2018 Revue: A Changing of the County Guard
The turnover in county offices was expected, but some of the results were still surprising.
by jesse fox mayshark • december 26, 2018
Tim burchett delivers a victory speech in his campaign for the 2nd district congressional seat, Nov. 6, 2018.
This has been a transitional year for Knox County government. Term limits guaranteed a new slate of faces in several key offices, and those changes ended up being more dramatic than many people anticipated. As 2018 ends, here’s a look back at major events in the political landscape of Tennessee’s third-largest county.
Fresh starts in some places, familiar faces in others.
Mayor Jacobs & Sheriff Spangler
The biggest surprise of the year, in all ways, came with the Republican primary victory in May of the supersized Glenn Jacobs in the race to succeed Tim Burchett as Knox County mayor. Jacobs, a professional wrestler with no prior political experience, eked out a win in a three-way race against two sitting county commissioners, Brad Anders and Bob Thomas.
Anders had the support of business leaders and much of the Republican establishment, which was enough to propel him to a second-place finish just 23 votes behind Jacobs. Given the county’s overall Republican bent, Jacobs had an easy victory in the August general election over longtime Democratic Party activist Linda Haney.
The May primary was also the deciding vote in the race for Knox County sheriff. Term-limited incumbent Jimmy “J.J.” Jones had been picked by his predecessor, Tim Hutchison, and he attempted to pass the baton to Lee Tramel, his chief administrative deputy. But Sheriff’s Office veteran Tom Spangler ran a campaign built around improving the treatment and morale of KCSO’s employees, and was rewarded with strong grassroots support within the department that gave him an easy victory over Tramel.
Hutchison had his own comeuppance in the August elections, when he finished second to the nearly unknown Justin Lafferty in a five-way Republican primary for the 89th District state House seat. Since being ousted from the sheriff’s office by term limits (and a court order) in 2007, Hutchison -- who 20 years ago was regarded as the most powerful politician in Knox County -- has lost three Republican primary races. This year, he polled just ahead of former state Sen. Stacey Campfield, who was making his first attempt to re-enter politics since being routed in a re-election bid in 2014.
Familiar Names, New Titles
Less remarked were the changing of the guard in several of the county’s fee offices -- the independently elected administrative offices that pay for their operations with user fees and return excess revenues to the county’s general fund.
Sherry Witt, who was the first woman elected as register of deeds and was term-limited out of that position, this year became the first woman elected as Knox County clerk. Her deputy, Nick McBride, moved up to become register. Along with County Trustee Ed Shouse, who was re-elected without opposition to a second term, Witt and McBride form a courthouse Republican troika promising low-drama competence in offices that have not always boasted those traits.
They have a lot of friends. One of Shouse’s former employees, Charlie Susano, was elected as Circuit Court clerk to replace the retiring Cathy Shanks. And one of Witt and McBride’s former employees, Richie Beeler, who worked in the register’s office for 31 years, was just appointed as county commissioner for the 8th District. Beeler is completing the term of Dave Wright, who resigned from Commission after he was elected to the 19th state House District seat.
Burchett Bows Out and Moves Up
Former County Mayor Tim Burchett presented his eighth and final budget to County Commission in May, and it was more or less like the seven that preceded it: no tax increase, no big projects. Coming into office in 2010 after the scandal-tainted administration of predecessor Mike Ragsdale, Burchett had promised a no-frills agenda and he delivered.
But the drama that had occasionally engulfed Burchett while mayor -- particularly during the tumultuous year of his divorce from his ex-wife, Allison -- resurfaced during his Republican primary race to succeed U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr.
Duncan himself endorsed Burchett’s leading opponent, state Rep. Jimmy Matlock, who attacked Burchett on a number of fronts. The Knoxville News Sentinel jumped in with a series of articles alleging variously that Burchett was under federal investigation (for what was never made clear); that he had arranged a county job for his stepson; and that his finance director, Chris Caldwell, had secured a temporary job for a friend.
The federal investigation, if it exists, has yet to come to light, and the other issues didn’t prove much of an obstacle from Burchett, who responded with heartfelt videos decrying dirty-tricks campaigning. He rode his popularity in Knox County to a decisive victory in the primary, winning 58 percent of the vote in a seven-candidate field, and then took two-thirds of the vote in the general election in November. He will be sworn in on Jan. 3, 2019, as the first 2nd District representative not named Duncan in 54 years.
Only four of the 11 County Commission seats were up for election this year, and Republican incumbents won easy re-election to two of them: Randy Smith in the 3rd District and Charles Busler in the 7th. The two at-large seats were left open when incumbents Bob Thomas and Ed Brantley chose not to seek second terms. Republican candidates Larsen Jay and Justin Biggs won primary and general elections to fill them.
Changing two seats wouldn’t seem likely to shift the overall balance on a body that wasn’t particularly fractious to start with. But Thomas and Brantley had been part of a coterie loosely affiliated with Busler, Wright, commissioners John Schoonmaker and Carson Dailey, county Law Director Bud Armstrong and Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley. The addition of Jay and Biggs, plus the replacement of Wright with Richie Beeler -- none of them affiliated with what some commissioners refer to colloquially as the “East Knox County Mafia” -- leaves that axis significantly weakened.
The difference showed up most starkly during County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ legal stand-off with Armstrong, when the new mayor was able to win support from a divided Commission for his proposed settlement of a pension lawsuit brought by the law director. The four commissioners opposed were Wright, Dailey, Schoonmaker and Busler (who walked out of two consecutive meetings to protest the settlement).
Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom presides over a Commission majority that appears friendly to both Jacobs and Spangler and is attempting to get off on a good foot with the new makeup of the Knox County school board. The Joint Education Committee, made up of four members each of Commission and the school board, has been re-activated after recent years of near dormancy, and is trying to establish common priorities for the two bodies ahead of next year’s budget deliberations.
Face to Face
A growing chorus of social activists, defense lawyers, and family and friends of inmates in the Knox County jail became a consistent political presence in 2018. Their cause is the restoration of face to face visitation at the jail. Visits are now allowed only remotely, via video. (This is a recent policy, enacted by former Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones.) The video service is pay-per-minute, unless you drive to the jail, where you can use a video monitor for free. The fees are split between the county and the video vendor, Securus Technologies.
Advocates have been regularly attending County Commission meetings, petitioning newly elected Sheriff Tom Spangler to reverse Jones’ policy. Spangler has not so far shown an inclination to do so. The issue seems likely to carry into 2019. Julie Gautreau, a public defender and coordinator of the group Face to Face Knox, wrote an opinion piece on it this week for the News Sentinel.