He’s gay, he’s Republican and he’s running for mayor.
The gay part, first introduced in print by Scott Barker of Compass Thursday morning, is drawing a big so-what from likely city voters. It’s not like entrepreneur, philanthropist and former city chief operating officer Eddie Mannis has made any secret of that part of his life for a long, long time.
The Republican part might be tougher.
Knoxville went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and Democrat Renee Hoyos over Republican Tim Burchett in the 2018 District Two Congressional contest. The state’s four biggest cities are islands of blue in a sea of Tennessee red, and even though Knoxville city elections are nonpartisan, Mannis’s Republican voting record (he’s never voted in a Democratic Party primary) is raising some eyebrows in Democratic circles, as has his marking the “Republican” box on the treasurer’s report he filed with the election commission (his supporters call that a rookie mistake; something he didn’t need to do for a nonpartisan city election).
Mannis said his phone started ringing Thursday morning as people read Barker’s story. One friend sized up the situation succinctly:
“He was laughing and said, ‘Who would have thought that in Knoxville in 2019, being gay is more respectable than being Republican?’ ”
Mannis grew up in Frog Level (a hardscrabble “suburb” of Inskip), in a blue-collar, deeply religious family with Republican inclinations. The Mannises sang in church, and for about five years, he sang and played keyboards on weekends with a traveling gospel group called Cedar Ridge. He also struggled with his sexuality during that time, and even considered suicide before coming to peace with who he was. In an interview with Cameron Brooks, a former chair of the Knox County Democratic Party and local Realtor who writes a periodic newsletter, he talked about the empathy he feels for kids who are struggling with the same stuff he did:
“I have thought about what I would do once I retire. One area would be in mentoring kids, especially troubled kids, who are struggling with their gender identity, sexuality, any of those things that kids are struggling with, which really breaks my heart. With the high rate of suicide among some of our youth I think more work needs to be done there to help with that crisis. If I had a calling even now if I could just get to those kids and say, ‘Just hold on. Just hold on. It gets better. You can’t see it but it does. I was there where you are and it does get better.’ Helping those kids is something I would like to focus on when I do retire.”
Brooks is a strong Mannis supporter, and so are several other prominent Democrats, like state Rep. Rick Staples, the Rev. Harold Middlebrook and former City Council member Brenda Palmer. But others can’t get past his Republican voting record and are supporting former school board member Indya Kincannon or Marshall Stair, who is wrapping up his second term on City Council (although neither Kincannon nor Stair is ideologically “pure,” which probably reflects the political reality that local elections are frequently decided in county Republican primaries).
“I think they tie all Republicans to Trump,” Mannis said.
Did he vote for Trump?
As founder and CEO of Prestige Cleaners, he is proud to say that he has created thousands of jobs over the past 34 years. He is also proud of being the guy who brought Honor Air flights to Knoxville and has been able to take thousands of local veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the war memorials there. He has also chaired the boards of the Airport Authority and Zoo Knoxville. His resume is pretty overwhelming.
Middlebrook, Staples and Palmer sneer in the general direction of anyone who would question their choice for mayor:
Staples: “For me, it takes a lot of bravery, and I respect the fact that Eddie is openly gay. As an African-American male, I feel like he understands the prejudgments, being disrespected, being called out of his name because he has chosen to live his God-given life on his own terms.
“I am a proud Democrat. I’m also a businessman who knows what it’s like to be judged. And finally, as an African-American, we’re always taken advantage of. Everybody wants to come see us like we’re a can of peas, especially at election time. Eddie has been active in our community for years, and he’s provided jobs and opportunities. He and I had lunch one day, and there were several people there who had relatives who’d worked for him and said it was such a positive experience.
“It’s the things he has done and stood for years that have nothing to do with his being mayor. There may be some running for office that you don’t actually know what they stand for, or what they’ve done outside of elected office for the community. I don’t have to question that with Eddie Mannis.”
Middlebrook: “One of the great things about being a Democrat is that we have independence of mind, and there’s not a bad person in this race. It’s important to have a woman (Kincannon) running, and it’s also important that somebody young (Stair) is running. I think it’s great to have an openly gay man running for mayor, and it would be great to see an African-American be taken as a serious contender for mayor at some point in time …
“And I just believe that, looking at the things he has done with his own businesses, veterans and just listening to him project where he sees Knoxville headed, I just believe that he will make a good mayor. He has already been involved in a lot of things, contrary to some others who have not necessarily done the same.”
Palmer is more pointed: “Are we electing a mayor because we want to have sex with that person? All those people who go on those Honor Air flights don’t seem to worry too much about it. Out in the county, it might be an issue, but in the city, people don’t seem to care.”
She liked the way Mannis did his job as city COO under Mayor Madeline Rogero and believes his business acumen will serve Knoxville well when the bills start coming due for the new police and fire department headquarters and the mass retirements she believes are brewing.
“This is really a nonpartisan seat, and from what I saw when he was in Madeline’s administration, I don’t think party mattered to Eddie at all.”