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Madeline's Song Turns to Discord

by Joe Sullivan

Two months ago, Madeline Rogero renounced negativity in her campaign for mayor against Bill Haslam. "I want people to think of me as the better of two goods. I'd rather that they say we've got two good candidates, but Madeline would be better," Rogero said.

But now, as Election Day draws nearer, Rogero is singing a different tune and eliciting a different public view of her opponent and his influential family. "People are sick and tired of being left out—of having a small group of people make all the decisions," she says. "Bill is part of that. His family is probably the most powerful family in this town, and they have done good things in this town. But they also control a lot.... And there's a real fear that this family will control too much."

Taking aim at Bill Haslam in particular, she continues, "Not only is Bill part of this most powerful family..., he's been brought into this race by the developers that have gone up against many of our neighborhood organizations, by the powerful families and big businesses in town. He's for the people who've been pulling the strings behind the scene."

In other words, Haslam is being branded as both a creature and a tool of the establishment of whom ordinary folks should be sick and tired and fearful. But fear not, Rogero is coming to their rescue. "I think I have a better sense of what the average person in this town wants," she says.

She punctuates her point by saying that "all my life here my kids have gone to the public schools and the neighborhood recreation centers, and I've been out there working with the average person." Left unsaid for the nonce is the fact that Haslam and his children are products of Webb School and that Cherokee Country Club was a social center until he forsook his membership upon launching his campaign for mayor.

Rogero also stresses that "my record is that I can work and build consensus and coalitions. I support business and economic development, but I'm not going to be beholden to them. I'm not going to be a puppet on a string."

Is this the better of two goods she spoke of not long ago?

To be sure, when Rogero renounced negativity she distinguished it from "aggressive discussions of the issues that bring out differences." One of her issues from the outset has been greater public involvement in the decision-making process. Coupled with proclamations that "too few people have been making too many decisions for too long."

Moreover, Rogero insists that her campaign will continue to be issue-driven. In gathering after gathering she hammers home a message that includes strengthened neighborhoods, downtown revitalization, more environmental protection, and transportation alternatives, as well as economic opportunity. Professional planner that she is, she ties them all together by saying, "Knoxville is like a jigsaw puzzle in which all the elements must fit."

It's a message that's well calculated to appeal to activists—be they the neighborhood traditionalists, new urbanists, environmentalists or causationists of other ilk. But it's also heady stuff whose appeal may not reach people who are not overly cerebral nor likely to attend the kinds of meetings where Rogero can reach them directly.

Opposing Haslam control of the town, by contrast, has a visceral appeal whose reach may extend more broadly. "That is a huge undercurrent in this whole campaign," Rogero says. "It's not something that I've instigated. It's something that's out there and that people are responding to. It's small-business owners. It's the average working person.... It's conservative Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike."

Indeed, Rogero would have you believe it's a groundswell strong enough to overcome the big disadvantage she faces relative to Haslam by way of campaign resources. As of a mid-June reporting date, Rogero had raised $72,000 compared to Haslam's $467,000. She won't be drawn out as to how much more she expects to raise before the Sept. 30 election except to say, "We're going to have the money we need to get our message out, and we can win because we have the message."

Unfortunately, the more that becomes a socio-economically divisive one (not to say a declaration of class warfare), the less the campaign will be focused on issues and agendas, let alone the qualities of the two candidates.

For all her recent bluster, Rogero professes to be sensitive to that. She berates the media for diverting attention from the issues by dwelling on who has more campaign money. "The focus should be on who are those two candidates, how are they different on issues and what would they do as mayor."

Let's hope Rogero concentrates on practicing what she preaches, and the media should as well.

July 10, 2003 * Vol. 13, No. 28
© 2003 Metro Pulse