The Crazy True Story Of How A Handful Of Climate Advocates Painted A Red Town Green

Guest Blog | August 1, 2013 | Climate Change, Energy Policy, Solar

This post, by Zack Beauchamp, originally appeared on Think Progress’ Climate Progress blog here on July 31, 2013.

Knoxville, Tennessee. (Credit: Flickr user Alex Banakas)

Knoxville, Tennessee. (Credit: Flickr user Alex Banakas)

You might be surprised that the same town that Jeff Foxworthy calls home is a green haven. I’m not talking about the famous comedian. I’m referring to a man who, when not using Foxworthy as his nom de guerre, identified himself as “The Educated Redneck.” I met him while eating dinner at an English pub-themed restaurant in Knoxville’s Old City, where he bought four rounds of drinks for everyone seated at the bar in alarmingly rapid succession. “Are you having a good time?” he asked me (and everyone), in a thick, drunken drawl.

Actually, I was. And not (only) because of Mr. Redneck’s Jack Daniels IV. My visit to Knoxville, on assignment to investigate the surprising blossoming of a clean economy in blood-red East Tennessee, had been going beautifully. It wasn’t just that the Knoxville city government’s push to green the city was impressive, though it was: over the past seven years, Knoxville has reduced the city government carbon footprint by 17 percent, multiplied its solar capacity by 133 times, saved millions per year through an energy efficiency push, and (by one metric) become the fastest-growing metro area for green jobs in the country. And they’re just getting started, with plans to tackle big remaining sources of emissions like urban sprawl and agriculture.

But beyond the concrete policy successes, there’s a deeper, human story about how a town where climate change, formerly a four-letter phrase in this right-leaning region, grew into a watchword. It’s the story of how a twice-arrested labor organizer who made fighting climate change part of her Mayoral platform was given the power to do just that by the silver-spoon oilman that beat her. It’s the story of how a polymath political science professor happened upon a young environmentalist halfway across the country who turned out to be just the person to make Knoxville’s buildings efficient and its power clean. It’s the story of how a city bureaucrat whose project was falling apart got a second chance, and how she used it to cement Knoxville’s green momentum.There are broader lessons, too. Knoxville’s experience shows how even staunchly conservative coal country can be sold on commonsense efforts to save the climate. The rapid change, spearheaded almost exclusively by a tiny group of people, is a testament to the ways in which government, rescued from the clutches of enshackling ideologists, can serve the common good. It’s also, weirdly enough, proof of the far-reaching benefits of the 2009 stimulus package and the complex ways in which even minor-seeming federal action on climate change can make a big difference locally.

It’s a story, in short, about hope.


Knoxville, according to economist Tyler Cowen, is “the most perfectly average place in the United States.” The city is “big enough to be something, but not a truly large metropolis,” Cowen wrote (he’s more right than he knew). It is, in Cowen’s opinion, “educated enough to avoid some of the more stereotypical features of the South,” probably owing to the University of Tennessee (UT) and nearby Oak Ridge National Labs, but still identifiably both Southern and Appalachian. Situated just west of both the border with North Carolina and the Great Smokey Mountains, it’d be hard for it not to be.

Knoxville columnist Jack Neely charitably took Cowen’s note as a compliment. “To be ‘average,’ you need a little bit of everything, good and bad,” Neely, the author of six books about Knoxville, wrote. “Knoxville has garden clubs and street gangs. We have authors and illiterates. We have McMansions and crack houses — sometimes at the same address.”

Neely also sees city politics as pretty “average.” “In presidential races, the city proper almost always favors the Democrat” — a point one Knoxville progressive took pains to emphasize during my visit — “even as the county and metro area go Republican.”

So when I say Knoxville is a conservative city, I don’t mean that the city limits proper mark a hotbed of Tea Party activism, though that certainly exists. Knoxville’s conservatism, rather, is better understood in context of two broader truths. First, Knoxville is conservative by Tennessee and national city standards, as cities tend to be where any given state’s most progressive citizens concentrate. In 2012, Obama won Knoxville with 53 percent of the vote, a full five points below his national average in mid-size cities.

