Council Contests: 5th District
It’s Charles vs. Charles in this year’s race to represent a broad swath of North Knoxville on City Council.
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.
Only one seat on City Council in this year's election will represent a specific geographic area -- North Knoxville on either side of Interstate 75/275.
Only one of this year’s contests is for a seat representing a specific geographic area of the city. The 5th District covers much of North Knoxville -- Oakwood-Lincoln Park, Lonsdale, Fountain City west of Broadway, Inskip, and Norwood south of Merchant Drive. The primary will be for district voters only; the general election will be citywide.
The 5th District seat, currently occupied by Mark Campen, will go to a progressive-leaning lawyer named Charles -- Charles Thomas or Charles Al-Bawi. Knoxville’s city election structure ensures both of them will go on to the general election, but also throws uncertainty into the mix. Candidates, most recently Seema Singh in the 2017 3rd District race, have lost in the district-wide primary but won in the citywide general election.
Charles “Charlie” Thomas
Thomas has been a lawyer, a human rights activist in Central America, a City Council member, a planning commissioner, a Knoxville Area Transit board member, a leader in the Greenways Commission and an active member of the Oakwood-Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association since he moved to the neighborhood in 1992.
“I’m running on my experience,” he said recently over coffee at Wild Love Bakehouse on North Central Street.
Though he wasn’t elected, Thomas is the only candidate for City Council this year with experience on Knoxville’s legislative body. In 2011, Council appointed him to finish the last 11 months of the term of Bob Becker, who had resigned because he was moving out of town.
Thomas grew up south of Nashville, earned an undergraduate degree from Middle Tennessee State University and moved to Knoxville to attend law school at the University of Tennessee. He got his law degree in 1983.
For many years, Thomas split his time between Knoxville and Central America, where he worked in Guatemala at a school for poor children who were trash pickers and for a human rights organization.
“I knew I wanted to do some education and human rights work in the Third World,” he said.
He also was an observer for a Costa Rican election and at the genocide trial of Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt.
Thomas’ most recent local experience was as a Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commissioner, an appointment he was given in 2016 and a position he resigned from to run for City Council.
“I came off with even more of a sense to balance neighborhood and business interests,” he said of his time as a planning commissioner. “I was an advocate for better communications between developers and neighborhoods.”
Unlike the At-Large seat candidates, who have to run citywide from Day One, the 5th District hopefuls can spend their time in North Knoxville during the primary and in the early stages of the campaign don’t need to raise significant amounts of cash. Thomas reported no donations for the first quarter of the year.
In the 5th District, Thomas said, there are two major issues of the moment. One is the city’s decision to redevelop the former St. Mary’s Hospital site as a public safety complex and a yet-to-be-determined private-sector development.
“There’s a consensus in the area that placing the Police and Fire (Department) headquarters there is beneficial for the community,” Thomas said. “I really want the public engaged in the process of what’s done with the other half of the space.”
The other big issue is the Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling facility, which burned May 1 and forced the evacuation of more than 100 homes in Thomas’ neighborhood. Area residents have complained about the recycling operation for years, he noted, and said the facility needs to move or shut down.
“I’m for recycling,” Thomas said, “but that’s the wrong place for that facility.”
Al-Bawi is a political newcomer who lives in Lonsdale and is a social justice advocate. A devout Muslim who is comfortable discussing his faith, he politely eschewed coffee when meeting with a reporter recently at Wild Love Bakhouse on North Central Street during Ramadan.
Knoxville elections are nominally nonpartisan, but Al-Bawi is one of three City Council candidates affiliated with City Council Movement, a progressive, social-justice group that burst onto Knoxville’s political scene two years ago when Singh won her 3rd District contest.
Al-Bawi, David Hayes (At-Large Seat B) and Amelia Parker (At-Large Seat C) are campaigning for one another, hoping to multiply their individual efforts. Al-Bawi said working with the City Council Movement has given him the opportunity to address issues of inequality in the community.
“I want for my neighbor what I want for myself,” he is fond of saying.
Al-Bawi earned an associate’s degree from Pellissippi State Community College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee. He attended the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis but finished his law degree at the UT College of Law.
Al-Bawi’s practice is mostly focused on being a guardian ad litem, a representative of the interests of minors in the court system. He said his work has reinforced his commitment to social justice.
“Being a guardian ad litem, I come into contact with people in poverty all the time. When we address it in the court system, it’s too little, too late.”
Al-Bawi said serving on City Council would enable him to advocate for widespread change when it comes to homelessness and poverty. He is pushing for expanded housing programs for families and individuals at risk for homelessness and expanding free lunch and breakfast programs for low-income youths in the city.
“The case-by-case basis is too slow,” he said. “We need somebody who is going to take a stand and make sure people who are marginalized finally get their fair say in these issues.”
Al-Bawi said the Rogero administration’s decision to build a new criminal justice center at the former St. Mary’s Hospital site, which is at the southern edge of the 5th District, is important to the community.
He also said city officials should hold Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling accountable for the May 1 fire at its facility in Lincoln Park. “Why would the city allow this to happen?” he wondered.
Like Thomas, Al-Bawi has not yet placed a priority on fundraising. In his initial financial disclosure, for the first quarter of the year, Al-Bawi reported that he received no cash donations and $1,846 in in-kind contributions.
At the end of the day, Al-Bawi said, he wants to be an advocate for positive change. “I look at this not as running for myself,” he said. “This is for people who think their voice doesn’t matter anymore.”