For Tampa, Fla., native Elijah Ortega, learning that he and his childhood hero, World Wrestling Entertainment bad guy Kane, share the same adopted hometown was a bonus reaped from moving to Knoxville.
Ortega’s not real political, but he’s an avid wrestling fan, and when he saw a post on Glenn (“Kane”) Jacobs’ Facebook page saying that he’d be making an announcement at Sweet P’s Barbeque and Soul House in South Knox County last Tuesday, not even a signature Kane choke slam could have kept Ortega away.
He showed up at the eatery on the Little River with a backpack full of WWE pictures and magazines suitable for autographing, and hopes of handing his cellphone to someone willing to snap pictures of him with his hero. He stood by the ramp on the edge of the crowd and waited for his chance.
“I’m really shaking right now,” he said as the big man worked his way through a cluster of reporters and well-wishers, moving ever closer to the spot Ortega had staked out. “I grew up watching him. He was my hero since I was nine or 10 years old.”
A couple of ticks later, Ortega scored. Somebody handed his cell phone to Tennessee Conservative Union Chairman Gary Loe, who snapped pictures of Jacobs signing autographs and shaking Ortega’s hand. Ortega went home with a backpack full of memorabilia and said he’ll be voting for Jacobs for Knox County mayor next year. Politics didn’t appear to figure into his decision.
The announcement was well-staged, as one might expect from a seasoned entertainer: a decent-sized crowd crammed into a small space for maximum effect, lots of media, clever stage management by Brian Hair (a banker who ran Bob Corker’s Knox County operation when he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2007), and a heartfelt introduction by Gibbs High School social studies teacher Dean Harned, who praised Jacobs for his compassion and record of public service, called him a dear friend, and said they met 20 years ago when Jacobs was raising money in Halls for St. Mary’s Hospice.
The candidate and his wife, Crystal, made a dramatic entrance set to Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America.” Jacobs’ speech was short and full of Reaganesque references— low taxes, small government, making Knox a shining county on the hill. It was enthusiastically received.
A self-identified libertarian, Jacobs brushes off criticism that he’s not a “real” Republican.
“Libertarianism is a political philosophy. Ronald Reagan spoke of himself as a libertarian,” Jacobs says, pointing to libertarian Republicans like U.S. Senator Rand Paul and a handful of members of Congress, including Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Freedom Caucus member Justin Amash of Michigan and, closer to home, John J. “Jimmy” Duncan. Paul was Jacobs’ first choice in last year’s GOP presidential primary, and he also says he admires incumbent County Mayor Tim Burchett’s frugal ways.
After his announcement, Jacobs outlined his political philosophy in a radio interview with Tea Party activist Jack Hunter.
Jacobs, the owner of an insurance agency on Maynardville Highway, rejects critics who say he hasn’t been here long enough to have paid sufficient dues to run for office.
“I’m running to have a positive impact on my community. I’ve lived in East Tennessee for 22 years and in Knox County for four years. Crystal and I have done business in Knox County forever. It’s not like I just moved here from Russia,” he says.
There were lots of new-to-politics faces in the crowd at Sweet P’s, and Jacobs’ message resonated. He drew a strong reaction when he advocated open, transparent government and took direct aim at “Black Wednesday,” the notorious 2007 County Commission meeting that replaced a slate of county officeholders after the state Supreme Court ruled that they could no longer thumb their noses at the county’s term limits law. Few Republican Party activists embraced the reform movement spawned by Black Wednesday, and many term-limited officeholders are now playing a courthouse version of fruit-basket turnover to keep themselves on the public payroll. One of them, Jimmy “JJ” Jones, was appointed sheriff that day, and could join the field as a candidate for mayor in the GOP primary, where the race will be decided. Jones, now term-limited out of running for re-election as sheriff, has appointed a campaign treasurer for a mayoral run but has not yet formally announced.
Jacobs grew up in rural Missouri, raised by a retired career military father and a homemaker mother. He played football and basketball at Northeast Missouri State (now Truman University) and jokes that he led the league in offensive fouls. He was hoping for a career in the NFL until a knee injury forced him to reorder his priorities.
Ultimately, his physique (he stands 6-8 and weighs 300 pounds) and his athletic ability dictated his destiny. He says the exposure to drama and theater he got as an English literature major played into his decision, since professional wrestling is entertainment, first and foremost.
“What do you do with an English degree? I’d planned to become a teacher, but I’d always been a casual fan of wrestling,” he says.
A past WWE champion, Jacobs, at 49, isn’t wrestling these days and spends his time running the Jacobs Insurance Agency and doing good deeds in his community. His agency is a designated “Community Champion” in the Kindness Revolution, a nonprofit organization with the lofty goal of promoting dignity, respect, and kindness. Jacobs visits schools delivering an anti-bullying message and handing out rubber wristbands to kids who get caught doing something nice. He is deeply interested in education and believes more attention should be paid to Career Technical Education (formerly known as vocational education), and is critical of national efforts like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top for devaluing CTE while pushing “pure” academics. He gets his hair cut by cosmetology students at Gibbs High School.
So far, he and County Commissioner-at-large Bob Thomas, a career radio man with showbiz ties of his own, are the only declared candidates. Jacobs is the first big-time wrestler to seek public office since Jessie Ventura, and TMZ was all over a potential run between Jacobs and Thomas, who had a role in Friday Night Lights.
Jones could pull the trigger on running any day now, and his campaign will be surely be linked that of his employee, deputy chief Lee Tramel, who is running to succeed him as sheriff. Sixth District County Commissioner Brad Anders, who is term-limited, is also known to be mulling over a run for county mayor.
And there could be more, given that the county primary isn’t until May 1, 2018.
Featured Photo courtesy Glenn Jacobs
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