Second, Knox County and East Tennessee are themselves so intensely conservative as to more place limits on Knoxville’s already tepid-at-best progressivism. Knoxville’s Congressional district is among the top one percent most Republican districts in the country, as measured by the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Knox County, the district’s bluest, went for Romney by a 30 point margin. By contrast, the counties that house Tennessee’s other “Big Four” cities — Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga — respectively went for Obama by 26, Obama by 18.5, and Romney by 15.

Local politics can, according to some local politicos and activists, bring out Knoxville’s most conservative side. “When I got elected as Vice-Mayor,” former Knoxville City Councilman Bob Becker told me, “I was the only open Democrat on council at the time.”

Knoxville isn’t just redder than your average metropole — historically, it’s also been sootier. Knoxville is at the southern edge of coal country, and the dirty industry fueled the city’s economic boom in the late 19th century. As recently as the 1950s, Knoxvillians burned incredible amounts of coal in their homes for heating and cooking, coughing up a Beijing-style haze of particulates so thick that, in one colorful retelling, people would go to church wearing a white shirt and leave in a gray one. Knoxville-04Traces of the Knoxville haze remained into the late 70s; Bill Lyons, the city’s Chief Policy Officer and municipal mastermind, recalled looking out his 10th floor office and seeing “a layer of grimy air” produced by the commercial coal plants still burning inside the city limits. “I grew up in Memphis,” Lyons recalled, “and there was none of that there.”

Hailing from Memphis as he may, Lyons today is the essential Knoxvillian. Spend an afternoon out with Bill on Knoxville’s central Gay Street, and this city of 180,000 feel start to feel like a town one-tenth that size. It’s his habit to set up at a bar named Woodruff’s, just across the street from he and I visited, and hold court about city politics. He has an easy manner, something like a cross between a thoughtful, up-in-the-clouds college professor and your most gregarious uncle.

Lyons sounds like an academic because, in the not-so-distant past, he was one. For decades, he taught political science at UT, where he specialized in political statistics and methodology. His specialty was hardly his only interest, though — one of the first things out of Bill’s mouth when we met was an obscure joke about French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a reflection of his self-professed tendency to dabble in fields outside his own.

One of these many interests, city politics, dragged him into public service. By the 80s, Market Square, a restaurant/business plaza that’s historically been the beating heart of downtown Knoxville, had fallen into shambles: Lyons recalls it being populated with “homeless people sitting around drinking whiskey or something out of a paper bag,” its dozens of storefronts shuttered nearly to the last hinge. “Nobody ever came downtown,” he recalled “except to come down to the courthouse, do your business and leave.” Lyons had been appointed to a local urban development agency, where his job centered on fixing downtown in general and Market Square in specific.

He succeeded. Market Square and downtown Knoxville today are thriving, and Lyons seems to get the, er, lion’s share of the credit. “Without [Lyons’] herculean efforts,” wrote the Deputy to the Mayor in office at the time of the development push, “Market Square would not be what it is today — a vibrant city center.” The city even went so far as to name the square’s crowning pavilion after him.

Market Square, as seen from the Bill Lyons Pavilion. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)

Market Square, as seen from the Bill Lyons Pavilion. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)

Lyons’ experience with downtown development set up the city’s climate push in three different ways. First, he got some experience in how to make the city government hum that would prove invaluable down the line. For years, Knoxville’s city government had been paralyzed by bickering over whose grandiose development scheme to gamble on, resulting in a gummed-up government and, on the rare occasions it passed something, a slew of failed investments. “The political culture had gotten to a point here where it was like we can’t do anything,” Lyons recalled with some disgust.

The downtown development group tried a new angle; instead of coming up with a plan first and trying to ram it through City Council, they solicited feedback from the community and local businesses, both to get a better sense of the realities on the ground and build bases of political support for the eventual proposal. “By having a lot more open public process and using a lot of best practices,” Lyons recalled, “we sort of had a complete paradigm shift on how we dealt with development.” This bottom-up, consensus-building strategy would prove critical to the growth and eventual success of Knoxville’s sustainability push.

