Council Contests: At-Large Seat B
The race between David Hayes and Janet Testerman is a true example of an insurgent running against the establishment.
by scott barker • June 12, 2019
A complete overhaul of the Knoxville City Council that began in 2017 will be completed this year. Thanks to term limits, four seats are open, and after the ballots are counted in November the winners in this year’s election will join five others in their first terms.
Both candidates for the seat are assured of moving on from the primary to the general election.
At-Large Seat B, now occupied by Marshall Stair (who is running for mayor), is one of the open seats. The contest offers a clear choice: Janet Testerman, daughter of former Mayor Kyle Testerman, is firmly an establishment Knoxvillian, while her opponent, David Hayes, is by any measure an outsider.
Because the top two finishers move on to the general election, both their names will be on the ballot in November, regardless of the outcome of the August primary.
Regulars at City Council meetings are well acquainted with Hayes, who often fires passionate, sharply worded broadsides at Council members during the public forum portion of the meetings.
Over cups of java at a South Knoxville coffee shop, however, Hayes is soft-spoken though still passionate about his convictions. And he is convinced Knoxville is ripe for change.
“I want to see the city work in our interest,” Hayes said.
By “our,” he means the people who have been excluded from power -- minorities, immigrants and low-income people who often get relegated to the sidelines when policy matters are decided.
Hayes’ candidacy cannot be assessed without considering the City Council Movement, an alliance of progressives that burst on the local political scene in 2017 and got Seema Singh elected to City Council in the 3rd District. City elections are nominally nonpartisan, but City Council Movement has pushed the boundaries of that convention.
Hayes, At-Large Seat C candidate Amelia Parker and 5th District candidate Charles Al-Bawi are affiliated with City Council Movement. They are campaigning for one another, but are careful to say they are staying within the boundaries of state law when it comes to coordinating their efforts.
Hayes said the City Council Movement is about “building real power” inside and outside the existing political system.
“When we started City Council Movement, our goal was to get a majority on City Council. We’re trying to transform city government,” Hayes said.
Like many Knoxvillians, Hayes came to town to attend the University of Tennessee. His father was a Navy man and later a minister, and Hayes graduated from Siegel High School in Murfreesboro.
Hayes planned to major in business but was drawn to working for social justice. “It was very clear (business school) wasn’t what I was supposed to do. What I wanted to do was organize my community in a positive way,” he said.
A resident of South Knoxville, Hayes has worked on civil rights issues, labor causes such as a living wage, the anti-war movement and Black Lives Matter. He is unapologetic about his sometimes confrontational tone when addressing City Council about issues. “We’re emotional,” he said. “We’re ‘real life’ because we understand it has an impact on people’s lives.”
Hayes said he wants to empower the community to guide development decisions, not least because he’s concerned gentrification will push low-income people out of redeveloping neighborhoods. More oversight for police is another item on his agenda.
Economic development should emphasize small, local businesses, he said, and the city needs to be prepared to be a destination for “climate refugees” who would be displaced by rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.
Hayes said that so far his campaign has focused on the inner city, though he knows he’ll have to run a strong campaign in outlying areas to have a chance at winning. Though he only raised $4,783 in the first quarter of the year, he points to a fundraiser planned to be held in affluent Sequoyah Hills as evidence he can reach mainstream voters.
“Progressives come from all classes, which is why we think we can win this,” he said.
Testerman is a product of Knoxville’s establishment. Her father, the late Kyle Testerman, was a businessman who twice served as mayor of the city -- from 1971-1975 and from 1983-1987.
“It’s in my DNA,” she said during an interview at K-Brew in North Knoxville. “I have the same servant heart my father had. I know how one person can make a difference -- I saw that first-hand.”
Testerman is running on her record as a business leader and as a community volunteer. “My entire professional career, I’ve been involved in the city. I’ve always been in leadership positions and want to take that to city government,” she said.
While she embraces her father’s legacy, Testerman said she has forged her own path in the community by being true to herself. “I’ve always said, what you see is what you get.”
A lifelong Knoxvillian, Testerman graduated from Webb School and earned communications degrees from Southern Methodist University and American University. She was executive editor of skirt! and Knoxville magazines, as well as manager of corporate communications for Scripps Networks Interactive. She now serves as CEO of Young-Williams Animal Center.
Testerman, who lives in Sequoyah Hills, said her track record of giving back to the community speaks for itself. She has served on numerous boards, including the Appalachian Ballet, Bijou Theatre, Visit Knoxville and Dogwood Arts. With more than $24,000 in her campaign account at the end of the first quarter, Testerman holds a commanding fundraising lead.
Testerman wants to create a “360-degree experience” in Knoxville. She said strong schools, safe neighborhoods, quality services and a vibrant culture need to complement one another. “It’s for residents,” she explained, “but it’s also for tourism.”
Testerman identified a sea-change in leadership at many of the community’s institutions as an opportunity.
“We’re at a crossroads in this community with new leaders,” she said, citing changes at the top of the city, the county, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Knoxville’s Utility Board and the University of Tennessee. “How can we get all these people at the same table to have a conversation about the future of our city?”
According to Testerman, the city’s growth presents its own challenges, especially when it comes to upgrading infrastructure to keep pace with development.
Bringing in new businesses and nurturing home-grown entrepreneurs are equally important, said Testerman, who has experience working for large corporations and running her own catering business.
She said affordable housing and providing adequate resources for police officers and firefighters would be priorities. Building on the success of the mayoral administrations of Bill Haslam and Madeline Rogero is a no-brainer to Testerman, though she pointed out that different times present new issues that require novel solutions.
Testerman also said approaches that work in one part of the city might not be best for others. “There’s not a cookie-cutter approach,” she said. “Every part of the city has different needs.”
Testerman said Council and the next mayor need to pull in the same direction. “To be part of a team and work together for the betterment of the city would be my goal,” she said.