Knoxville City Council elections 2021 feature partisan influences
Knoxville sunrise panorama (Getty Images)
Early voting opens for Knoxville voters on Wednesday for the second time in two months, as they decide who will represent five city council districts. This election will decide the automatic top-two runoff created from the open primary vote in August. None of the at-large seats are up this cycle, but every district except for the Fifth has a contest on the ballot. Every race pits an incumbent against a more conservative challenger; there are no open seats this time around. As has characterized city elections in the past few cycles, turnout was low in August and will likely be low for the November runoff.
Knoxville city elections are nonpartisan. As the old adage goes, there is no such thing as a Republican or Democratic pothole, it’s just a pothole and someone has to pave it. However, this year the Knox County Republican Party has a new chairman, Daniel Herrera, who has committed party funds to supporting candidates in nonpartisan races. Make no mistake, the county parties typically express their preference to voters about certain city candidates, and the county Democratic Party did so this cycle as well. The new aspect of this intrusion is the use of specific party funds in a nonpartisan election, essentially attempting to create partisan divides where there previously were none. Furthermore, the intrusion by outside groups is not limited to the official county parties. Two groups announced their own slate of candidates in an attempt to intervene in the direction of the city council.
This cycle saw less success for the City Council Movement, a community group built around electing council members that will invest in previously marginalized areas like homelessness or the majority-black neighborhoods of East Knoxville; none of their three endorsed candidates progressed to the November ballot. Deidra Harper, in the Sixth District, fell just 41 votes shy, but the other two candidates lost by larger margins. This lack of success is uncharacteristic of the City Council Movement, which helped Seema Singh and Amelia Parker win their elections in 2017 and 2019, respectively.
Instead, this cycle so far has been a success for the conservative Scruffy Little City PAC. All of its supported candidates made it to the November runoff and some are poised in competitive elections. This political action committee is bankrolled by Aubrey Burleson and Mike Chase, both of whom own several restaurants throughout Knoxville, to the tune of $10,000 each. The bulk of their complaints with current city leadership has less to do with the general business of the council and more with the particular restrictions placed on restaurants and bars due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The First District is anchored by South Knoxville and pokes up a little bit into downtown and around Cumberland Avenue. Appointed incumbent Tommy Smith is running for election to a full term in his own right. He currently works in cybersecurity and is involved in a number of mentorship organizations in his district. Smith is campaigning mostly on continuing the progress he has already made on the council such as finishing the revitalization of Chapman Highway and attracting more investment to South Knoxville.
His challenger, Elizabeth Murphy, is a well-known conservative protester and founder of the Knoxville chapter of Tennessee Stands, a conservative anti-pandemic regulations organization. Murphy has publicly called for the county Board of Health and the state Department of Health to be dissolved. Her council campaign speaks in vague platitudes such as creating jobs and ensuring community safety with few specifics on how to obtain these goals. This boilerplate approach to campaigning is common among the candidates supported by the Scruffy Little City PAC.
In the August primary, Smith won 53% of the vote and Murphy received 30% with City Council Movement candidate David Hayes taking 16%. Murphy did best in precincts farthest from downtown, but Smith won every precinct and never received less than 45%. While Murphy certainly has a chance in a low turnout election, Smith has to be the favorite in this district.
The Second District is based in the most affluent parts of the city, containing wide swaths of West Knoxville as well as a small amount of the University of Tennessee’s campus. Andrew Roberto, the incumbent since 2017, is a local attorney and former county election commissioner. He spearheaded the ReCode Knoxville program to overhaul the city’s zoning codes and is focused on expanding affordable housing programs throughout the city as well lengthening the city’s network of greenways. Roberto’s campaign is centered on these aspects of past success moving into future success in similar areas like job creation.
The challenger in this district is Kim Smith, an office administrator and music teacher at the New Hope Christian School in Corryton. Her campaign shares a number of talking points with other Scruffy Little City-backed candidates, such as strengthening local neighborhoods and attracting jobs by lowering the tax rate.
