Valliant: a colorful career in politics, land development

Frank CagleNortheast Knox, Our Town Leaders

Knoxville attorney John Valliant Jr.’s parents migrated south from Canada and wound up in Oak Ridge in 1943. His father worked on the super-secret classified Manhattan Project “and he was an illegal alien,” Valliant laughs. As paymaster he had the names and personal information on all the employees busily constructing the first atomic bomb. But the government quickly moved his father through the process to get his citizenship.


Valliant was born in 1947 and grew up attending Oak Ridge schools. He came to Knoxville to get his degree in accounting and then his law degree at the University of Tennessee. His parents were staunch Democrats who were actively involved in political campaigns, and Valliant got the political bug early. He worked on Democratic campaigns in the 1970s. “I helped Randy Tyree when he ran for mayor. Worked surrounding counties for (Public Service Commissioners) (Keith) Bissell and (Frank) Cochran.”

His involvement in campaigns led to his being elected Knox County Democratic Party chair in 1982. “We elected Judge Cary Garrett, Sheriff Joe Fowler, a half dozen county commissioners.”

In those days elections were run by what might be called ward heelers in Chicago. Two of them were Bobby Toole and Paul Nicely. “Bobby would have beer bashes in the housing projects the night before the election. He could deliver about 3,000 votes citywide, which was usually enough to win. He had influence in 24 wards.”

Valliant visited polling places on Election Day. He remembers that Toole was handing out bubblegum to people in line at one place. “I asked him why and he handed me one and told me to open it. I took the wrapper off and there were two $1 bills inside. Another time I went to a polling place looking for him, saw his car outside. I went in but couldn’t find him. I asked somebody where he was and they pointed to a voting booth.” A voting booth where you could see four legs at the bottom.

In recent years Democratic officeholders have been scarce down at the courthouse. Valliant has found himself working for Republican candidates of late. The Democrats “just blew by me. I’ve never seen so much B.S.” as the national party has moved to the left. And some of the progressives in the forefront of the party these days? “There ain’t enough money to elect these people.” Valliant notes that the city of Knoxville has become liberal and in state elections only a countywide vote allows a Republican win.

“People nowadays like outsiders, not part of the establishment. President Trump led to (Knox County Mayor Glenn) Jacobs.” Gov. Bill Lee came out of nowhere to win the office. “Since Ray Blanton, we have had governors who were honorable men. Good governors.” The days of patronage committees in each county passing out state jobs and sweetheart contracts are over. “You could buy a governor’s tag for your car” to show you had political connections. “Nowadays if you get ahead in politics your word has to be good. You have to have the respect of your peers.”

As to the condition of the Democratic Party statewide, Valliant says Phil Bredesen let the political machinery fall apart when he was governor. “Bredesen knew the big donors and he met with them. But the workers who get the vote out, drive the vans, put out signs – I don’t know if he ever met with them. He didn’t know them. It would have made a big difference” in the recent U.S. Senate race that Bredesen lost to Marsha Blackburn.

Nowadays Valliant’s political activity is mostly fundraising. He and Judy, his wife of 29 years, have two children, and Valliant argues politics with his liberal daughter, Katherine, a Furman student. His son, John, is a conservative businessman.

Valliant’s law practice consists of representing utilities, small businesses, some divorce work. But he is best known for his work for developers. He joins Arthur Seymour Jr. and John King as the triumvirate of sherpas that guide projects through Knox Planning (formerly the Metropolitan Planning Commission), City Council and County Commission. Some people think that without them nothing would get built in Knoxville.

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