Second, environmental sustainability started to occupy more prominent real estate in Lyons’ personal intellectual map. Before he started working for the city, Lyons never really paid all that much attention to climate change or other environmental issues (he cited the Vietnam and Iraq wars and the civil rights movement as more formative political issues). But talking about the environmental costs of urban sprawl became a natural way to sell the downtown development push to some of Knoxville’s citizens; “[sustainability] became part of our message,” Lyons suggested, because it was one useful way to tout the virtues a more walkable Knoxville. As Lyons grew in power inside the city government, his support for greening Knoxville would prove decisive.

Third, it’s where he met a wealthy oil scion with political ambitions named Bill Haslam.

The Oilman And The Organizer

When Bill Haslam made his mayoral ambitions plain in 2002, he seemed unstoppable. His father, James “Big Jim” Haslam, founded Pilot Oil, a regional chain of gas stations and convenience stores that, by 1998, had grown to become one of the nation’s largest private corporations and restaurant franchises. Bill, Big Jim, and Bill’s older brother Jimmy filled the top roles at Pilot, and had used their wealth to become key players in the state’s political and philanthropic scenes. Think of them as something like a less established, Tennessean version of the Bush family.

“If you go to any concert, any event, anything that goes on, they’re major sponsors of it,” Lyons told me. Multiple sources who had talked openly about the Haslams wrote back after our conversations to ask that their on-record comments not be used in the piece. Speculation about Bill Haslam’s politics could “get me into some trouble,” one wrote. “It is just easier for me to stay out of all of that publicly,” another said.

Though the Haslams are staunch Republicans — the family donated lavishly to Karl Rove’s SuperPAC — they’re not fire-breathers. Even on climate change, the oilfolk don’t appear to have developed the reflexive hostility to environmental concerns bred into many dirty energy insiders. “I always felt in my interactions with [Bill Haslam] that he was thoughtful and reasonable,” Steve Smith, the director of Knoxville-headquartered Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), told me. The youngest Haslam was “what the Republican party used to be back in the ‘70s and even up probably until the early ‘90s, where the environment was not something that was a partisan issue that they’re always on the wrong side of.”

That’s not to say that Bill Haslam is a climate hawk. No one, including people that worked closely with him on sustainability issues, was even sure if he thought climate change was real. “I think that he thinks that it is real in the sense that changes are happening,” Smith said, but “I’m not sure where he is now or what he would be willing to say about the human causes of it [or] the pace at which we need to mitigate.” Haslam’s record as Governor of Tennessee (a position he took up in 2010) bears this out; though he weakly protested the veto-proof passage of a bill that would permit climate denial to be taught in schools, he has yet to make any major state-level pushes to improve the climate either. “Since he’s been governor, he has done nothing that I’m aware of to at all position the state in any sort of leadership,” Smith said. “He’s just being constantly pulled to the right by a bunch of these guys that are anti-science, anti-rational.”

So when Haslam began his political career in Knoxville, no one was all that surprised that environmental problems weren’t really on his agenda. His opponent, however, had other ideas.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons march in the city's 2012 Pridefest event. (Credit: Flickr user Wyoming_Jackrabbit)

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons march in the city’s 2012 Pridefest event. (Credit: Flickr user Wyoming_Jackrabbit)

If Bill Haslam represented Knoxville’s capitalists, then Madeline Rogero championed the proletariat. In 1974, when Haslam was 16, Rogero was getting paid five dollars a week as a college senior helping César Chávez and the United Farm Workers organize indigent farmhands. She recalls her “wonderful and meaningful” time working for Chávez with pride: “César was a great organizer of people, a strategic thinker, and an impassioned speaker. He was truly impressive and inspired many people to join the cause.”

She even got arrested for “the cause” — twice. In 1974, she was taken to jail for passing out union literature in Dayton, Ohio; in 1989, a Virginia coal company called the police on a sit-in for, in her words, “a 42-year-old disabled miner whose lower vertebra had been crushed in a mining accident that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair…the company had terminated his benefits.” At a 2011 public forum, Rogero bluntly defended her record: “I got arrested for standing up for working people.”

