Make way for the Good Ol’ Girls

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Courtney Durrett told the Democratic Women of Knoxville on Dec.6 that it took “kind of a coup” to allow her to become the first woman ever elected chair of Knox County Commission. She also said it’s likely she is a one-termer.

Durrett was the guest speaker at the DWK’s December meeting, and her audience was interested in hearing how she – one of two Democrats on the 11-member commission – had pulled this off.

She said she’d been approached by several people – from both parties – about chairing the commission. She didn’t identify them beyond saying they were “not necessarily people on commission; I don’t want to say political hacks.”

But she said she turned them down, mostly because, “I couldn’t see a way for that to happen.”

But then things started happening that changed her view:

Commission chair Richie Beeler notified his colleagues that he would be stepping down from that position when the commission reorganized after the county elections. He’d accepted an offer from County Clerk Sherry Witt to become her chief of staff and there wouldn’t be enough time in his day to do both jobs to his satisfaction. So Durrett started thinking about it again, and after the primary elections it turned out that there might just be a way to make it happen.

Although Durrett didn’t spell out what kindled her new-found optimism, she didn’t have to. It was obviously because the three nominees who emerged from the Republican primaries were all women – Gina Oster from District 3, Rhonda Lee from District 7, and Kim Frazier from the at-large District 11 – who had no reason to feel beholden to the Republican establishment.

Oster had taken on popular business leader Eddie Mannis two years ago in a bitter fight to become the party’s nominee for the District 18 state House seat. Mannis won, and Oster was shot down by her party’s leadership when she challenged Mannis’s GOP bona fides.

Lee’s primary opponent, Chuck Severance, was a legacy Republican who enjoyed the support of many party regulars.

Frazier, a longtime neighborhood activist and proponent of orderly development, had the toughest primary battle of any candidate because her opponent, Devin Driscoll, had accumulated an enormous developer-funded campaign kitty. He also had the enthusiastic support of County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and hired Jacobs’ high-powered Nashville spin doctor to glitz up his campaign.

So, in summation, the election of these three new commissioners, plus the three women (Durrett and her fellow Democrat Dasha Lundy plus Republican Terry Hill (who is vice chair) would mean that for the first time in Knox County’s history, the majority (six of 11) of commission seats would be held by women. Now, obviously, Durrett could see a way.

And sure enough, come re-organization day, the six women – the three newbies plus Hill, and two Democrats – voted Durrett in as the new chair.

Durrett said there’s a good chance she’ll be a one-term gavel wielder. She didn’t elaborate, but Hill, who opened the way for Durrett when said she did not want to chair the commission this year because she plans to do a lot of traveling, may just decide she has time for a larger role next year.

Either way, the 2023 chair will probably be a woman.

Durrett’s remarks emphasized the “why” but skipped lightly over the “how,” which (to me, at least) begged questions about possible Sunshine Law violations. Maybe I’m the only person I know who feels queasy about this – probably because I covered county government back in the days when elected-officials believed they were entitled to ignore laws that didn’t suit them.

The Sunshine Law, which was designed to do away with backroom deals by requiring the public’s business to be done in public, was on the Ignore List.

Also, on the Ignore List was term limits, despite having been overwhelmingly passed by separate referendum votes in the city and the county. Although city elected officials (with the exception of council member Carlene Malone, who actively worked to get a referendum on the ballot), didn’t support term limits, they left without a fight. County elected officials, on the other hand, fought like hell to stay in office. And when they were out of legal options, they attempted to stage (to borrow a word from Durrett) a coup that would go down in the history of local politics as Black Wednesday.

I was there for Black Wednesday, when sitting commissioners flouted both the Sunshine Law and term limits by filling the seats they’d been ordered to vacate with family members and political cronies.

It was a disgraceful performance and was ultimately repudiated in court.

So, for the record, the “how” of Durrett’s selection as chair isn’t hard to figure out. The three new commissioners hadn’t been sworn in, so legally, they were free to speak to whomever they chose. And they recognized an opportunity to make history.

No law-breaking required.

But what about the spirit of the law that says the public’s business should be done in public? I asked an attorney with lots of government experience about this and he said he wouldn’t go to court with a case based on “theory” rather than black-letter law. I don’t doubt that he’s right. Durrett’s selection as chair has been widely approved, although there have been some rumbles from the usual corners of the local Republican Party.

I asked Durrett if the Good Old Boys has been replaced by a Good Old Girl network.

She laughed. “‘Bout time,” said a member of the audience.

Nobody disagreed.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for

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