Unmatched: Bee DeSelm was in a league of her own

Betty BeanKnox Scene, West Knox

Story updated to correct year of Rogero election


One of my favorite footnotes to local politics happened when Knox County Commissioner Bee DeSelm’s Republican Primary opponent accused her of supporting nude dancing. DeSelm, who was as strait-laced and proper as any Sequoyah Hills granny, was a First Amendment purist who had voted against an ordinance requiring topless dancers to wear pasties.

Her opponent, a member of the Christian Coalition who was also gunning for DeSelm for voting against a resolution opposing “special rights” for gay people, assumed Republican Primary voters would be outraged, but the accusation never caught on because nobody bought the notion that DeSelm was a champion of hoochy-koochy dancing. DeSelm won walking away.

Bee DeSelm

KnoxTnToday CEO Sandra Clark was involved in all of DeSelm’s campaigns and says she considered capitalizing on the would-be scandal by soliciting contributions from the owners of the Mouse’s Ear. “I tried to hit up the Brownings, unbeknownst to Bee, of course…”

It’s probably just as well it didn’t work, considering that DeSelm refused to accept contributions over $5. Keeping track of stacks of sweaty dollar bills would have been an accounting nightmare.

When I heard that Bee had died of Alzheimer’s disease this week at the age of 95, I searched out everything I’ve written about her over the years. This story, from City Election Night 2011, is my favorite:

“About the time that Mark Padgett called Madeline Rogero to concede the election, Bee DeSelm was rolling her walker up the ramp into the Foundry to join the victory celebration.

“Inside, the first woman ever elected mayor of Knoxville was watching for her former County Commission colleague, whom she considers her mentor and inspiration.

“I called her in 1990 when I was running for County Commission and said ‘Hey, can I come get some advice?’ I asked how much time it took to be a county commissioner and she pulled out her appointment book and showed me details that you need to know when you are thinking about running for political office,” Rogero said. “She was a great role model, an advisor and somebody who always studied the issues and didn’t look out in the crowd to see who was sitting there to determine which way she was going to vote. She studied the issues and did what she thought was right.”

Read the full column here: Rogero_DeSelm-2011

DeSelm and Mary Lou Horner were elected to County Commission (then called county court) in 1976 and were the first women elected to that body in living memory.

DeSelm was a feminist, pro-choice, Unitarian Republican who would not survive in today’s polarized political climate. She was also highly disciplined and organized and was an encourager and a mentor to other women. She lived a long and fruitful life – registered nurse, elected official, committed community and church volunteer, devoted wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, supportive friend.

She and her professor husband, Hal, lived across Kingston Pike from former mayor Victor Ashe, who was probably her first political mentor, and she would visit his home every sunny summer day to swim.

“She came over to do her 20 laps,” he said. “I was the only person she would support over a woman – just joking – but Bee was remarkable, unflappable, didn’t fit any particular partisan mold, and was in it for the right reasons.”

He also mentioned DeSelm’s most consistent cause as a county commissioner – defending city residents. She constantly reminded her colleagues that city taxpayers are county taxpayers, too, and if this sounds pretty elementary today, it didn’t 40 years ago.

“She always felt that city residents didn’t get their fair share of county services,” Ashe said. “She did the math and pointed out that city taxpayers were paying more per person than those outside the city. She would say no to some of the most important people in town and was true to her convictions. She was unique and her integrity was beyond question.”

Clark, who served two terms in the state House before she went fulltime in the newspaper business, was active in many political campaigns, including Horner’s. She said it would be a mistake to assume that Horner and DeSelm were pals. Best evidence of that would be the time Horner decided to unseat DeSelm as chair of the Education Committee, which DeSelm had helmed for years. Horner was successful, despite lacking the deep knowledge of educational issues that DeSelm had. If DeSelm was resentful, it never showed. And Horner’s battles with then-Superintendent Charles Lindsey are legend.

“There was no deviousness to Bee,” Clark said. She ticked off a list of her memories, among which was the time when DeSelm was diagnosed with breast cancer, did her own research and decided on her own course of treatment.

“It was not what the doctor was recommending.”

DeSelm was thrifty, organized, thoughtful and uninterested in moving to a higher office.

“She was super bright,” Clark said. “Her lack of ambition limited what she would do, but she worked hard for what she believed in. She raised a lot of money for good causes. She hit me up for $1,000 for that damn suffrage statue on Market Square.”

Attorney Herb Moncier was involved in DeSelm’s last (and perhaps most consequential) hoorah – a lawsuit against Knox County to defend term limits and enforce state open meetings laws. The story is too long and complex to restate here, but the shorthand version is that they fought an uphill battle and eventually won.

On Jan. 31, 2007, Moncier and DeSelm were sitting in his office watching her former colleagues thumbing their noses at the Sunshine Law during the soon-to-be-notorious Black Wednesday commission meeting.

“As each one of those things occurred, I was typing a lawsuit, and after the meeting was over, Bee and a group of citizens filed the lawsuit within one hour,” he said.

The court battle was long and painful, and they didn’t turn the corner until the News Sentinel lawyer Rick Hollow joined the fray.

“That gave us some legs,” Moncier said.

In the end, DeSelm and her co-plaintiffs won the right to have the case heard by a jury, which ruled in their favor on every issue they cited.

Moncier considers her a hero.

“Bee DeSelm was a pillar of honesty, integrity and good government. The world has lost one of its angels.”

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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