Conservative radio host Elisha Krauss, Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and conservative commentator Tomi Lahren at 2019 Politicon in Nashville. Jacobs is running for his second term as Knox County mayor. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Politicon )
Early voting for the August 4 election started a week ago and in change from past election cycles, many Knox County offices on the ballot have more multiple candidates. Several are competitive and worth a close look.
Republican Glenn Jacobs, who, prior to becoming Knox County mayor, was best known for performing as a professional wrestler called “Kane,” is running for his second term. In his first term, Jacobs has been credited with opening three new schools and raising salaries for both teachers and law enforcement officers, and presided over a growing economy. He is campaigning on this record and his promise to fight any proposed tax increase for the county.
But Jacobs’ tenure has been characterized by controversy: An opponent of COVID regulations, including mask restrictions, an agreement he made with a private law firm to fight a judicial masking order nearly left taxpayers on the hook for the firm’s fees. His office garnered criticism for keeping a reporter out of a media briefing, for working to strip the Knox County Board of Health of its powers and for filming a video that cast the board members as “sinister forces” that were attacking the foundations of America.
Democratic nominee Debbie Helsley, a fifth-generation Knox County resident, longtime union leader and member of the Knoxville Civil Service Merit Board, is running against Jacobs. She has been involved with local Democratic politics for years, but this is her first run for elected office. Helsley is campaigning on increasing funding for the county school district, developing infrastructure projects that respond to the continuous growth of the county and ending corruption in county government. Specifically, her plans for job creation include creation of a job apprenticeship program with local unions and the creation of affordable housing. As a response to the complaints of a bloated office, Helsley has promised to downsize the mayor’s office as a way to save the taxpayer money.
Helsley has taken in $8,500 from union PACs but most donations have come from individual donors. Her greatest expenditure have been for campaign staff, a necessary cost for
informing and energizing potential voters.
Jacobs has received $12,475 this quarter from PACs and his largest single expenditure was $15,500 to Anchor Research in Nashville, a polling firm operated by Republican strategist Ward Baker. Baker has worked on numerous GOP campaigns in Tennessee and nationally, including U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s winning 2018 Senate race.
Despite the controversies Jacobs has engendered, he remains in the driver’s seat, due to the advantage of incumbency, the county’s Republican leanings, and his substantial cash on hand heading into the election. In his 2018, Jacobs won by nearly 33%. While the world has changed in four years and Knox County has shifted left, it remains to be seen if the shift is enough to make a difference for Helsey.
County Commission District 3 (West Knoxville & Cedar Bluff)
District 3 features an open race in the Democratic-trending suburbs west of downtown Knoxville. The seat is currently held by Republican Randy Smith, who is term-limited. Stuart Hohl, a television production manager, is the Democratic nominee in this race and is facing off against Republican nominee Gina Oster, a real estate agent and experienced office-seeker. Hohl has focused his campaign on increasing education funding and centering future growth in the county around greenspace projects, and he is campaigning on responsiveness to constituents and a willingness to compromise to solve local problems. Oster, on the other hand, has been quick to comment on national issues, and one of the key tenets of her campaign is “stopping Washington’s Liberal Agenda.” She opposes any property or sales tax increase and supports increasing the budget of the Sheriff’s department.
During Q2, Hohl received donations from a number of local fixtures in Democratic politics like former mayor Madeline Rogero and former candidate Virginia Couch. His campaign has also been endorsed by Democratic Reps. Gloria Johnson and Sam McKenzie and City Councilor Seema Singh. His largest expenditure this quarter was payment to his campaign manager, Hannah Mackay.
Oster has received donations from County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, former Mayor Mike Ragsdale, County Commissioner Randy Smith and GOP Sen. Richard Briggs. The Building Industry PAC sent her $250 on top of the $6,650 she received from individual developers. Oster’s largest expenditure this quarter was for advertising materials.
Hohl was unopposed in his primary but Oster beat out frequent candidate Nicholas Ciparro by a wide margin. She lost to outgoing Rep. Eddie Mannis in the 2018 Republican primary for State House District 18 and even went so far to challenge his status as a Republican after she lost in a bid to overturn the result. This race will likely be one of the most competitive local elections and looks to be a tossup.
