I have very little experience in writing about politics. My journalism career has leaned toward feature stories and entertainment criticism. I’m actually passionate about our government and how I think it should operate, but I’ve never really wanted to write about it.
Then Debbie Helsley decided to run for the Democratic nomination for Knox County mayor. Debbie is a fellow South Knoxvillian – she’s lived in South Knox most of her life so far, while I’ve been here only 30 years. We both claim kin under lots of headstones in South Knoxville cemeteries, but she comes from a larger clan.
Debbie has been a good friend for many years. I met her when I started covering neighborhood meetings for the Shopper News. She has always been one to support her community. She was usually the funniest person in the room as well as the most sensible. We ended up playing in the same Bunco group (at least we did before Covid came along). Aside from being night owls and loving to chat on the phone, I don’t know that we had much in common – she’s a doer and loves coffee; I’m a ponderer and avoid caffeine – but we became fast friends.
When I broke my ankle and ended up in the emergency room, she was the second person I called and the first to arrive. She talked sense into me during my state of delirium and kept me company until family could arrive. She was a bulwark throughout my rehab and then a subsequent surgery and its rehab.
Debbie knows more about Knoxville and Knox County politics and players than I will ever know, but she has always been about the process, not the spotlight. She was a union president for 15 years and thrives on getting people to work together and find solutions. She has always been about people, not power.
When no one else was stepping up, Debbie decided to run for city council from District 1. She stepped back when Stephanie Welch entered the race, not wanting to muddy the waters.
This year, the devoted Democrat was deep in the conversation when the local party was trying to find a candidate to run against the incumbent county mayor. As they were searching, it became obvious that Debbie should run. But it was unclear whether I could do anything to support her.
Journalists aren’t supposed to take sides in politics. Despite the complaints about “liberal media,” most of the reporters I’ve known have remained professionally detached from party or candidate loyalties. Media-company owners, on the other hand, have usually been transparent about whom they favor, and they’ve tended to favor conservatives.
KnoxTNToday publisher/editor Sandra Clark is a confirmed Republican, but one of the things I like about her is that she’s not in lockstep with her party. She can see the big picture. When she sees things that are wrong she wants to fix them, even if it conflicts with the party stance.
When Debbie’s campaign manager, Jack Vaughan, invited me to come to her election-night headquarters Tuesday to witness the drama, I saw it as more of an opportunity to support a friend than as a potential piece for KnoxTNToday. I’ve had other friends run for office, and I’ve never gone to be part of the gang as the results have come in, even though I wished them well.
But I was curious. I knew it wouldn’t be the cinematic cliché of cigar smoke in the air and old white men slapping each other on the back. But what would it look like?
Well, when I arrived at the Fourth and Gill Community Center around 8 p.m., it looked like a small group of friends sitting around a conference table, friends from South Knoxville and beyond. Old friends. New friends. Diverse friends. White, Black, Hispanic. From teens to 60-somethings. Straight, gay, male, female, possibly non-binary. Other politicians and candidates arrived – Gloria Johnson, Sam and Gwen McKenzie, Tommy Smith, Sarah Keith, Dylan Earley – with Democratic leaders like Matt Shears and Sylvia Woods adding a layer of loyalty.
As more people showed up, the only thing that changed was that the crowd seemed to get even younger – so many people in their 20s and 30s excited about the election and their candidate. It was inspiring – and reassuring. The hippies may be fading away, but there is definitely new blood ready to get involved.
Three television news crews arrived, seemingly confirming the race’s importance. My old colleague Scott Barker of Compass came in after a long day of covering other local news.
When the early-voting numbers were released, the crowd was excited. The Republican primary may have been a given, but no one was taking anything for granted in the three-person Democratic race. Debbie earned 75.5 percent of the early votes against Tyler Givens’ 15.49 percent and Bob Fischer’s 9.01 percent. Before 9:30, the numbers were conclusive: 8.3 percent for Fischer, 17.61 for Givens and 74.19 for Helsley.
Again, no cigars, but champagne bottles were popped open.
I watched the TV crews and Barker interview Debbie. She seemed calm and humble but confident. She was genuine in her concern for the residents of Knox County and their problems. She kept a lid on her jokey side and was businesslike but personable.
I’d had a couple of rough days – a dear film-critic friend died Monday morning, and then there was the Supreme Court news – and I’d been feeling puny since the weekend.
But it felt good to be a witness to progress, to the possibility of putting residents before developers and people who care in front of those who are only in it for themselves or the next step up the political ladder. It felt satisfying to think that Knox County might finally get a woman mayor.
I’m glad I broke my personal precedent and went to support my friend. I couldn’t be happier for her – or for Knox County.
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville. In honor of her friend who died (and who frequently commented on her KnoxTNToday stories), please get tested for ovarian cancer.