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Vest was a one-of-a-kind political maverick

Robert Houk • Apr 3, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Former Mayor Warren Vest wrote the book on populist politics in Johnson City. And when it came to representing the disenfranchised of his city, Vest (who died last week at the age of 92) was a true political maverick.

He certainly couldn’t be confused with a suit and tie politician. Vest preferred wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots. And when it came to his hair, Vest rarely let a barber’s scissors touch his silver mane.

More importantly, Vest didn’t need a TV camera aimed at him every other Thursday night to stand up for those he called “the poor folks” of Johnson City.

When I was covering city government for this paper in the late 1980s, I also recall Vest talking about helping the “widow women.” On one occasion, Vest championed the case of an elderly widow who complained the city had stopped picking up her garbage because she was putting concrete cinder blocks in her metal trash can to keep the wind from blowing it down the street once it had been emptied.

City sanitation workers said the additional weight of the blocks made the container too heavy for them to empty into the back of a garbage truck. It was a valid concern, since the excessive weight could have left an employee injured and the city facing a costly workers’ compensation claim.

Nonetheless, Vest said it was baffling for him to think that while an 80-year-old widow woman could drag her trash can to the curb, it was impossible for a healthy, young city employee to empty it into the back of a garbage truck. The city staff got his point and reached a compromise whereby the woman’s trash can would be safe from the elements without a sanitation worker falling victim to a hernia.

Maybe it was that bluntness and spunk that helped Vest become the first commissioner in this city’s history to be elected to three straight terms. His short term as mayor (1988-89) was one of the most memorable of the pre-televised meetings era.

As mayor, Vest happily rode a circus elephant into Freedom Hall. He also was known to abruptly leave City Commission meetings when he felt they had dragged on too long.

At one meeting, after his critics chastised him for his hasty departures, Vest had a city staffer tie him into his chair. It just so happened a writer for a newly launched statewide magazine (remember Chris Whittle’s now defunct Tennessee Illustrated?) was in the audience that night.

Vest’s 12-year stint on the City Commission came to an end in 1989. There have been others since Vest who have billed themselves as watchdogs of the city budget and champions of the common people, but none of them could match Vest’s tenacity.

When he turned 85, I had lunch with Vest to chat about politics. He told me over a pulled pork barbecue sandwich that he did not regret any of the votes he cast as a city commissioner, but he did admit to making a mistake in voting against the city buying the Arney Farm on Boone Lake. Vest said he thought the lakefront property (which was to be developed as a city park) was “too far outside of the city for poor people to get to.”

The success of Winged Deer Park had convinced him he was wrong.

“I made some mistakes, but I had a lot of fun,” Vest said.

Over the years, I sought out Vest’s political wit and wisdom for my column. In 2007, he told me some politicians just “hang around too long,” in reference to a city election that saw two of his would-be successors as watchdogs at City Hall ousted from the City Commission.

During the brutal 2014 local elections, I spoke to Vest about dirty campaign tricks.

“I never took a (campaign) sign, but I’ve had plenty of mine taken,” Vest said.

He said dirty tricks in local campaigns could generally be blamed on the same people, although no one has ever really pinned anything on those usual suspects.

Vest was known for his plain talk, stubbornness and a talent for just knowing how to deliberately rub some people the wrong way. Like anyone with his grit and longevity, Vest had as many foes as he did fans. That’s politics.

You can also say it’s the same for life. Vest lived life on his own terms. How many of us can truly say that?

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at [email protected] Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ JCPressRobertHouk. Follow him at Twitter.com/houkRobert.

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