Playing Political Chess

Illustration by Dan Proctor

The fundamental strategies of a municipal face-off

I don’t play chess, but I’ve played a real-life political version in contests involving many millions of dollars—or a politician’s future. In politics, even what seems the right move can sometimes be wrong. At other times, a strategic move into an opponent’s trap can instead be used to make them a prisoner of their own device. Whether such face-offs occur in cities and towns, or in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, the game’s fundamentals are identical.

An example of behind-the-curtain political strategizing that sometimes underlies public policy decisions occurred when I served as the Knoxville mayor’s press secretary and city public affairs director. Mayor Victor Ashe, I, and the rest of his senior staff were at a planning retreat when I was summoned to the phone. My office was calling to say a News Sentinel reporter had questions on the city’s reaction to a vote that day by Knox County Commission, yet another shot fired in an ongoing city-county political war.

Ashe and County Executive Dwight Kessel had a tense relationship even prior to Ashe’s election. Personalities, policy, and competition between governments kept things at a boil. A particular sore spot was that Ashe pushed an aggressive annexation program, from which the city continues to benefit. County government resented it mightily. Each retail property annexation meant that the city received a portion of sales tax dollars that would otherwise have gone to county government. There was near-constant conflict between city and county.

In that spirit, county commission cast the vote motivating the reporter’s call. At that time, the 1982 World’s Fair was almost a decade past, and the fair’s useless and crumbling U.S. Pavilion was a source of community discussion and disagreement. Finally, the city contracted for the pavilion’s demolition. County commission sensed opportunity. For several years, plans had been underway nationally to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the New World. A Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission formed in 1985, by act of Congress. As plans progressed, Knoxville seemed in line for a starring role: “The shuttered U.S. Pavilion at 1982 World’s Fair site in Knoxville, Tenn., would be reopened as the celebration’s ‘official exhibition site,’” the Washington Post reported in an Oct. 30, 1991, story. Few people thought it a viable idea, and the private sector wouldn’t pony up financing money. But now, the county commission had voted on first reading to spend $15 million to fund the Columbus exhibit—in the U.S. Pavilion.

I quietly told the mayor what was happening. He called a time-out in the meeting, and he, I, and several other senior advisors went into another room. After considering various responses, the mayor asked my colleagues their opinions. Each, as memory serves, stated cogent, accurate, and substantive reasons why the pavilion should come down. The mayor wanted it demolished to expand World’s Fair Park. He turned to me: “You’ve been quiet. What’s your take?”

“Give it to them,” I said. “They want it? Let them have it.” The reactions in the room were a combination of curiosity and, “What have you not heard us saying?” I continued. “They don’t want to dump $15 million on this thing. They expect you to dig in your heels and have it torn down. Then they’ll say, ‘This event could have brought jobs and millions of dollars here, and Ashe has thrown it away.’

“Tell them they can have it,” I said. “On second reading they’ll run away from it so fast their underwear will have to catch up with them.” Everyone was quiet. Debate followed, and then a mayoral decision: I called the reporter to say the county could have the building and only had to hold the city harmless for the already-signed more than $400,000 demolition contract. At the next meeting of county commission, the idea of spending $15 million for the pavilion vanished faster than a friend who owes you money. County officials were left trying to explain their dramatic about-face. It was a good day. For us.

Much, if not most, of public square political gamesmanship, regardless of how complicated, how sensitive, or the stakes, is political combatants trying to make the other side look bad. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t—and sometimes it blows up in their face. Political figures, when they make a move, often forget to be careful what they wish for.

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