England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Mayors who crossed the line: a Tennessee tribute

Photo Credit: Fat Elvis Records via Compfight cc

This article originally appeared in the February issue of C’llr magazine that included a special feature on mayors. 

My childhood, and perhaps my formative political memories were formed by three politicians from my home state of Tennessee. While the scandal and stink of bad mayors and machine politics in Chicago or New York’s Tammany Hall (well-known to all swotty high school students and extra-credit seekers) or colourful crack smokers like Toronto’s Rob Ford and Washington DC’s Marion Barry are internationally famous, three politicians have forever coloured my view of what it means to be mayor: Boss Crump, Cas Walker and my own grandfather Bill Powell – who didn’t so much go wrong as be somewhat misunderstood by federal authorities. All three were only briefly mayors, but their power and influence far exceeded their terms of office.

The Memphis Kingmaker
Edward “Boss” Crump, was a Memphis politician who served three two-year terms as mayor from 1910 to 1915, but preferred to be the kingmaker and established powerful machine politics whose influence reached into the Governor’s office. He demanded signs of deference from underlings and political clients, such as calling him boss or singing on demand. He ran again for office after a disappointing run of mayors who showed too much independence, only to resign hours after taking office and handing over the title, if not the power, to a hand-picked successor.

Much of his success was built on engaging with the black vote, which many of his opponents sought to squelch. Tennessee, like many Southern states, brought in a poll tax of $2 that many black people could not afford. Boss Crump saw an opportunity in the majority black Memphis and he and his cronies bought vast quantities of poll tax receipts which were distributed to voters with instructions on how to vote and an invitation to post-ballot BBQs.

The Hillbilly Colossus
On the other end of Tennessee in Knoxville was Cas (rhymes with jazz) Walker, described by Knoxville journalist and historian Betty Bean as “Equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long, nobody was better longer than this hillbilly populist at selling what East Tennessee wanted to buy.” Anyone who grew up in Knoxville over a certain age will have memories of Cas and his folksy, salty charm. He was a local businessman who served on the Knoxville city council for thirty years, and reached international fame for a picture in Life Magazine showing him punching a fellow councillor in argument over tax assessment policy and municipal park food concessions. Like Crump, Walker successfully manipulated poll tax receipts and offered ‘advice’ to voters. Unlike Crump who had a (mixed) legacy of building and development, Cas fought hard against just about anything that might bring Knoxville kicking and screaming into the modern age.

Cas was elected mayor in 1946 and had a fractious reign of a mere few weeks of tumultuous meetings and sacking officers who didn’t tow the line. He was successfully ousted by the city council who staged a recall election. But while he was poor at consensus politics he was a genius of the media. He was a pioneering political and commercial marketer who was one of the first to understand the power of local television and a good stunt. He once buried a man alive in his grocery car park. It was a raging success and till receipts surged. When the man wanted out early due to ill health and the pure madness of being entombed in a coffin with only a stovepipe for ventilation, Cas refused to dig him up until he’d completed his 30 day contract. Cas only relented after medical intervention and ever after claimed that the aptly named Digger O’Dell was malingering a little.

Image from Kevin Bradley, Church of Type

Cas Walker’s tv shows broadcast locally for over 30. The Farm and Home Hour featured Old Time Appalachian singing and dancing, lengthy rants about local politics and low, low prices in his grocery chain. He also published a free newspaper – The Watchdog – which was staple reading for my parents, though they refused to shop at his stores. Watchdog diatribes against his political opponents resulted in a $13 million libel trial that ended badly for Cas and ultimately led to the waning of his power.

The union breaker
No one played a bigger role in my love of local government than my own grandfather who was firm believer in volunteering and civic service. He certainly wasn’t as colourful a character as Boss Crump or Cas Walker, but he was still an opinion former and worked every room he ever entered long after he left office. Bill Powell was a city commissioner in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee during the 1960s and acting mayor during the town’s only period of unrest. My grandfather had fought hard to bring industry to this impoverished area and managed to recruit a major manufacturer which was fleeing from a heavily unionised northern state. When union organisers arrived from out-of-town, the town was divided fearing the company would simply move again (as indeed later happened). Those in favour of unionization blocked the factory gates. My grandfather helped unblock them by swearing in local volunteers as constabulary who then bodily loaded protesters onto trucks and into holding cells the next county over. When union protesters slathered themselves with axel grease to make this job trickier, my grandfather helped his posse dip their arms in tar and coat them in sand to get the grip they needed. My grandfather ended up in court with an injunction against violating their civil rights, but with the unique proviso that he needed do this only so long as he and other city officials were not provoked.