None of this fire comes across when you first meet Madeline. She speaks directly but not angrily, less like a soapbox firebrand and more like a consensus-building leader who hasn’t yet picked up the habit of speaking in the uniquely political dialect of soundbites and cant.

“He had four times the money,” she said of her campaign against Haslam, a note of insurgent pride creeping into her genteel Southern-accented voice. “We ran a very competitive campaign.” Indeed they did: Rogero went straight at Haslam’s family connections, running an ad mocking Haslam’s father and accusing him of presenting “the facade of a public process” while “the real decisions are made by an elite few.”

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Haslam, who had recruited Bill Lyons to help with his campaign after they had worked together on the downtown restoration project, began with a 15 point lead and ended up winning with 52 percent of the vote. But Rogero’s efforts weren’t for naught.

“I really talked about [sustainability] in my campaign,” Madeline said. “[Haslam] listened, he heard — that wasn’t his driving issue, but he wasn’t opposed. It was one of my driving-type issues.”

Lyons recalls a more limited, but nonetheless important, green debate. “She helped push these issues onto the agenda,” Lyons said. “Madeline was very savvy — she tended to put things out knowing that this was all new to the culture. Her putting it on the agenda in the mayor’s race definitely gave voice to the issue locally.”

The impact almost was immediate. “Some of my supporters,” Rogero said, “came in pretty early in his administration to talk to him…he [also] reached out to my people who were pretty sustainability minded.”

He actually went further than that. In a magnanimous move given the at-times bitter tone of the campaign, Haslam brought Rogero (along with Lyons) into his government.

“He was elected, so I feel like I needed to support him. So we immediately started communicating, and getting along and all, that was three years before he asked me to join his administration.” Madeline Rogero would begin serving as Bill Haslam’s Director of Community Development in 2006.

It turned out to be damn good timing.

“A Perfect Storm”

Madeleine Weil Klein was unemployed, and getting a little desperate.

“I spent a fair amount of time looking for a job,” she says with a chuckle. “I think at first nobody could quite figure out what I did.”

Klein, who moved from New Haven to Knoxville after her husband got hired to teach at UT, had spent the past four years getting the city of New Haven’s sustainability and climate change initiatives running and working for a Connecticut environmental non-profit. At first, it didn’t seem like there was much like that to do in Knoxville.

But Klein caught a break. Some people from UT had, as part of their recruiting push for her husband, sent her resume over to Bill Lyons, who was directing Haslam’s Department of Policy and Communications at the time. He met her when the young family came to visit and was “completely impressed.” Her interest in getting involved with local life, through things like a local food co-op, was “a classic [example] of how to get engaged in the community.” It’s not surprising that people would take to Madeleine: she has a winningly chipper, yet self-deprecating, manner about her.

A bit after Lyons met Klein, his deputy in the Office of Policy Development quit. Though the position’s primary responsibility was downtown restoration, rather than sustainability writ large, he offered her the job. “Once you have this, any work you want to do to [on sustainability]” is fine, he told her.

She started in January 2007 and, in one year, she and Madeline Rogero had in tandem launched the three major initiatives that would prove the hallmarks of Knoxville’s green makeover.

First, they got wind from Steve Smith’s group, SACE, that the federal government had created something called the Solar American Cities program, which offered a small number of grants to cities for the purposes of building up their solar industry. Klein and Lyons’ office pitched it to Haslam, who agreed to pursue it with SACE’s help.

Gil Hough was, at the time, the SACE employee charged with actually putting the thing together. “I got to spend my Christmas break writing this,” he winces. He also didn’t recall his draft proposal being very good. “It was complete, but it was rough. There were smaller kids at the home,” he appended apologetically.