County Commission At-Large, Seat 10
Republican incumbent Larsen Jay is running for his second term on Knox County Commission. A film producer and founder of the Random Acts of Flowers charity, Jay served as county commission chair in 2020-2021. He is campaigning largely on the commission’s accomplishments in the past four years, including—much like Jacobs—the approval of the creation of three new elementary schools, increasing pay for county teachers and sheriff’s deputies, and investing in public works such as the EMS heli-pad in Corryton. Jay drew conservative ire when he voted against stripping the county board of health of its regulating power during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Democrat Dylan Earley is challenging Jay for the seat. A communications specialist, he is focused on increasing funding for the public school district, awarding county contracts to union workers, and pursuing sustainable development through proper infrastructure investment. Earley has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, a group that typically endorses Republican candidates in Knox County races.
Jay raised most of his money early in his campaign and has spent $89,000 with Targeted Strategies, a Knoxville public relations and marketing firm that also advertises political consulting abilities. In contrast, Earley’s largest expenditure in Q2 was for yard signs.
The race has a few interesting aspects, including the disdain for Jay amongst pandemic-denying conservatives and Earley’s endorsement by FOP. But Jay’s financial advantage tips the race in his favor.
County Commission At-Large, Seat 11
Incumbent Justin Biggs is running for County Trustee, creating an open seat. Republican nominee and Hardin Valley community activist Kim Frazier is facing off against Democrat Vivian Shipe, a community advocate and retired union worker. Additionally, independent candidate Donald Bridges is on the ballot but has raised no money and gives little appearance of actively campaigning
Frazier prioritizes intentional growth and focuses on how her years of community involvement have adequately prepared her for the role of county commissioner. Shipe is campaigning to increase equity within public schools as well as supporting the creation of affordable housing
Frazier has spent most of her funds on campaign advertising, including yard signs, billboards and print newspaper ads. She received most of her donations from individual donors and her campaign has plenty of cash on hand for the home stretch, although she is on the hook for a $25,000 loan. Shipe, on the other hand, has a high burn rate and has very little left on hand to make a final push before the election. Her expenditures have gone to campaign signs and literature.
While Shipe was unopposed in her primary, Frazier beat local businessman Devin Driscoll by a healthy 13%. The combination of her experience winning one competitive race coupled with her cash advantage gives her the nod heading into August 4.
District Attorney General
Republican Charme Allen is seeking her second 8-year term as Knox County’s chief prosecutor, campaigning on the need to decrease drug-overdose deaths that skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as decreasing a rise in violent crime. Allen garnered controversy in 2021 after initially refusing to release the bodycam footage of a police officer involved in the shooting death of an Austin-East High School student. Eventually, she released the video after calls for transparency. Allen, who did not have an opponent in 2014, began campaigning for re-election in earnest in June.
Allen, the first woman to hold the position, is being challenged by Democratic attorney Jackson Fenner, who ran for Knox County Law Director in 2020. He emphasizes tackling the county’s increasing murder rate by cracking down on illegal gun sales as well as exercising greater oversight of law enforcement officers.
Fenner’s donations come entirely from individual donors, with no PACs or businesses contributing, and his largest expenditures have been for yard signs and advertising. Allen has reported no fundraising since 2021 but has nearly $100,000 in her coffers.
Fenner’s chances of upsetting Allen appear slim two weeks out of the election. Allen’s record isn’t spotless, but controversy around her has been minimal over her term in office.The rise in violent crime in Knox County is hardly unique to Knoxville and attacking Allen for a national trend may not be the best line to convince voters to back Fenner.
Ed Shouse, the current county trustee, is term-limited, which sets up an open seat for which both parties are running candidates. Justin Biggs, the Republican nominee, is currently a county commissioner and a tax collector with the Knox County Trustee. Biggs is not free from controversy, as he has been a protegee of disgraced former trustee Mike Lowe, who was convicted of felony theft for using about $50,000 in county funds for personal use.
