Political campaigns seem to last forever anymore, but the county primary is finally heading into the home stretch. On May 1, we’ll get an answer to the question Sandra Clark asked last year – do you remember Black Wednesday?
Lee Tramel’s betting you won’t. Or if you do, he thinks you don’t give a damn.
You’ve seen him in the news a lot in recent months, holding press conferences in front of freshly-raided establishments accused of fencing stolen goods, the proceeds of which end up fueling the opioid trade, Tramel’s signature issue. The businesses he busts are in urban areas within the jurisdiction of the Knoxville Police Department. Used to be, sheriffs had enough to do outside the city limits.
Tramel’s got money, powerful supporters and name recognition (see above) and is the frontrunner to become the next sheriff. He’s the administrative chief – there are all kinds of chiefs in the Knox County Sheriff’s Office – but is outranked by Chief Deputy Eddie Biggs, among others, which you’d never guess by following current events because it’s always Tramel’s mug on TV. Incumbent Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones doesn’t fool with that stuff anymore.
A vast majority of deputies (my sources tell me it’s probably 100:1) prefer Tramel’s Republican primary opponent, Tom Spangler. There is no Democratic candidate.
Spangler, who spent many years working his way up through the ranks until he became the chief of training, has a reputation for honesty and fair dealing. Many observers (including me) figured he was the obvious choice to be appointed sheriff when incumbent Tim Hutchison was forced out of office in 2007 by a state Supreme Court decision upholding term limits in Knox County.
For reasons I never understood, the lame duck commissioners who were being ousted from office along with every other officeholder who had been there more than two terms – i.e., just about everybody – were allowed to choose their replacements and everybody else’s, too. The backroom deals were ratified at a called meeting on Jan. 27, 2007, later dubbed Black Wednesday because of public disgust at seeing relatives and cronies and spouses line up at the trough for their rewards.
Hutchison figured he ought to get to choose not only his successor but a couple of the commissioners who would be voting on a fat new pension plan for law enforcement officers later that year. He wanted to triple dip, and he did.
It was kind of a head scratcher when Hutchison, never known as the forgiving sort, kicked his friend and longtime colleague Tom Spangler to the curb (they’d started their careers at about the same time, working the Adam shift together) and threw his clout behind Jones, who had resigned his job and run against Hutchison in the primary a few years prior, then turned around and supported his Democratic opponent in the general election and in the process called his old boss a bunch of mean, ugly stuff I can’t quite recall.
Black Wednesday rolled around a couple of weeks after the state Supreme Court finally ruled that elected officials in Knox and Shelby counties had to abide by the results of a 1994 term limits referendum, in which the voters sent a strong message that they wanted to clean house. This came as a terrible shock to county officials, who’d been ignoring the referendum all those years based on some arcane legal opinion (shout out here to former commissioner Bee DeSelm, who cited the will of the voters when she retired herself in 1998).
There’s a lot more to Black Wednesday history, including more lawsuits, court orders, perjury, ousters, reconfiguration of the commission and general housecleaning than I can deal with in this column, but here’s the shorthand version: Hutchison got Jones installed as sheriff. He got Tramel and another pliable Republican on County Commission, and then Jones turned around and hired Hutchison at a six-figure salary. Tramel, after disclosing his conflict of interest as required by law, voted for the new pension plan, which passed by a healthy margin and proceeded to break the bank until the bleeding was stanched a few years later. Hutchison retired after the pension deal was done, and a number of former commissioners got jobs working for the sheriff’s office. Tramel got promoted, but was defeated when he sought election as a commissioner.
Bottom line: it’s good to be friends with the sheriff, and not just to get your drunk uncle out of jail. The sheriff controls more patronage jobs than anybody in county government except maybe the schools superintendent, and wields an outsized influence over the members of County Commission, who have the final say on lucrative land use issues and are served lunch prepared downstairs in the jail kitchen at their monthly meetings. It’s not just baloney sandwiches anymore.
For a comprehensive recap of local history, see this story for WBIR-TV that Mike Donila wrote on the 10th anniversary of Black Wednesday.