When Debbie Helsley, the Knox County Democratic Party’s 2022 candidate for county mayor, finished up her senior year at South High School, she had no idea what was about to set the direction of her working life. She was a serious student who had taken a heavy load of college-prep courses, but it was an outlier class that was about to redirect her future plans:
“I had the best typing teacher in high school, ever – Ms. Hilda Long,” she said, “I could type 117 words a minute when I was a senior, and that’s how I got my job at the Phone Factory.”
She’s referring, of course, to South Central Bell, the tele-communications conglomerate that used to be one of the biggest employers in town and was known by many nicknames – some affectionate, some not. She attended the University of Tennessee part-time that first year, but Ma Bell offered opportunities that she couldn’t afford to turn down. And the fact that these opportunities had mostly been available to men in the past didn’t faze her in the least.
She started as a service order typist and worked in the building on Walnut Street that is now best known as the home of Yassin’s Falafel House. She stayed there about 10 months, then went to dispatch, stayed there for three years, and then transferred to Chattanooga, where she became the first woman to learn to climb poles and splice cables. She stayed there for another couple of years and when she’d had enough of working outdoors in the wintertime, she moved back indoors and became the first woman to work in electronic switching.
She was always active in union work and was president of the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) when she retired in 2004 with 31 years of service. She stayed on as union president until 2015. This job intersected considerably with local, state and national issues, and Helsley moved seamlessly into politics. Unsurprisingly, for someone with her work history, she is a Democrat.
That affiliation wasn’t always a given, however, since she comes from a family of Republicans:
“I fell far from the tree when it comes to politics.”
She quotes something her old friend, bluegrass musician Willie Brewster, used to tell her: “He and his wife, Mary, my alterations woman, always asked me who I was going to vote for, and Willie would say, ‘Everything that ever helped me in my working life was done by Democrats – Social Security, Medicare, the 40-hour week, weekends.”
These beliefs make Helsley, who served on the city’s Civil Service Merit Board for 10 years, a striking contrast to her Republican opponent, Mayor Glenn Jacobs, a loud, proud government-shrinking libertarian.
“I’ve never understood the politics of any libertarian, and certainly not the ones in public office. If you don’t like government, why run for office? Why do you want any part of it?
Her campaign is calling out other contrasts, too, like when they label Jacobs, a Missourian, of “parachuting into Knox County” about 10 years ago. Helsley is aware that any Democrat must be considered an underdog in this Republican-dominated county, but she plans to keep reminding her opponent that city residents are also county residents and deserve to be included in the county’s business.
“They just ignore people who live inside the city who also pay county taxes, and those people need somebody to vote for. I don’t know the guy (Jacobs), but I don’t like his policies. We can do better.”
The general election is Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.