcomers can be expected to ask more questions and venture more views than long-time predecessors who often seemed to operate by rote, no new agendas are emerging.

When it comes to getting his way, moreover, the mayor has a big leg up in that three of the four Council members who will remain in office until 2003 are Ashe loyalists. Malone, who along with carryover Councilman Nick Pavlis has been one of only two frequent dissenters, predicts that Ashe will be able to deal effectively with the newcomers.

"Victor is very flexible and very capable of meeting members of Council in their comfort level," Malone opines. "If Council has a different personality, Victor will be able to deal with that effectively."

Perhaps the biggest difference will be absence of Malone. No newcomer will be able to match her prodigious knowledge of city ordinances and standard operating procedure, nor her prowess at probing for shenanigans. The candidate who, by background and temperament, would appear to come closest to filling these shoes over time is Barbara Pelot. If she wins her hotly-contested race to succeed Jean Teague to Council's Second District seat, Pelot would also become the clearest successor to Malone and Teague's shared role as champions of homeowner interests. And she could turn out to be Council's only female member.

Lawyers are also very good at asking questions (some would say excessively so). And for the first time since 1971, Council may have a lawyer in its ranks—indeed, it could have two. The apparent front runners in both the Fourth and Sixth districts, Rob Frost and Mark Brown respectively, are both attorneys with reputations for taking cognizance of all facets of an issue.

Malone believes that fresh blood and viewpoints will be rejuvenating and bring higher expectations to a legislative body that she contends has grown stale with longevity. (All but one of the five outgoing members has served at least 10 years.) "Even a small difference in the way people approach problems and in their expectations can make a big difference in what gets accomplished," she contends.

Ashe, for his part, ventures that, "I don't foresee any great policy changes occurring, but the first year will be a steep learning curve. None of them have ever dealt with a city budget, and they've never dealt with conflicting pressures from supporters. Until you've dealt with that three or four times, you don't appreciate how difficult it can be."

In addition to Malone, who's 56, and the sixty-something Teague, the Council members who will be replaced are 43-year-old Gary Underwood, the Third District's Ivan Harmon and septuagenarian Raleigh Wynn, who's filling out the balance of the term of the late Danny Mayfield. Except in the case of Malone and Underwood, their most probable successors promise to be both younger and smarter. While Malone will be a hard act to follow, two worthy candidates are seeking her seat. Only in the South Knoxville (plus Fort Sanders and UT campus) district represented for the past 12 years by Underwood do the succession prospects look less promising.

The district-by-district assessment of the five contests that follows goes out on a limb in assessing the prospects of candidates when the races have scarcely begun. A long, hot summer of campaigning could certainly change the morning line in a milieu where a dogged door-to-door campaign on the part of a relatively unknown candidate can sometimes overcome long odds. But as of now, the front runners, dark horses and long shots in each of the non-partisan (i.e. no party label) September district primaries appear to be as follows. Remember that under Knoxville's unique electoral system, the top two finishers in each district will then square off against each other in city-wide contests to be decided in November.

May 31, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 22
© 2001 Metro Pulse