Davis gets appointment, Keith faces loss of job

Betty BeanKnox Scene

The more things change, the more they stay the same

When the four applicants for an eight-month appointment to a soon-to-be-vacated Sessions Court judgeship finished making their pitches at a special called Knox County Commission meeting Tuesday night, District 3 Commissioner Randy Smith declared them the most impressive batch of judicial candidates he had seen during his seven-and-a half years in office.

Like it mattered.

No offense to any of these fine candidates, but smart as they undoubtedly are, they had to be aware that this was the kind of vote that makes legislators on the short end of the numbers pump their arms, crack mean jokes about getting railroaded and hoot like train whistles to illustrate the point.

Judd Davis

Nobody who’s been around county politics for more than a minute didn’t know that the appointment would go to Judson Kyle “Judd” Davis, thus making him the favorite to win a full eight-year term in the upcoming 2022 county elections.

Lawyer/fixer John Valliant, a Davis supporter, wasn’t sitting in the audience grinning just because he’s a happy guy.

No commissioner was crass enough to ask the candidates their party affiliation. They didn’t have to. Everybody knew the appointee would be a Republican, and expected it would be Davis, a well-liked prosecutor in District Attorney General Charme Allen’s office who comes from a well-connected GOP family.

A politico whose opinion I value on such matters predicted the exact outcome – a 9-2 party line vote.

Two of the candidates, Rockeford “Rocky” King and Carrie S. O’Rear, neither of whom practice criminal law (sessions court cases are 80 percent criminal) didn’t get any votes, and unlike Davis and Sarah Keith, neither of them had made a decision about running for a full term. Attorney Sharon Frankenberg has named a treasurer to run as a Republican. She did not seek the appointment.

Sarah Keith

The most impressive candidate who spoke (and yes, this is my opinion that I’m sharing in this here opinion column) was Sarah Keith, who is Davis’s colleague in Allen’s office. She’s worked there for 14 years (plus another year as a prosecutor in Tennessee’s 10th judicial district) and has a long track record of serious academic accomplishments and professional awards. Her resume is here.

Keith came prepared to answer any question. But she is also a Democrat (click for sad trombone sound).

And now, thanks to this week’s commission vote plus an office rule prohibiting employees from running against incumbent judges, Keith is going to be unemployed, sterling academic and work records notwithstanding. She cannot keep her job and run against an incumbent judge.

But nevertheless, she will persist. She plans to forge ahead with her campaign, even after sitting judge Geoff Emery steps down and Davis is sworn in to replace him; even though she is aware that no Democrat has been elected to a countywide office in a decade or so.

Joseph and Sarah Keith

She’s not independently wealthy and will need to find employment while she campaigns.

“I have at least the rest of this month (before being forced to resign). The new person will not become the incumbent until January,” she said. “I always knew it was an uphill climb, but sometimes those climbs are worth it.”

There are a couple of historical notes tagged onto this campaign.

Davis and Keith have something else in common in addition to working as prosecutors in the same office: both have fathers who served in the state legislature. Their terms overlapped.

Keith, who is from Scott County, is the daughter of Les Winningham, a former teacher, principal, coach and schools superintendent who served in the state House of Representatives from 1985-2009. A Democrat, Winningham sat across the aisle from Jimmy Kyle Davis, Judd’s father and a Republican, who was elected the same year as Winningham and served until 1991. Democrats held House and Senate majorities in those days. Ned McWherter occupied the governor’s mansion.

Like the two present-day candidates, the elder Davis started out as a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office. His legislative career got off to a controversial start when his mentor, Loy Smith, a longtime legislator, walked him to the courthouse the day of the qualifying deadline and turned in a petition bearing Davis’ name and signature as the candidate rather than Smith’s, allowing Davis to run unopposed in a strongly Republican district. This caused an enormous stramash that ticked off as many Republicans as Democrats and resulted in a change to state election law that allows extra time past the filing deadline for candidates in districts where the incumbent retires from office.

And that’s not all the déjà vu. In 2006, the county commission appointed the elder Davis to fill out the unexpired term of Sessions Court Judge Brenda Waggoner, who, like Emery, stepped down for medical reasons. Other names in the hat included Andy Jackson VI and Ursula Bailey. When the Republican primary rolled around that year, Davis, who enjoyed the support of John Valliant, was unable to parlay the appointment into a win over Jackson, whom Waggoner endorsed. Jackson is still on the bench.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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