How do you run for an office you can’t campaign for?
Specifically, since elected officials aren’t allowed to lobby their colleagues on issues coming up for a vote (and county commissioners are under particular scrutiny due to the misdeeds of their predecessors), how did Hugh Nystrom get elected to chair the commission by a near-unanimous vote Tuesday, despite having served for only two years?
The answer is pretty simple: he works well with others.
“If my colleagues choose me, I would eagerly serve,” he said the day before the reorganization vote. “If somebody else wins, I will do whatever I can to help them. I’m a big fan of civility.”
Nystrom, an administrator at Webb School of Knoxville, pinned his hopes on his colleagues finding him a positive influence and easy to work with.
“I choose to focus on people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses. We all have different takes and backgrounds and collectively we’re smarter as a team than individually. Just because you may be opposed to a commissioner’s position on a particular issue, you may be with them next time.”
It was historic as County Clerk Sherry Witt convened the meeting and presided over Nystrom’s election – the first time a woman has filled that role. After balloting gave Nystrom a 6-4-1 win over John Schoonmaker, most commissioners changed their vote to make Nystrom’s win virtually unanimous.
(Nystrom’s initial votes came from Michele Carringer, Randy Smith, Nystrom, Brad Anders, Larsen Jay and Justin Biggs.) Evelyn Gill (District 1 commissioner and the sole Democrat on the commission) passed on both Nystrom’s election and that of Carringer as vice chair.
These votes may signal the waning influence of the faction controlled by publisher Steve Hunley after the departure of at-large commissioners Bob Thomas and Ed Brantley, followed by the probable November departure of Dave Wright, who is running for a state House seat.
Nystrom represents District 4, a city-based West Knox area previously represented by Jeff Ownby, Scott Davis, John Schmid and Bee DeSelm.
He is a Knoxville native and an alumnus of Webb School and the University of Tennessee, where he earned a degree in finance. While in college, he spent his summers working at the Cloisters in St. Simon Island, and enjoyed the hospitality industry so much that he moved to Orlando after he graduated in 1989 and got a job at Disney World, starting out as a desk clerk/bellman and working his way into management.
Disney sent him to Nashville in 2002 to work in regional sales and marketing. There he met his wife Angelia, an attorney who grew up in Jefferson County. They married four years later and moved back to Knoxville shortly before the birth of their son, Trace. Angelia was with Baker Donelson and now works for the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture. Trace, now 11, is a sixth-grader at Webb and loves fishing.
After taking a year off work to be a stay-at-home dad, a privately funded non-profit agency that works with abused children reached out to him. He served as executive director of Child Help for 11 years before taking the job at Webb.
“Webb reached out to me, and after a decade in sex abuse work; it was an opportunity to go out and have a really fun job,” Nystrom said.
As for his other job, one of his top priorities will be to make the commission more transparent. He hopes to hold study sessions to make sure that his fellow commissioners and the community know exactly what the county’s pension obligations are.
And overall, he said the commission chair has one job:
“To be a servant to the commission, and to prove worthy of the trust they’ve shown in me. I want to be even-handed in all dealings. I just want to be calm and reasonable and look at it from a servant’s point of view.”