by Martha Rose Woodward
Since we are about to see history made in the election of the next mayor in Knoxville, maybe it is time to reflect on past elections. As they say, those who do not learn from history tend to repeat it. Will history repeat itself with the election of a young democrat? Will we see the first woman elected as mayor? Let’s take a look at where we were just a few years ago as we look forward to November 8.
In 1971, Kyle Testerman, a republican, was elected as mayor of Knoxville, and assumed office in 1972, serving a four year term. It was during his administration that idea of hosting an international exposition was hatched. Stewart Evans, the then President of the Downtown Knoxville’s Businessman’s Association is given credit with having pushed for the idea of a fair like the one in Spokane, Washington.
In 1974, Kyle Testerman appointed a l7 member, bipartisan advisory committee to conduct a feasibility study on the possibilities of having a World’s Fair in Knoxville. Mayor Testerman chose Jake Butcher, a dashing, young banker, who was a democrat, to chair that committee.
In 1975, Randy Tyree, a democrat, was elected mayor, taking office in 1976, serving for four years. The 34 year old Tyree was the youngest man ever elected to office as mayor in Knoxville. He won the election by approximately 350 votes from over 50,000 votes that had been cast. This caused the new mayor to get the nickname, “Landslide Randy.”
The election of 1975 turned out to be a “barn burner” with votes being recounted to assure accuracy in some precincts. When the dust had settled, the city found itself with a new face in the mayor’s chair. Many people were stunned, since Mayor Kyle Testerman had been well-managed and well-monied.
It was during 1976 that the Knoxville International Energy Exposition was formed. Many of the same individuals who had been named by former Mayor Kyle Testerman on the exploratory committee were also in KIEE. Bo Roberts was named as KIEE president, with Jake Butcher as chairman. Jesse Barr was their financial advisor and deal maker.
In 1979, when Randy Tyree was once again elected to office, he became the first democrat to serve for two consecutive terms. He assumed office in 1980, serving until 1984. The city was satisfied with its mayor and returned him to his office so that he could complete the job of managing the exposition.
It was Mayor Tyree who saw the span of the development of the World’s Fair, as it went from an idea, all the way into reality. He faced numerous battles along the way, especially from a group of vocal citizens who were against the fair.
It was said that 76% of the citizens in Knoxville were in favor of having a referendum to vote for or against the fair. Polling data showed that 50% said they would vote against the fair, while 34% said they were in favor of it. A university professor, Joe Dodd, kept pushing for the mayor and city council to put the issue of the fair onto a ballot, and let the people vote. There was never a vote, leaving most citizens angry and bitter. People were mostly against the heavy burden of the tax increases which were put into place in order to finance the fair. It appeared to the citizen group, Citizens Against The World’s Fair, that the city was paying for private businessmen to make money from their investments in the fair. (8-8-79, Knox News-Sentinel)
Randy Tyree ran for governor of the state of Tennessee in 1982, adding fuel to the flames for the vocal group of citizens who saw him as an opportunist. Citizens were thinking that Mayor Tyree needed to spend his time working as mayor, and forget state politics. Mayor Tyree lost the governor’s race in 1982 to Lamar Alexander by a 40% to 60% vote. Mayor Tyree did not run for office of mayor in 1983, paving the way for former Mayor Kyle Testerman to recapture the mayor’s chair.
Former Mayor Randy Tyree is remembered as an excellent mayor and a truly fine person. He returned to the private sector earning his living by being a lawyer and has done other work in state government. He and his wife, Mary Pat, raised four wonderful children and continue to be well-liked and admired in the local community.
The general population of the city of Knoxville has fond memories of the former mayor who was known for his movie star good looks and his attractive wife. The handsome mayor and his beautiful wife were often lovingly called “Ken and Barbie”; nicknames which they look back on with fondness.
In 1983, Kyle Testerman easily won the election, was reelected and served until 1988. The community turned to the former mayor in hopes that he could clean up the financial mess which had occurred when the Butcher Banking Empire had fallen. Mayor Testerman faced numerous problems during his term after the fair, mostly because of that scandal. There were layers and layers of deals, loans, grants, and unkept promises for him to sort through. The city needed someone in office who had experience, and Mayor Testerman apparently rode back into town with guns a’ blazing. He provided a steady, experienced hand at a time when the city needed one.
Many who remember the mayor’s second term as successful, also remember two issues which were hurtful to his reputation; (1) a very public divorce, and (2) Mayor Testerman’s rejection of the Fairfield Redevelopment Plan which may have provided for a better economic “post fair” Knoxville.
In 1987, Victor Ashe, a republican, was elected as mayor. He served his first term until 1991 when he ran again for office and was reelected. Mayor Ashe went on to be elected and serve for a total of four terms or sixteen years from 1988 until 2004. In 2004, Mayor Ashe was term-limited out of office.
In 2003, Bill Haslam, a republican, ran for office and won a close election against Madeline Rogero, the democrat. Mayor Haslam ran for a second term in 2007 and was easily elected against candidate Isa Infante, who ran to keep Haslam from running a non-contested race. Voter turnout was dismal as less than 10,000 voted; Infante received a few votes shy of 1,000 votes with Haslam receiving the others. There has not been another democrat elected to the office of city mayor since 1984, making Randy Tyree the last democrat to sit in the mayor’s chair in over 23 years. But, that is about to change as the next mayor will be a democrat—the liberal, Rogero, or the moderate, Padgett.