Preparation, Policy and Politics
Indya Kincannon believes her combination of experience and education have prepared her to be Knoxville’s next mayor.
by scott barker • February 25, 2019
This story is the second in a series of profiles on candidates for Knoxville mayor. See the profile of Eddie Mannis here.
For the past few months, Indya Kincannon seems to have shown up at just about every government-related public event in Knoxville, from ribbon-cuttings to groundbreakings to community meetings.
Best known for her 11 years of service on the Knox County Board of Education, three of them as chair, Kincannon has been immersed in government and politics her entire life.
She works the crowds, which often consist of people she’s gotten to know well during her 15 years participating in Knox County’s civic life. Kincannon is counting on such in-person campaigning to propel her to the city mayor’s office.
“I’m real excited about the direction Knoxville is headed, and I have the knowledge and experience to keep the momentum moving forward,” Kincannon says.
Kincannon would be a logical inheritor of two-term Mayor Madeline Rogero’s legacy as a progressive at the helm of city government. (Rogero cannot run for a third term because of term limits.) She worked on Rogero’s first campaign for mayor in 2003 and recently served two and a half years on the mayor’s staff. She is also the only woman running to succeed Knoxville’s first female mayor.
Best known for her 11 years of service on the Knox County Board of Education, three of them as chair, Kincannon has been immersed in government and politics her entire life. Many politicians like to say that running for office is a job interview; if that were the case, Kincannon’s resume would stand out for the breadth of her government experience.
She has a public service pedigree. Her father, C. Louis Kincannon, was the director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 2002-2008. A statistician by training, he started at the Census Bureau in 1963 and is the only director to work his way to the top spot from the rank-and-file.
Kincannon, 47, was born in Loudoun County, Va. She graduated from Haverford College with a history degree and earned her master’s degree in public affairs and planning at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs.
She has worked as a paralegal in the U.S. Department of Justice, a demographic analyst for a consulting firm and a Spanish teacher in Baltimore. For three years she was a budget analyst for the Arizona Legislature.
Kincannon moved to Knoxville in 2001 when her husband, Ben Barton, was hired as a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law. They have raised two girls in the city -- a key factor in her decision to run for a school board seat.
Former City Council member and current Council Attorney Rob Frost encouraged Kincannon to run in 2004 for the 2nd District school board seat that would become vacant that year when incumbent Paul Kelley decided not to run for re-election.
Kincannon recalls looking through the school system budget and came to the conclusion that the school board was “pretty much in my wheelhouse.”
She defeated Patsy Vittetoe to represent North Knoxville and Fountain City on the board, and was unopposed in 2008 and 2012. From 2008-2011, Kincannon was the school board chair. Her time on the board was a period of transition for the school system.
In 2007, the school board bought out the contract of Superintendent Charles Lindsey and the next year hired Jim McIntyre to lead the schools administration. Kincannon was on the majority of a 5-4 vote to hire McIntyre over four other candidates, including current Superintendent Bob Thomas.
“It was a really good experience,” Kincannon says of her time on the board, especially working to find common ground with people who disagree on the issues.
Mike Edwards, who has been a vocal advocate for improving public schools during his tenure as head of the Knoxville Chamber, says Kincannon, like many involved with the schools at the time, had difficulty accepting how poorly Knox County student were performing. Still, he says, “she didn’t kill the messenger. I think she did a good job representing the schools. She was never in it for a cheap shot.”
Edwards was particularly impressed with her preparation.
“I always found her to ask thoughtful questions, the right questions. She had done her homework,” Edwards says.
Karen Carson, who was Kincannon’s predecessor as school board chair, says she and Kincannon didn’t always mesh politically but could agree on what was best for the students. Kincannon’s best attribute, says Carson, is keeping an open mind when listening to others.
“Clearly, she’s very intelligent. She also knows what she doesn’t know, so she’ll do her research. She doesn’t just speak off the cuff,” Carson says.
In 2014, Kincannon resigned from the school board to accompany her husband and their children to Slovenia, where Barton taught for a year as a Fulbright scholar. Kincannon taught writing, history, Spanish and drama to international students during their time in Ljubljana.
Upon her return from Europe, Kincannon accepted a position in the Rogero administration as special program manager. Kincannon administered community grants, managed appointments to boards and commissions, and served as Rogero’s liaison to Knox County Schools.
“Working for Mayor Rogero has been an inspiration,” she says.
Kincannon says her No. 1 priority is creating or maintaining strong neighborhoods. A resident of the 4th and Gill neighborhood, Kincannon says people need to feel good about investing in all parts of the city. A major part of that is supporting public schools, though the school system is a county responsibility.
“I’d like to be a strong partner for our schools,” Kincannon says.
Another factor is having healthy communities, she says. Residents throughout the city need access to parks, safe places to walk and nearby grocery stores.
“Does a mayor have control over (all) those things? No, but for those things the mayor can be a champion,” Kincannon says, adding that the mayor can bring stakeholders together to address issues that cross jurisdictions, such as the opioid crisis.
Kincannon sees affordable housing and economic development as two sides of the same coin, saying, “One reason people can’t afford housing is they don’t make enough money.”
Improving education, recruiting business and expanding job opportunities can boost incomes and make housing more affordable, she reasons, especially for the 53 percent of Knoxvillians who rent.
Promoting civility in today’s political climate is another of Kincannon’s goals. She asserts that Rogero and former Mayor Bill Haslam both were effective city leaders, though they differ politically.
“I’m committed to being collaborative and nonpartisan,” Kincannon says, adding that, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
Carson, who doesn’t live in the city, says local leaders are at their best when they have to develop and refine their policy goals through contested elections.
Kincannon is one of six Knoxville mayoral hopefuls who have named treasurers, which allows them to raise money for their campaigns. The others are businessman Eddie Mannis, City Councilman Marshall Stair, restaurateur Mike Chase, Fletcher Burkhardt and John Bevil.
Education and experience are important, but financing a campaign in a city of Knoxville’s size is vital as well. As of Jan. 15, Stair ($175,250) and Mannis ($135,434) had raised the most money for their campaigns. Kincannon was third with $50,756. She’s been trying to close the gap with a series of house parties hosted by supporters across the city.
“I really enjoy meeting people and talking to them about their concerns,” Kincannon says. “I care. It’s a great opportunity for me to apply my skills to help make Knoxville a strong city with equitable opportunity for all.”