By Steve Hunley

Mayoral Blues

Two years ago, Glenn Jacobs arrived on the political scene with the force of a hurricane. Facing two incumbent county commissioners, Brad Anders and Bob Thomas, Jacobs eked out a 23-vote win over Anders in the Republican primary to take the nomination. Jacobs winning was all the more remarkable when one considers he never ran the first television commercial. Glenn Jacobs had a kind of celebrity going for him that just about everybody underestimated. An insurance man by day, it was his night job as a wrestler that had brought him fame, fortune and name recognition. Jacobs was a political outsider in the era of Donald Trump and his candidacy appealed to just enough Republicans to win the GOP primary.

Political outsiders who win elections have to govern and governing is very different from campaigning. Any objective assessment of Jacobs’ mayoral tenure would have to conclude there has been more show than substance to this point. Glenn Jacobs promised not to continue wrestling if he became mayor, a promise he didn’t keep. Jacobs rewarded one of his top campaign aides, Bryan Hair, as his chief of staff, a position that paid more than $170,000 annually. Like Jacobs, Hair had no real political experience, nor did either of them know much of anything about the political landscape. At some point, the political knowledge vacuum was filled by Mike Arms, who was chief of staff during the reign of former county mayor Mike Ragsdale. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mike Arms was to good government what Colonel Sanders was to the welfare of chickens. The Ragsdale administration never fully recovered from a purchasing card scandal involving several top aides.

Jacobs has backed two initiatives that likely were pushed by Arms; the first was the sale of the Andrew Johnson Building which currently houses the school administration. Glenn Jacobs moved heaven and earth to get the school folks out of the AJ and into the TVA Tower. Recent news reports reveal it has become readily apparent the sale of the AJ to private developers has fallen through, yet the taxpayers are still on the hook for local government indulging in the real estate business. Jacobs and his administration convinced Superintendent Bob Thomas to support the deal by offering more cash to the school system, an inducement that worked. The mayor will hope to ink yet another deal, but it is going to be a hard sell. The old Hyatt Hotel has been sold to a billionaire, but had remained empty for years. Just how much continued demand is there going to be for $700,000 apartments downtown?

The second political morass was Jacobs siding with the Knox County Pension Board in the pension controversy against then-county Law Director Bud Armstrong. At the heart of the issue lies an argument by the sheriff’s department that deputies can retire on full salary plus any accumulated leave or vacation time (a process called spiking) while the Knox County Charter clearly states 75% of salary is the most that can be collected by any county retiree. That dispute between the law director and the mayor eventually led to a new Charter Commission, heavily weighted with those appointed by Jacobs, to put on the ballot the question of allowing the county mayor to appoint the law director, which is an elected position. Arms and a posse of former officials and political fixers seemed not to know the charter allows the law director to write the language for the question placed on the referendum ballot. Arms and company journeyed to a meeting of the Knox County Election Commission to complain about the law director having the right to compose the question for the consideration of voters. Arms hollered it was “misleading.” No, it was not; in fact, it is the most clear language for any ballot referendum of my lifetime. It merely states shall the voters continue to elect the law director or shall the law director be appointed by the county mayor. And that is precisely what the ballot initiative was calculated to do; it is the literal effect of the charter amendment supported by Jacobs and Arms. Unless I am much mistaken, that question will be voted down tomorrow, as it should be. If so, that is yet another political reversal for Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

Yet another reversal for Jacobs was the proposal by Commissioner-at-Large Larsen Jay to give sheriff’s deputies a one-time bonus of $1,500. The mayor contended it was too costly, especially as the county was facing increased expenditures due to the COVID crisis while revenues were expected to fall for the same reason. The commission got out from under the mayor and supported Jay’s proposal. Of course the mayor had handed off a cash reward as an inducement to get the school system out of the Andrew Johnson Building but Jay’s proposal to give the deputies a one-time bonus was supposed to be too costly. Chief of Staff Bryan Hair was reportedly livid that Jay’s proposal passed the full county commission. Hair was wary of Jay as a possible challenger to Jacobs’ expected reelection bid in 2022.

That, of course, was before the spectacular fall from power and grace by the chief of staff to Mayor Jacobs. A banker before being hired by Jacobs, Bryan Hair never seemed to have good people skills; if he did, they were not readily apparent or one needed the extra special vision of Superman to discern them. Reports from inside the City -County Building acknowledged Hair was as universally disliked by most county employees as his brother Brad was well-liked. The power of his office seemed to have gone to his head and Hair did not always treat co-workers and county employees with respect, much less kindness. Reportedly, Hair carefully guarded the gate to Mayor Jacobs. His watchful eye was omnipresent. As it turns out, somebody needed to be watching him.

When the revelations started dribbling out about some sort of transgression on the part of Bryan Hair, it was precisely the opposite of not a dry eye in the house. Nary a tear was shed as it was reported Hair had supposedly borrowed a golf cart from the county’s Parks & Recreation Department, allegedly to help Hair’s wife, who suffered from a broken foot, to get around. Most mere mortals have to resort to crutches or wheelchairs.

Paul White, the director of Knox County’s Parks & Recreation Department, was fired while Bryan Hair’s departure from the county payroll was attributed to resignation. Few courthouse insiders believe that to be the only transgression and there very well may be more to come.

