This time last year, Lee Tramel held a campaign kickoff event at the Lakeside Tavern. The crowd of well-wishers wasn’t just big; it was substantial – a who’s-who of well-heeled Republican activists, officeholders, donors and special interests – everyone a candidate would need to get elected sheriff. Even a few Democrats snuck in.
One longtime politico (whose name may or may not be Mike Arms) was telling anybody who’d listen that Tramel was a cinch to win the GOP nomination because opponent Tom Spangler “wouldn’t be able to raise $10,000.”
That stuck in my mind because it was the exact same thing that former Sheriff Tim Hutchison said to me on Jan. 31, 2007, when I asked him why he was supporting Jimmy “J.J.” Jones as his successor instead of his chief deputy, Tom Spangler, who was one of the most respected cops in Knox County.
“Spanky can’t raise the money,” Hutch said.
Puzzled, I went looking for Spangler and found him in the back of the Large Assembly Room looking miserable. When I asked him why he didn’t pitch his hat in the ring, he shook his head. I don’t recall him saying a word.
That was Black Wednesday – the day the state Supreme Court forced Knox County to abide by term limits – and it was a debacle by any measure. The county got sued for violating state sunshine laws and all the appointees (including Jones, who was appointed sheriff and Tramel, who was appointed to County Commission) were removed from office.
For those of us who watch politics like sporting events, 2018 Tramel v Spangler was kind of déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra used to say.
This week, voters were not of a mind to return familiar faces to office, and by the time the votes were counted, Tramel and two other candidates who enjoyed strong financial support from traditional sources –Brad Anders and R. Larry Smith – found themselves on the short end.
None were incumbents – at least not for the offices they were seeking – but Tramel, as the sheriff’s administrative chief, has been so visible (and Sheriff Jones so absent) that Tramel’s name recognition might exceed that of his boss. Anders, who will be term limited off the county commission in two years, has enjoyed strong financial support from developers and the Chamber crowd. Smith, who was term limited out of his District 7 commission seat four years ago, is known as an obnoxiously high-pressure fundraiser who rakes in lots of dough.
Two other familiar faces, term-limited incumbent Register of Deeds Sherry Witt and her chief deputy, Nick McBride, were able to escape the deadly “career politician” label and prevailed in their respective races. Witt won the nomination for county clerk; McBride got the party’s nod to succeed Witt as register. Neither will be opposed in the General Election.
Roger Kane, who ran against Witt, is a state representative; Steve Hall, who ran against McBride, is a former state representative and City Council member and frequent also-ran for other offices, which is probably why neither was able to successfully label Witt or McBride as swamp things.
Smith, the scandal-scarred old-timer who represented Halls and Powell on the county commission from 2006-2014, lost the GOP nomination for the at-large seat 11 to newcomer Justin Biggs by 53-46 percent. Biggs will face Democrat Daniel Gerke in August.
Political neophyte Glenn Jacobs (professionally known as the wrestler Kane) edged Anders out by 23 votes after provisional ballots were counted Thursday. He will face Democrat Linda Haney in August.
Spangler crushed Tramel 64-35 in another race the Democrats won’t contest, which means the 28-year Hutchison dynasty, with its tradition of exerting influence on matters far afield from law enforcement, is done.
And there’s a new sheriff in town.