Tank Strickland was moving slowly when he walked through the doorway at Jackie’s Dream to attend a reception for Charles Lomax, a young African-American minister who is running for an at-large Knoxville City Council seat. After greeting the candidate, Strickland leaned on his favorite walking stick (adorned with the green and purple colors of his fraternity), eased himself into a chair and lifted his left pant leg to show the artificial limb he wears since having his foot amputated two years ago.
Everything takes a lot of effort these days, but Strickland wasn’t about to miss the chance to show his support for Lomax, whom he considers an up-and-coming future leader.
Strickland, who was a high school athlete and a Golden Gloves boxer, has a long history in Knoxville politics and an eye for talent. He is doubtless aware that no African-American has ever been elected to an at-large seat, or, indeed, to any seat other than the sixth district, which represents East Knoxville, Mechanicsville and part of Lonsdale, but he is optimistic that Lomax will be able to change that.
“Charles is very smart and a very good preacher. He has a good message,” Strickland said.
He said he’s supporting Marshall Stair for mayor, as well.
Strickland retired in 2016 as the city’s community-relations director, a job he held nearly 20 years, spanning the terms of four mayors. He got a national award for his work with the Community Action Committee, had a park named after him, was a founding member of the Interfaith Health Clinic and oversaw many other programs, including the Police Advisory and Review Committee.
His resume would be impressive if it ended there, but he is probably best known for his tenure on Knox County Commission 2002–2010, highlighted by the two-and-a-half years he served as chair and helped repair that body’s tattered reputation after a long stretch of scandals and turbulent times.
He is the only Democrat in living memory to have chaired the commission, which has been dominated by Republicans since its inception.
For many years, the commission majority observed a tradition of choosing a Democrat as vice chair, the position Strickland held in 2008 when the sitting chair, Scott “Scoobie” Moore, was ousted for lying under oath.
The trial that sank Moore’s political career was triggered by his performance during the infamous 2007 “Black Wednesday” commission meeting called to choose replacements for 11 sitting commissioners who were being forced out of office by a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling upholding Knox County’s 1994 term-limit referendum. The nickname was spawned by the backroom shenanigans that took place in plain sight with Moore wielding the gavel.
How, one might ask, could county officials ignore the will of the voters who overwhelmingly supported term limits for 13 years?
Beats me. And I was there.
All I remember is they relied on a state attorney general’s opinion that county officeholders are exempt from term limits and ignored a Shelby County case challenging that opinion that was making its way through the court system.
City voters delivered a similar vote in an identical referendum during this time, and long-serving incumbents departed without argument, unlike their county counterparts, who challenged and obstructed the ruling six ways from Sunday.
It is no exaggeration to say that when the state Supreme Court upheld term limits for most county offices, the decision hit the courthouse like the A-bomb. Officeholders dug in and lawyered up but eventually were forced to submit to the will of the voters, who were doubtless hoping for an end to crony government.
But what they got was a demonstration of raw political power as lame-duck commissioners cut backroom deals out in front of God and everybody as they appointed cronies and spouses and offspring to fill their unexpired terms. The brazen actions at the meeting remembered as Black Wednesday spawned lawsuits over violations of open-meetings laws and ended with Moore’s ouster for perjury.
Strickland, one of only four Democrats on the then-19-member commission, was serving as vice chair and automatically moved up to chair when Moore was removed from office, becoming the only Democrat in living memory to chair the commission.
He survived some bruising battles to be elected twice more and got high marks for fairness and leadership. His kidneys failed during this time, and the morning he received a new kidney, nearly 100 people showed up at the courthouse at 7:30 a.m. to pray for his health and that of his donor.
While Strickland is proud of his service, he doesn’t have time to dwell on the past. His kidneys have failed again, and he’s going through vascular rehabilitation in order to get put back on the transplant list.
It took him a while after the amputation, but he’s back to driving himself around and is trying to regain his health and stay involved with causes that matter.
He outlined a typical day’s activities:
“I just got through with a CAC board meeting – that’s one organization I don’t want to give up. I’m vice chair of the board and chair the administrative committee. Plus I’ve got to finish therapy and visit a friend in the hospital,” he said. “I stay busy on days when I don’t have dialysis.”
He is still heavily involved with his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, although he says he has stepped back from a leadership role.
“I’ve been an active, dues-paying member for 47 years, since I was a freshman in college,” he said. “I used to be president, but now I leave that to the younger guys.”
He has faith that he’ll get another chance.
“I made up my mind that I was going to get better; that I was going to get a kidney and I was going to be able to walk. Right now people in the state of Tennessee seem to be able to get a kidney pretty quick. I’m believing that I’m one of them.”