How to achieve ‘red to the roots’

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

Like a football team that goes for a touchdown in the waning minutes of a 50-12 game, rumbles have begun that the state’s legislative GOP supermajority is looking to take over the last frontiers left for them to conquer – city governments and school boards.

How? By making those elections partisan. And that would be a mistake. (Let’s save the school boards discussion for another day.)

The state’s four largest cities (Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga) all have Democratic mayors and generally vote that way in national elections.

Naturally, this cannot be tolerated by a GOP establishment that controls the governor’s office, walkout majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, both U.S. Senate seats, seven of nine Congressional districts and county commissions from Pickett to Polk counties.

But pulling off such a coup could be harder to do than to talk about if Knoxville – probably the most Republican of Big Four cities – is any example.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero is a lifelong Democrat who enjoys strong support from her nine-member city council, whose members are elected on a non-partisan basis. In her first run for office, she handily beat all comers in the primary, including a well-known Republican former officeholder and a Democrat who was supported by Republicans in the runoff.

This year’s Knoxville city council elections may prove to be a better testing ground for GOP ambitions. But it’s probably not going to be easy, and even if some Republicans get elected, they are unlikely to be the red meat, Trump-supporting kind.

Take the sitting council, for example: Republicans Nick Pavlis, Nick Della Volpe and George Wallace are not ideologues. While they would probably be comfortable wearing the label of fiscal conservative, none of them is cut from the same cloth as the county’s most outspoken right-wingers.

Pavlis, who has served four four-year stints on the council, refused to knuckle under to NRA activists who flooded the audience to protest the city’s opposition to “guns in parks” legislation.

Della Volpe is a strong neighborhood advocate.

Wallace, who has inherited wealth and runs a prosperous real estate business, has surprised his skeptics with his moderate views and willingness to listen.

Brenda Palmer, Daniel Brown, Duane Grieve and Finbarr Saunders are all Democrats, although (and I’m going out on a limb here) they probably weren’t among the crowd that was feeling the Bern last fall.

They’re business-friendly, mindful of neighborhood interests and moderate in approach.

Marshall Stair, the son of a prominent West Knoxville family, fits the profile of a Republican. He hasn’t said much about party affiliation, but did confirm (to this reporter) that he is a Democrat. Stair is also a fiscal conservative who looks out for neighborhoods.

Mark Campen likes being independent.

“We’re just trying to make Knoxville better. To make it more partisan like the county is, it will just create factions.”

Wallace, who was present at the city’s breakfast meeting for the Knox County legislative delegation, noted some tension among conservative legislators when Rogero asked them to stay out of Knoxville diversity issues. He said he wishes that were not the case.

“There’s trepidation on a lot of these issues, but we’re in the trenches here, and our issues are not partisan.”

If the Legislature tries to make city elections partisan, expect vigorous local opposition.

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