Marshall Stair battles perceptions, makes his own way

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Marshall Stair is a good-natured guy, but he’s tired of hearing that there are citizens of Knoxville who consider him too young to be their next mayor.

“I was 40 my last birthday and I’ll be 41 in June,” he said, sounding slightly exasperated. “That’s older than Lamar Alexander was when he became governor of Tennessee.”

(Note: A quick Wikipedia check confirms Stair’s contention. Alexander was 39 when he became Tennessee’s 45th governor in 1979.)

Stair, a lawyer, is finishing up a second term as member of Knoxville City Council, where he holds an at-large seat and has established a record as fiscally cautious and socially liberal. He and his wife, Natalie, have a daughter, 1-year-old Stella Dorothy, who is named for his mother, Dorothy Stair, a longtime citizen activist, most notably in historic preservation, a passion shared by her son.

“I think it’s vital in creating that sense of place and community that people are longing for, and it’s why people are returning to cities,” he said. He jokes that his social-media followers seem to prefer Stella to him.

His father, Caesar Stair III, also an attorney, has been involved in the life of the city as well, most notably when he was raising money to build the Knoxville Museum of Art, where Marshall and Natalie were married in 2015. Marshall and Natalie live in the Old North Knoxville neighborhood.

He has, as one friend puts it, “both the burden and the benefit” of a privileged upbringing – Bearden Elementary, Webb Middle, Westminster (a private boarding school in Connecticut), Tulane University and the University of Tennessee College of Law. In between undergraduate and law schools, he worked for a nonprofit environmentalist organization (the Public Interest Research Group) and lived in Houston, Austin and Chicago before moving to Mexico City to spend a year teaching English and studying Spanish. He later used his language skills in law school, representing Spanish speakers in the legal aid clinic.

“That kind of commitment (shown by his parents) to community service has had a big impact on me and has led me to become involved in my community, too,” said Stair, who is very proud that his Jan. 31 financial disclosure shows contributions from residents of every ZIP Code in Knoxville. Among his supporters are Betty Reddick, founding president of Democratic Women of Knoxville; Kim Trent, former executive director of Knox Heritage; and Marleen Davis, former dean of UT’s College of Architecture and Design.

Still, he’s the clear favorite of some of the city’s big political players. Joan Ashe and numerous Haslam family relatives and surrogates are among the names on his disclosure form, and the $175,249.88 he brought in makes him the early fundraising champ.

He jokes that his father is a Republican and his mother is a Democrat and he doesn’t want to lose anybody’s vote.

He demonstrated those conservative tendencies during pension negotiations with city employees. He says he has great respect for the employees, but the pension numbers just didn’t add up. This troubled him then, and still does.

“It is a big financial problem,” he said. “And it was clear what was coming. I advocated what I thought was right at the time and said it was a problem that needed to be addressed. In 2012, the changes were put on the ballot. We addressed it, and I think we have to sort of see if what we did works. We did implement significant reform, but last year, our budgeted salaries were around $75 million. The amount we had to pay into the pension system was $29 million. It’s a huge burden.”

One of the changes he’s proudest of was placing two citizen members on the pension board.

He showed his Democratic bona fides this week when he came out swinging at the state legislature’s latest attempt to interfere with city government – a Republican bill that would cripple Knoxville’s Police Advisory & Review Committee (PARC), which was created 20 years ago to allow a measure of civilian oversight of the police department. The bill’s primary purpose is to mess with Metro Nashville, but the state’s other large cities got sucked into its vortex as well.

He introduced an emergency resolution against the legislation and started a petition drive to fight it.

“To maintain trust and fairness with our Knoxville community, the Police Advisory (&) Review Committee needs its full subpoena power intact. There is no reason for the State Legislature to preempt something that works in our city. As I have said before, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Stair is proud of his council service and thinks the experience will serve him well as mayor:

“People have had a chance to get to know me and work with me, and I feel like that’s why we have been able to get strong support from Republicans and Democrats,” he said.

(Reminder: Although city elections are nonpartisan, both major parties try to dominate them, and being branded a Democrat is not a liability inside the city limits, for the most part.)


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