People running for political office, especially those who win, usually make it a point to have lunch with Jim Jennings. It’s not just that he writes checks – though he does that quite often – it’s that he knows “everybody,” given his 77 years in Knoxville.
“I like to put things together,” he says. His wide network of friends and his reputation are such that getting his stamp of approval and his introductions to the right people is more valuable than a contribution. He has been a stalwart of the Democratic Party, though in recent years there have been few Democrats to support in Knox County.
When he chooses to endorse a Republican, like Bill Haslam running for governor, “it’s all about character. Are they a good person?”
He was pleased to see the local Democratic Party show signs of life this past election, fielding a number of candidates for legislative office. He points to incumbent House member Rick Staples and Jamie Ballinger, who ran a closer-than-expected race against Republican incumbent Sen. Richard Briggs, as future stars. Gloria Johnson defeated incumbent Republican Eddie Smith, and Greg Mackay came within a hairsbreadth of beating incumbent Republican Martin Daniel.
Jennings dropped out of Rule High School at the age of 17 and joined the Army. “I didn’t find anything that interested me in school,” he says. He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. When he got back from the service he got his GED and went to work as a clerk at Dempster Dumpster, where he began to learn the printing business. He met his wife, Francis, who was an accountant at Dempster, and they were married in 1963. He lost her about a year and a half ago.
Jennings was also a union organizer and helped unionize the steelworkers at Dempster. He moved on to work in the print shop at the University of Tennessee, then at a variety of print shops around town. He started his own business, printing labels, in 1988 with his partner, Clifton Beeler.
Jennings had two shifts going at his printing plant when the recent recession hit. He cut back and reduced his staff by attrition. He now has 10 employees and he has one machine he runs himself. He’s still working at the age of 77 because “I don’t have any hobbies and golf is boring. What I enjoy is work.
“The only thing I know is how to make money.”
He speaks with obvious pride of his foster son, Aaron Carroll. He worries a bit about the future for the younger generation when it comes to jobs and affordable housing.
- “It’s not immigrants that are taking jobs, it’s artificial intelligence.”
- “Why are we taking green space for development when we have brownfields we can redevelop?”
- “Young couples can’t afford the new houses they are building out in the country. But the city has what we used to call ‘starter homes.’ You’d buy a small house, build some equity, sell it and move to a larger house. The city still has those type houses for young people starting out.”
Jennings admits the Democratic Party has fallen on hard times statewide. Phil Bredesen was the party’s best shot at getting back to relevance, but he lost the U.S. Senate race to Marsha Blackburn.
“It’s going to take a long time for the Democrats to come back” in Tennessee, he says.
It would likely take less time if they would listen to Jim Jennings.