White, incidentally, was a colleague of Bryan Hair’s, as they both worked at the same bank before Glenn Jacobs was elected county mayor. Another little tidbit has come to light in recent days where Hair, as chief of staff, apparently had the sole discretion to hand out bonuses, which included, not surprisingly, Paul White. I figure White made Jacobs fire him so he could sue the county and claim he had no choice but to lend Hair the golf cart as his bonuses were dependent upon the chief of staff. It boggles the mind the mayor would evidently vest that kind of power in any aide, even if it was his top aide. That seems to me to be something the mayor should decide himself, yet when questioned by the news media, Jacobs’ office referred the press inquiries to Bryan Hair who was no longer employed by Knox County.

It may be difficult to imagine, but deep inside the administration of Glenn Jacobs there were whispers of a run for higher office. One heard rumors that Governor Bill Lee might not opt to run again at the conclusion of his present term, leaving the way open for Jacobs to make a bid. Perhaps Congressman Tim Burchett might run for governor, leaving his seat in the House of Representatives open. Now with all that’s happened, Jacobs’ star power seems to have diminished considerably.

One thing is certain, Glenn Jacobs is going to have to extend his political base in order to win the Republican primary in the event he faces a serious challenger. Much will be transparent when and if Jacobs makes a selection to replace the unlamented Bryan Hair. Institutional knowledge and memory is invaluable, a resource that is not always abundant. Mike Arms has certainly not proven to be that valuable a resource to Glenn Jacobs; in fact, that association has almost surely helped to contribute to the political slide of Mayor Jacobs. Bryan Hair had all the institutional memory of an amnesiac, while Arms seems to have learned little or nothing from his time in politics.

The dreams of higher office for Glenn Jacobs seem to be just that, as a campaign for higher office would bring increased scrutiny by the press, as well as an assessment of Jacobs’s accomplishments in office. Those are proving to be slim pickings so far. If indeed Knox County voters choose to keep the law director’s office elected, rather than allowing the mayor to pick his own law director, it cannot be construed as anything but a repudiation of Jacobs and his position.

Ironically, the person called to step in and help the Jacobs administration recover from its downward spiral, is Dwight Van de Vate. Van de Vate is a veteran of county government and a person of integrity who has managed to survive in the troublesome seas of political turmoil under Sheriff Tim Hutchison as well as Mayor Mike Ragsdale. Van de Vate was reputedly almost fired by Glenn Jacobs, reportedly at the behest of local developers who did not appreciate Van de Vate’s adherence to the county’s rules and regulations. Jacobs did remove Van de Vate from his post as director of the county’s Engineering and Public Works Department and placed in a different position at about half the pay he had formerly earned.

Dwight Van de Vate is as different from Bryan Hair as night and day. The difference in the administration of county government from here on out will reveal just how much Bryan Hair influenced events and the mayor’s office.


Prophecy Or Wishful Thinking?

Everybody will recall the ethical morass that caught up state Representative Rick Staples over questions about his campaign finances and personal expenditures. Expending campaign contributions on personal expenses is largely prohibited by state law; yet it isn’t against federal law. Rene Hoyos, candidate for Congress against Congressman Tim Burchett, pays herself a salary from her ample campaign treasury to keep running for Congress. What exactly is the difference? Well, not much really, except the state forbids it while the feds allow it.

Evidently Hoyos recently told one Democratic gathering she and Burchett were in a “statistical tie.” That seems utterly impossible to me. It just can’t be true and my guess is tomorrow’s election results will show Tim Burchett winning handily.

Hoyos won something like 33% of the vote two years ago after Burchett had endured a brutal GOP primary to determine the successor to then-Congressman Jimmy Duncan. According to Hoyos, her winning a third of the vote was an astonishing accomplishment and she has continually crowed it showed Tennessee’s Second Congressional District was turning blue. Of course that ignored reality as there have been Democratic candidates who have run much better than Rene Hoyos had years earlier. It is far from the best performance by a Democrat in the Second District, but it isn’t the worst either.

Hoyos apparently thinks if she keeps running for Congress, eventually she’ll win. The only way I see that happening is if Democrats sweep the government and outlaw the Republican Party. I still don’t think she’d win then. Hoyos would face a primary full of Democrats like Gloria Johnson.

Still, it is a far distance from claiming the Second Congressional District is going blue. I think the only thing black and blue after tomorrow’s election will be the beating Hoyos takes from Burchett.


Radical Dislike

Matthew Park, recently a candidate for the state House of Representatives in District 15, seems to be campaigning non-stop for Marquita Bradshaw, candidate for the United States Senate. Bradshaw is squaring off against GOP nominee Bill Hagerty to replace retiring Senator Lamar Alexander. Park has gone sky diving with Bradshaw, but his party regularity doesn’t extend to Sam McKenzie, the Democratic nominee for State House District 15. McKenzie is a former county commissioner and the husband of Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie. Park had run in the Democratic primary against incumbent Rick Staples and McKenzie and only narrowly lost the nomination by a handful of votes. While House District 15 is not a Black majority district (it is about 60% white and 40% black), Park was the runner-up to eventual victor McKenzie.

Park apparently has some hard feelings left over from the primary contest, refusing to endorse McKenzie. Park claims he cannot endorse McKenzie’s candidacy because McKenzie supports nuclear power. Really? With Oak Ridge next door to Knox County, there are probably a great majority of citizens who support nuclear power and McKenzie worked at ORNL for years.

Matthew Park evidently sees himself as some sort of political wunderkind and has gone from having a record of voting in Republican primaries to becoming a version of AOC in short pants in a record period of time. Park’s refusal to endorse McKenzie — he has endorsed other Democratic candidates who apparently support nuclear power — likely has more to do with being disappointed over losing the election than political principle.