Klein got the draft from Hough and, in the latter’s words, “disappeared” for two days. She came back with something that he described, in almost reverent tones, as “beautiful.” “She just rocked it out…She had contacted [the Knoxville Utility Board] and [Tennessee Valley Authority] and Oak Ridge National Laboratories and she lined up matching funds…within a week, which is the time we had, she had turned a very rough proposal into a beautiful proposal. She turned it into everything you need.”

Knoxville-03Knoxville, of course, won. As one of 12 Solar American Cities, they had about $400,000 freshly minted dollars to build up a solar industry virtually from scratch by March 2008. Most of the grant was earmarked for solar education, rather than direct investment, which meant that the straightest line to building up a solar industry — a subsidy program — was off-limits. Instead, Knoxville used the grant to do four things: teach potential solar entrepreneurs and relevant regulators how to get the industry off the ground through a series of public workshops and tutorials, create a database that allows local customers to find potential solar installers easily and quickly, directly install a solar array on the central, highly visible Convention Center to increase awareness, and to revamp zoning regulations to allow for solar to prosper. As we’ll see, the effects were dramatic.

Mayor Haslam, according to Lyons, didn’t need to wait to see the results before celebrating the solar grant. He singled out Klein’s “great work” at a council meeting, praising her “tremendous effort [that] paid off.”

Almost simultaneously, Haslam was realizing he had a major energy cost problem on his hands. Becker recalls a budget presentation where Lyons laid out the city’s expenses. Utilities were the city’s third-highest bill. Becker summarizes the Mayor’s reaction:”hoooo-llly…[he trails off].”

Klein and Rogero had a solution. The latter’s post at the Department of Community Development gave her purview over affordable housing projects, which she had used to start making energy-efficient improvements (particularly solar-heated hot water) as a means of both saving Knoxville’s poorest money and reducing the city’s climate footprint. Klein proposed expanding this effort to municipal buildings, employing a broader slate of energy efficiency improvements like weatherization and replacing inefficient boilers. The Madel(e)ines sold the Mayor on the project’s on fiscal grounds, and the city asked Ameresco, a retrofitting company, to audit the buildings to see what sort of improvements could be made in 2007.

The third initiative tied the first two together. In New Haven, Klein had seen the benefits of setting up a task force to assess the city’s resources and plan out what could be done. Following the path Lyons blazed during the city redevelopment, she put together a task force that brought in representatives from all relevant local stakeholders: NGOs (SACE, specifically), business (as represented by the Chamber of Commerce, which had recently come around to clean energy as a potential growth area for Knoxville), local and regional utilities, an interested City Councilman, and so on.

Knoxville's Riverwalk at night. (Credit: Flickr User Frank Kehren)

Knoxville’s Riverwalk at night. (Credit: Flickr User Frank Kehren)

The Task Force issued its report in January 2008, proposing an ambitious integrated strategy to lower Knoxville’s CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020. It coalesced into 33 concrete initiatives, including a loan-pilot system to allow citizens to retrofit private residences and businesses, tasking city officials with helping set up community gardens, set up single stream curbside recycling throughout the city, and replacing the city’s automobile fleet with more gas-efficient vehicles.

One major question, however, was funding. As he wasn’t much of a climate true believer, Haslam really only responded to dollar arguments for sustainable practices. How were Lyons, Rogero, and Klein going to persuade him to make all of these investments if the city had to pay for them in full?

Then Knoxville’s second stroke of good luck hit: the Great Recession.

It wasn’t the Recession itself that helped the city, of course. Knoxville took a hit just like everywhere else. Rather, it was its political aftermath — more specifically, the much-derided stimulus — that took Knoxville’s quest for sustainability to the next level.

Knoxville-02The general story is well-known, or, at least, it should be. Mike Grunwald’s The New New Deal, the seminal book on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), catalogued the massive slate of loans, tax credits, and grants tucked away in the bill for the purposes of making the recovery green. They funded energy efficiency retrofits, solar and wind power startups, and basic research in green tech. Grunwald’s basic thesis is that these investments represented “a giant leap towards cleaner energy,” one that would pay dividends all throughout the country.