The August primary for this district was already a two-person race and served as sort of a test lap for both campaigns. Roberto is the clear winner from it, achieving 74% with Smith only getting 25%. Furthermore, Roberto’s lowest precinct percentage was 59% with all others being well over 65%. The probable result from the November ballot is about as close to a sure bet as can be had in local politics.
The Third District is home to the neighborhoods of Norwood and Cumberland Estates in northwest Knoxville in the direction of Karns. Seema Singh, the incumbent in this district, is a coordinator for the Batterers Intervention Program – Knoxville, which works to reduce domestic violence and rehabilitate past offenders. On the council, Singh has been a big proponent of community-based policing and grants targeted at low-income neighborhoods through affordable housing programs. One of her most immediate successes came in the form of a fee freeze from the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) as well as the creation of a community advisory board for KUB. Singh is running this campaign based on implementing the KUB broadband plan and targeting the roots of community violence through a mix of city programs.
Nicholas Ciparro, the challenger in this district, is an experienced office-seeker. He ran against former State Representative Stacey Campfield in the 2010 Republican primary for State Senate District 7 and against then-Second District Congressman Jimmy Duncan in the 2012 Republican primary. Once again, his campaign for city council is similar to the other conservative challengers — Ciparro wants low taxes and less city regulation in an effort to attract more jobs to the city.
The August primary in this district was much closer than in the others: Singh received 53% with Ciparro getting a respectable 46%. Most of the precincts were competitive and Ciparro beat out the incumbent in the neighborhoods around West Haven Elementary and Bearden Middle. House pick would be Singh since she has navigated tight campaigns before, but this election could go either way depending on which parts of the district turn out for the runoff.
The Fourth District is set in North Knoxville, among the historic neighborhood of Fourth and Gill and communities like Fountain City and Holston Hills. Incumbent Lauren Rider, the incumbent, is a librarian at Pellissippi State Community College and was elected in 2017. Since then, she has accomplished a great deal, including expansions of the greenway and sidewalk programs to attract a number of businesses to her district and helping form the pilot program for the co-response unit of a social work and plain-clothed police officer for all behavioral calls. In her next term, Rider wants to finish up the consolidation of the city service headquarters to the old St. Mary’s hospital site as well as expand the co-response program.
Jim Klonaris is well-known around Knoxville for his several concept restaurants which have propelled him to being the best-funded challenger in any city election this year. Alongside his personal money, Klonaris is also receiving support from the Scruffy Little City PAC. In addition, his campaign resembles the platforms of other challengers: focused on cutting taxes to attract jobs and investing in programs to reduce crime.
Of all the elections on the ballot this cycle, this one will most likely end being the closest. Rider hit 48% in the August primary with Klonaris right on her heels with 42%. A City Council Movement candidate received 9% of the vote and theoretically these voters would be more likely to support Rider but voting intentions are never as clear-cut as that. Klonaris did best around Fountain City while Rider did well in her home neighborhood of Fourth and Gill.
The Sixth District is based in East Knoxville and reaches into the historically-black neighborhoods of Lonsdale and Mechanicsville. It is represented by Gwen McKenzie, both the Vice Mayor and the first black woman to serve on the city council. She spearheaded the council’s reparations effort, totaling $100 million dollars to be paid out in grants to different programs and projects in East Knoxville. While in office, and on the campaign trail, McKenzie is focused on strengthening community safety, fully implementing the successful co-response program, and directing city investment towards small, minority-owned businesses.
Garrett Holt currently works as a sales manager for a medical technology company and is challenging McKenzie to represent this district. Like the other candidates supported by the Scruffy Little City PAC, Holt’s campaign is generally concerned with job growth, lowering taxes, and reducing crime without any specifics on how these goals might be accomplished.
The August primary in this district was a 3-person race, but McKenzie clearly came away as the winner. She attained 52% of the vote and Holt managed a distant second at 25%. Deidra Harper, a City Council Movement candidate, received 22% and barely missed the runoff. Holt certainly has a lot of ground to make up and I would rather be McKenzie in this situation.
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