January 3, 2023


U.S. women's rights pioneer Lucretia Mott was born 230 years ago today.

In today's report: The political landscape for Knox County government in 2023 won't be as lively as last year's, with its multiple rounds of contested elections. But there are still some major items on the county agenda. The Advance Knox planning process will come to fruition, probably not without some lively discussion. For the first time in a decade, the county will put its ambulance contract out to bid. And several significant infrastructure projects will either wrap up or get underway. Meanwhile, eyes across the state will be on County Mayor Glenn Jacobs watching for any sign of an incipient gubernatorial bid. We take a look at the county's year ahead.

It's not news to those of us who have watched U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett's political career that he can be a little quirky. There's the (possibly tongue-in-cheek) interest in Bigfoot, the not-at-all-joking interest in UFOs, and the ever-present Carhartt jacket, among other things. As he begins his third term in Congress today, his reputation has apparently taken root in the nation's capital as well.

An article in the online political publication Politico yesterday dubbed Burchett "the House GOP's newly crowned comedy king." The story begins, "Every class has its clown, and in the House GOP no one has earned that reputation quite like Rep. Tim Burchett." It cites assorted jokes Burchett has either told or pulled on his colleagues and notes that his sense of humor has served him well in making friends on both sides of the political aisle.

The probable next Speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, told Politico, “He has the ability to take a serious situation, lighten the room, but also make his point.” (Like most but not all Republican House members, Burchett is supporting McCarthy's speaker bid.)

Burchett was happy enough with the article to retweet it. Asked for comment by Compass yesterday, he said in a statement, "I’ve been able to pass bipartisan legislation since I’ve been here. I like to cut up but I don’t ever take my job for granted. I’ll never take myself seriously but I’m very serious about the work I do.”

Predictably less impressed was Mark Harmon, the University of Tennessee journalism professor who was Burchett's Democratic opponent in November. "I view his entire congressional career as performance art, but the voting record is more tragicomic," Harmon said in an email, throwing in some zingers of his own. "My theory on his recent scruffy beard is that he no longer can look in a mirror to shave following his shameful failure to debate me. As we approach the second anniversary of the January 6th insurrection, let's remember there is nothing funny about Burchett's votes aligned with the insurrectionist position, just morally repugnant acts hiding behind faux populism."

Still, Burchett's off-the-cuff folksiness — what Politico calls his "unusual freewheeling approach" — obviously works just fine with his East Tennessee constituents, who returned him to office with 68 percent of the vote. He may be a cut-up, but at the ballot box he reliably gets the last laugh.

Debbie Helsley, who came up short in her run for Knox County mayor in 2022, announced her candidacy for Knoxville City Council At-Large Seat B on Monday. The Seat B incumbent is Janet Testerman.


Helsley, a former president of Knoxville’s Communications Workers of America Local 3805 and a former vice chair of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, said in a news release that she would build her campaign on worker’s rights, housing affordability, economic opportunity and neighborhood advocacy.


“It’s time to bring more seats to the table and create a Knoxville that is truly for all of us,” Helsley said. “Knoxville still has work to do to ensure that everyone lives in safe communities, has access to housing that is affordable, and has access to green spaces and a clean environment.”


Helsley is a founder of the South Woodlawn Neighborhood Association in her native South Knoxville, and she served as the neighborhood’s representative on the South Knoxville Neighborhood and Business Coalition. She served 10 years on the City of Knoxville’s Civil Service Merit Board


A Democrat, Helsley garnered a respectable 45 percent of the vote in last year’s run for County mayor against incumbent Glenn Jacobs. More to the point for the purposes of her nonpartisan City Council bid, she earned 61 percent of the vote inside the city limits. Testerman, who was elected to City Council in 2019, ran unsuccessfully last year in the Republican primary for the 18th state House District seat. She has not yet announced if she will seek a second term this year.


Oak Ridge National Laboratory named two top executives over the holidays. Jeremy Busby is the new associate laboratory director for the Fusion and Fission Energy and Science Directorate, while Paul Langan will be associate laboratory director for the Biological and Environmental Systems Science Directorate.


Busby will oversee the Fusion and Fission Energy and Science Directorate’s facilities and the scientists and engineers who are tackling such challenges as extending operations of the current U.S. nuclear reactor fleet; investigating economical and flexible advanced reactor systems; and making fusion energy a viable part of the nation’s energy portfolio. 


“ORNL has a proud history of addressing compelling challenges in both fusion and fission energy systems, and I’m honored to contribute to our success moving forward,” Busby said in a statement. “ORNL’s Fusion and Fission Energy and Science Directorate has the world-leading expertise to advance the development and deployment of both fusion and fission. Combined with the additional strengths across ORNL’s research and support organizations and ORNL’s unique capabilities, we will fortify our nation’s energy transition.”


Busby joined ORNL in 2004 and has served in several leadership roles at the laboratory, most recently as director of the Nuclear Energy and Fuel Cycle Division. He assumed his new role on Jan. 1.


“Jeremy’s diverse experience and passion for ORNL perfectly suit him to lead an organization central to the lab’s identity, both historically and today,” ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia said.


Langan will join the leadership team in the spring. He will lead the Biological and Environmental Systems Science Directorate convergence research in biology, ecology, engineering, data discovery, physical sciences and computing that advances U.S. competitiveness in the global bioeconomy and Earth system sustainability. 


He is returning to ORNL after nearly two years as director general of the Institute Laue Langevin in Grenoble, France, the premier center for neutron science and technology in Europe. He will succeed Stan Wullschleger, who will retire in 2023 after 33 years at ORNL.

“This directorate is positioned to be at the forefront of tackling some of the most important challenges we face over the next decade, thanks to Stan’s leadership and the contributions of many talented staff members,” Langan said. “One thing that I’ve enjoyed doing over the years is bringing together technical and scientific staff from different disciplines to solve complex problems. I look forward to continuing this multidisciplinary approach, so that together we can deliver further research solutions in biological and environmental systems science that will improve our future.” 

Several generations of East Tennesseans may feel nostalgic reading this week's cover story in the Nashville Scene about the life and untimely demise of Opryland, the theme park that was the Music City's top tourist attraction for a quarter-century until its closure in 1997.

The article by reporter Laura Brown recalls popular rides like the Screamin' Delta Demon and the Grizzly River Rampage as well as its regular music shows, which drew on and provided a paying gig for the city's community of hotshot pickers and singers. But mostly it takes a detailed look at the abrupt decision by owners Gaylord Entertainment to shut the park down despite its ongoing profitability, and replace it with the Opry Mills shopping mall.

The decision knocked Nashville's tourist trade back on its heels for several years and also turned out to be a bad deal for Gaylord, which ended up selling the mall for less than it had cost to demolish the theme park.

Butch Spyridon, the longtime head of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp, told the Scene, “I thought (closing the park) was a mistake then and still think so now, but Gaylord didn’t ask our opinion or advice."

The theme park business has its ups and downs.