Knoxville doesn’t appear in Grunwald’s book, but it’s as perfect a microcosm of his argument as he could’ve asked for. Klein, Lyons, and Rogero coauthored a grant proposal that earned the city over $2 million — more than a full one percent of its entire 2012 budget — to dump into shovel-ready green initiatives. That included seed capital to help cover the $19 million initial outlay necessary for Ameresco to go beyond audits and start actually implementing a slate of over 17 different types of retrofits on 99 municipal buildings, to install a solar array on the Convention Center that would end up, on its own, roughly quadrupling Knoxville’s solar capacity while simultaneously planting a huge green flag on one of the city’s central landmarks, and to train contractors in Energy Conservation Codes and Earthcraft Certifications in order to expand the private energy efficiency market, among other things.

Most importantly, the stimulus provided three years of funding for a new part of the city government — the Office of Sustainability — that would be tasked with both actually shoveling the “shovel-ready” cash to green projects and developing a plan for Knoxville’s future beyond the stimulus. The ARRA dollars weren’t just a one-time cash infusion: they were the catalyst for Knoxville’s green explosion.

Don’t Say Climate Change

But where was the opposition?

One might expect that, in the most conservative region of one of the nation’s most conservative states, someone might have had an objection to their region’s flagship city taking stimulus dollars to fund action against climate change. While Knoxville’s first major green push was peaking, the national Republican Party was getting busy fillibustering cap-and-trade legislation and making climate denial a central part of the party platform. It stands to reason that at least some of this would have trickled down to the East Tennessee grassroots.

Yet no one, ranging from Knoxville’s sustainability insiders to local businesses to clean energy advocates, could remember any meaningful opposition to Knoxville’s sustainability push. The most activity anyone could think of was a recent fuss about Agenda 21 — a benign UN document that some Tea Partiers have spun into a covert international plot to steal America’s golf courses. But the anti-Agenda 21ers in Knoxville and Knox County never posed much of a threat, as there were only 12 of them. That’s not just an expression for effect — Bill Lyons, who spends a lot of time on local blogs and web forums, counted them.

Knoxvillian opinion as to why local conservatives didn’t object to creeping environmentalism basically split into three schools of thought. The first, and least plausible, is that the nominally non-partisan character of local elections disconnected the national debate from the local one. The city’s politics “don’t lend themselves to partisan fighting,” said Jesse Fox Mayshark, Rogero’s current Communications Manager.

This explanation isn’t good enough. Everyone knew, in 2003, that Rogero was the Democrat and Haslam the Republican. If people wanted to bring the partisan climate fight back home to Knoxville, they would have known who to target. Moreover, the anti-Agenda 21 movement was built on opposition to local sustainability initiatives tied to the GOP’s national lurch rightward on climate change. In fact, what made Agenda 21 such a popular rallying cry in conservative localities around the country was that the document talks specifically about urban development. It’s hard to imagine what about Knoxville and Knox County politics specifically, given the depth and vehemence of local conservative opinion, would immunize the area from this national trend.

The second theory is that Bill Haslam’s imprimatur neutralized the threat. “Nobody’s gonna argue finance [and] business promotion with Bill Haslam,” Becker told me. If Haslam was selling clean energy on economic grounds, the local Republicans wouldn’t mount a challenge. That seems plausible enough given the Haslams’ Republican cred and economic clout, but it’s hard to prove. The President of the Knox County Republicans, Ruthie Kuhlman, declined to comment on these and related issues.

The third, and perhaps the grimmest, option is that they won by treating climate change like Voldemort: The Issue That Shall Not Be Named.

It wouldn’t be quite fair to say they never spoke about it. The 2008 Task Force report forcefully presents the risks climate change poses to East Tennessee — most notably, death from heat exposure, disease-born illness, and ecosystem collapse in the Smokey Mountains. Even Haslam himself boasted of their climate-friendliness, extolling the fact that the Ameresco retrofitting contract would “avert the release of approximately 18.5 million pounds of CO2 emissions annually, which is equivalent to taking more than 1,600 cars off Knoxville’s streets.”

The view from the Knoxville-adjacent Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)

The view from the Knoxville-adjacent Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)