Honor, Prestige and Politics
Eddie Mannis aims to bring his business acumen and record of community service into the Knoxville mayor’s office.
This story is the first in a series of profiles of candidates for Knoxville mayor.
With an easy smile, Eddie Mannis escorts a visitor past the custom pool table covered in black felt in the lobby of his Baum Drive headquarters, to his office, a modest, almost spartan workspace where he runs his businesses, Prestige Cleaners and Prestige Tuxedo.
A Republican who would be Knoxville's first openly gay mayor.
At 59 years old, he has closely cropped gray hair, wears glasses and moves with a fluidity that belies his blue-collar upbringing. Mannis is running for mayor of Knoxville, seeking to succeed his former boss during a two-year stint in government, Madeline Rogero.
“There’s an inherent passion I have for Knoxville,” said Mannis, who was born and raised in the city.
Mannis has been running his business since 1985. His service as one of Rogero’s top aides has given him experience in city government. And his philanthropic endeavors -- particularly HonorAir flights for veterans to visit memorials in Washington, D.C. -- have created goodwill among Knoxvillians.
Though a successful small business owner, Mannis is candid that it hasn’t always been easy for him. He has gone through crises both professional and personal.
If elected, Mannis would not be the first Knoxville mayor with a business background. Many mayors -- including George Dempster, Cas Walker and, most recently, Bill Haslam -- were successful in business before, and sometimes during and after, their time in office. But if he prevails in the election, Mannis would make history as the first openly gay mayor of Knoxville.
Frog Level to Prestige Cleaners
Mannis was raised in a section of Inskip that locals called Frog Level. His parents were solidly working class -- his father delivered uniforms, while his mother worked in a furniture factory. Mannis had a typical childhood of the day, playing outside until dark and turning over rocks in First Creek searching for crawdads.
Mannis said his parents were smart, but lacked formal education -- his father dropped out of school in 6th grade. Mannis concedes he didn’t like school either, but he graduated from Central High School in 1977 and took some college classes before going into business.
“I learned from the school of hard knocks,” he said.
Mannis attended Draughon’s Business College, then took night classes at Maryville College. He said he preferred practical subjects such as business math over liberal arts courses.
While in school he worked at a dry cleaning store, and one day he ran across a classified newspaper advertisement offering dry cleaning equipment for sale. Mannis saw an opportunity. He sold a boat and a car to finance the purchase, and then opened Prestige Cleaners in Bearden.
Just a couple of years after launching the business, Mannis encountered a crisis. The company enjoyed double-digit growth, but he fell behind paying his taxes. When a Tennessee Department of Revenue agent walked through the door one day in 1987, Mannis realized he needed to make changes.
“That was a defining moment in my business career,” he said, adding that he sat down with an accountant, paid off his tax bill and began running the business in a more professional manner.
Since then, his business has thrived. Mannis began with three employees in 1985 and now provides jobs for 172 people.
Terry Turner, president of All Occasions Party Rentals and chairman of the Knoxville Chamber board of directors, said he’s known Mannis since working with him on the Dogwood Arts Festival in 2007.
“I’ve always admired Eddie as a businessman,” said Turner, who is actively supporting Mannis’ campaign. “For producing a top-notch product, for treating employees with class, for giving back.”
Giving back has been important for Mannis. He has served as a mentor in the Knoxville Chamber’s Propel Mentor-Protégé program, which pairs established business owners with small business owners/startups, particularly women- and minority-owned. He’s most well known, however, for founding HonorAir.
Twice a year, HonorAir flies veterans to Washington, D.C., so they can tour the memorials to their service, and visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington National Cemetery. Since 2007, HonorAir has taken about 3,500 World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans to the capital.
While emphasizing that the American Legion does not endorse candidates, Bob Dewald, post adjutant for American Legion Post 2 in Knoxville, said area veterans appreciate Mannis’ contributions, both through HonorAir and other ways.
“Every time we turn around, Eddie is doing something for veterans,” Dewald said. “He’s doing a lot of things behind the scenes.”
For Mannis, there are personal reasons for continuing HonorAir. His father fought in the Korean War. His uncle and stepfather were World War II veterans. “These men and women need to be recognized,” he said.
“If we can’t demonstrate we are inclusive, open and accepting, how can we expect businesses to relocate and grow here?” Mannis said.
As a gay man, inclusiveness is personal for him.
“I know what it’s like to be discriminated against,” Mannis said. “You’ve got to work harder. You’ve got to do things differently.”
Mannis said he struggled with his sexual identity for more than two decades. In his late 30s, he came to a personal crisis.
“From the age of 16 years old until I was in my late 30s, I prayed every day that my life could be made different,” he said. “At that point, I had to make a decision to accept and be content with my sexuality and move forward with my life, or end it.
Fortunately, I decided that I could not subject my family to the outcome of the latter, so I chose to move forward and live every day working to make a difference in the lives of others that may be struggling with similar challenges.”
Mannis said being gay is only one aspect of his life. As mayor, he said, he would focus on policy.
“I think Knoxville is certainly open-minded and diverse,” he said. “I hope my qualifications as a businessman and entrepreneur and someone who gives back to the community should come first.”
Given the voting habits of city residents, which lean liberal, Mannis’ sexuality is less likely to be a challenge for him than his political affiliation. City elections are technically nonpartisan, but most candidates have a record of party association through donations or past campaigns for partisan county offices. Mannis is a Republican, albeit not one given to ideological rhetoric. That he worked for Rogero, a Democrat, and served as her campaign treasurer may also blunt partisan opinions.
Mannis is running on a platform he calls the “Knoxville First Initiative.” He envisions a “people first” city that is economically vibrant and consists of vibrant communities of healthy, educated and united residents.
“I’ve always had a passion for service and government for a long time,” Mannis said.
His time as deputy to Rogero gave him insight into how government works, Mannis said, and he sees some room for improvement. He said the legislative process can and should take as long as possible to determine the direction the city should go, but the implementation could be more efficient and effective.
“The executive branch can be run more like a business,” he said.
Like many in the business community, Mannis emphasizes the importance of education in creating a competitive workforce. The city could play a bigger role in education, Mannis said, by working more closely with the Great Schools Partnership and Knox County Schools’ community schools initiative.
“The city needs to take a more active role in improving inner-city schools,” he said.
Another area that needs attention is affordable housing, he said, adding that homelessness, especially for veterans, is one of the city’s biggest challenges.
Mannis is optimistic that Knoxville can overcome its challenges and build on its successes. He has said collaboration and cooperation will be key to improving the lives of Knoxvillians.
“It is possible to help Knoxville move forward,” he said.
Mannis is one of six mayoral hopefuls who have named treasurers, which allows them to raise money for their campaigns. The others are former Knox County school board Chair Indya Kincannon, City Councilman Marshall Stair, restaurateur Mike Chase, Fletcher Burkhardt and John Bevil.