Biggs has also been criticized for the perception he wants to climb the political ladder and collect multiple paychecks from Knox County taxpayers instead of serving one office. He is campaigning on using the office to encourage economic development as well as help keep taxes low.
Biggs will face off against Democratic nominee Dave Cazalet, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and a retired grant administrator at Pellissippi State. Cazalet is campaigning on three major points: accountability to the taxpayer, efficiency, and ethical leadership. He pledges to continue the transparency Shouse has brought to the role and to establish a citizen advisory panel to oversee the office. Cazalet has advocated for investing county funds in federal bonds rather than local banks, due to the higher interest rate with bonds, in order to bring millions more to the county budget without raising taxes.
Biggs had strong fundraising in Q1 that allowed him to spend on advertising in print and social media and on campaign workers. Cazalet has raised and spent less than Biggs, with his largest expenditure being for yard signs.
Biggs certainly has the advantage, based on the ‘R’ by his name and his cash on hand. However, if Cazalet is able to capitalize on criticisms of Biggs, this race could end up closer than conventional wisdom would predict.
Register of Deeds
Republican incumbent Nick McBride is running for his second term as Register of Deeds. He has worked in the office for over 30 years and served as deputy for predecessor Sherry Witt. During his first term, McBride focused on modernizing the office by implementing the electronic recording of documents and creating a property fraud alert system. He is campaigning on a track record of transparency and efficiency while in office.
Democrat Scott Crammond is challenging McBride. A real estate agent, Crammond has lived in Knox County since 2013. He is campaigning on injecting new ideas into the office and educating residents on how to best access the county records.
McBride should be quite comfortable with his campaign’s position. He has raised plenty of money and has plenty left to spend, having spent largely on advertising and yard signs. Crammond, by contrast, has not submitted his Q2 report and has not reported raising money in the past.
Aside from the clear financial advantage that McBride has, he is an uncontroversial incumbent with a track record of success. Crammond has no compelling argument about why to vote for him and even if he did, he would face an uphill battle. McBride should have a smooth ride in the last few weeks of the election.
General Sessions Judge Division I
Republican incumbent Chuck Cerny faces Democratic challenger Sarah Keith and the election marks the first time Cerny is facing an opponent in his 24 years on the bench. Cerny is involved with the special Recovery and Veterans’ Treatment courts and plans to create a similar program for mental health. He is campaigning on his judicial record and advocacy for problem-solving court systems.
Keith originally filed for the Division II election against Judge Judd Davis. Prior to filing for the race, she worked as an Assistant District Attorney, but resigned and transitioned to private practice due to prohibitions against challenging a sitting judge. She is also campaigning on establishing a special court program focused on identifying mental health issues in particular cases and employing specific intervention strategies.
Keith has spent money in Q2 on campaign marketing items, including yard signs and t-shirts, having transferred almost $9,000 from her previous Division II campaign account. Nearly all of Cerny’s donations came from local law firms and attorneys and his largest expense was to CityView magazine for advertising and video production.
While both candidates have comparable amounts on hand, Cerny has dramatically outspent Keith in the past few weeks. In addition, due to the similarities in both campaign platforms, it will be difficult for Keith to persuade voters to replace a sitting judge.
Circuit, Civil Sessions, & Juvenile Court Clerk
Republican incumbent Charlie Susano, who is also an archaeologist with the University of Tennessee, is running for re-election to his second term as circuit court clerk. He is campaigning on his past achievements in office: making court records available online and streamlining the processes in the clerk’s office.
Former paralegal Dana Moran is the Democratic challenger. She has three main planks in her campaign for the clerkship, including a goal of increasing the accessibility of the office and its resources, implementing an e-filing system to increase efficiency, and creating an advisory council of community members.
Susano raised little money nor spent much, but he has significantly more cash on hand than Moran does.
Barring a late campaign change, Susano is in a sweet spot for re-election. He is an uncontroversial incumbent and has worked to modernize the office, which voters typically look upon favorably.
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