Witt hones career through listening, working, winning

Frank CagleFeature, Frank Talk

Knox County Clerk Sherry Witt’s first political campaign was when she was a student at Fulton High School. She campaigned for her father, Big Jim Corcoran, who was running for sheriff.

“He was an Irish Catholic Democrat, and I’m a Republican Southern Baptist – go figure.” Big Jim didn’t win the race, but over the next decades Sherry Witt would be involved in many more political races, and she never lost one.

She got a degree in social work at the University of Tennessee in 1982 and landed a job working for Helen Randles in the offices of the Criminal Court. Two years later she went to work for Steve Hall in the Register of Deeds office as a clerk. In those days, in order to continue working at the courthouse, you needed to be sure that your boss won re-election. And Hall did win re-election after re-election until the term-limits provision was finally enforced in 2007.

During lunch at Calhoun’s on the River at a waterfront table, Witt reminisced about her career and the women who showed her how a woman could be successful in the rough-and-tumble world of courthouse politics. She learned her courthouse job in the daytime, and she learned the political game after hours, active in various Republican clubs and political campaigns.

“I watched and learned. Martha Phillips and Mary Lou Horner showed me how to do it.” Phillips was the longtime Criminal Court Clerk, and Horner was a long-serving Knox County commissioner. She says what she learned is that you don’t need to be negative and to make sure the public business gets done.

Witt worked her way up in her day job and worked her way up in politics. Over the years, she went from newly hired clerk to being the deputy Register of Deeds when Hall stepped down. She served out his term, ran for the office and became the first woman to be elected as Register of Deeds in Knox County. She and her deputy, Nick McBride, jumped into the digital age very quickly, and the thousands of documents in the Register’s office were computerized. The paperless office saves a million copies a year and allowed her to reduce staff by attrition over a 10-year period.

When she was term limited this year she ran for County Clerk and McBride ran for Register of Deeds. They both won easily. Candidates usually spend a lot of time wooing voters in West Knox; it’s important because it has a large population. But what Witt and successful courthouse officeholders know is that in North, East and South Knox, everybody votes. You ignore them at your peril.

Witt is often asked for advice by candidates, some of them for statewide office, but she stayed out of this year’s gubernatorial race. “I don’t get involved in primaries.”

We were at lunch the day county commissioners were to pick a new commissioner that afternoon to replace Dave Wright. Wright was elected to the state House and had resigned his commission seat. I asked her to handicap the race, and she said she thought Richie Beeler might have a good chance. Beeler, who had worked for 30 years with Witt in the Register’s office, was indeed selected from among six applicants. (Two other applicants saw the writing on the wall and withdrew beforehand.)

Though newly elected, Witt has already made some changes in the Clerk’s office. Some of the work at the courthouse is seasonal, so she and County Trustee Ed Shouse have a pilot program at two locations to cross-train employees to spread out the workload. She plans to open a passport office in Halls after the first of the year. If a person has the correct paperwork, they can now renew car tags for someone who is unable to get to the clerk’s office.

The 59-year-old Witt has two daughters, with her ex-husband Jay, and two grandchildren. She was the first woman elected Knox County Register of Deeds and the first woman elected Knox County Clerk. When she is term limited, the county mayor will also be term limited, and that job will be vacant. Another first? She just laughs.

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