Council Contests: At-Large Seat C
Five candidates in the primary are vying for two general election ballot slots in this contest.
All four City Council primary races will bring a measure of clarity to the election with the results this month, but only the contest for At-Large Seat C will winnow the field.
At-Large Seat C is the only City Council primary race that will end some candidates' campaigns.
In Knoxville City Council elections, the top two primary finishers move on to the general election. Three of this year’s contests -- At-Large Seat A, At-Large Seat B and the 5th District -- have only two candidates, so their primary results will primarily serve to gauge support for the final push.
In the At-Large Seat C race, however, there are five hopefuls, so three candidates will go home and two will move on. It’s a diverse field -- two women, two African Americans, two radio personalities, two neighborhood leaders and a social justice advocate. They are listed in alphabetical order in the following profiles.
Midis learned how vital City Council members could be by working with them. She has been president of the Forest Heights Neighborhood Association and a member of the citywide Neighborhood Advisory Council. In an interview at K-Brew in North Knoxville, Midis talked about how her experience working on neighborhood issues helped shape her decision to run for office.
“I realized how important it was to have an engaged City Council member,” she said. “I decided it was time to step up.”
Midis’ connections with neighborhood groups throughout the city -- she said she emphasized inclusiveness and building relationships -- should be an asset for her campaign. Being a neighborhood organization officer is a time-honored path to City Council, though by no means the only one.
Midis is generally supportive of Recode Knoxville, the effort to rewrite the city’s zoning code. She said she likes the idea of encouraging growth along the city’s corridors and giving property owners more options. She served as a neighborhood representative on the Recode Stakeholder Advisory Committee.
“I want to make sure new developments are smart developments. I think the vision of Recode is where we need to be,” she said, adding that Council should make changes to the ordinance as the need arises.
According to Midis, growing up in Houston taught her that uncontrolled growth is detrimental to a livable city. Her parents commuted three hours to work and she was forced to change schools multiple times because the sprawl prompted redistricting.
She and her husband moved to Knoxville 22 years ago to attend the University of Tennessee and never left. Midis earned a master’s of business administration degree at UT and talks about the importance of expanding the tax base. “I want to make sure we respond to changing needs,” she said.
An avid bicyclist who’s on the advisory board of Bike Walk Knoxville, Midis wants to see more bike paths and transit options. She also said she has seen disparities in local public schools and supports the Great Schools Partnership.
Drawing on her neighborhood networks, Midis has been the most formidable fundraiser in the race. After expenses, she had more than $25,000 in her account as of June 30 -- more than all the other candidates combined.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to have people early on who support you,” Midis said.
Midis speaks of the importance of creating a vibrant, exciting city. “It’s going to take vision and a willingness to do things differently.”
In the 2017 city election, Parker pulled off the biggest surprise of the campaign, though she finished third in the 4th District race. Parker, who’s affiliated with the social-justice group City Council Movement, tied for second place in the primary with former state Rep. Harry Tindell. (Lauren Rider, who currently holds the seat, finished first.)
Since the city charter allows for only two people on the ballot in the general election, it fell to City Council to choose whether to award the second spot to Parker or Tindell. Council voted unanimously to place Tindell on the ballot. Parker ran a write-in campaign anyway, and finished with a surprising 2,192 votes out of 10,888 cast -- 20 percent of the total.
Parker’s back this year, two years older and more seasoned in the ways of politics. But her views have only strengthened. “There are inequities on so many levels -- we have a growing gap in income,” she said, adding that President Donald Trump has galvanized progressives.
Two years ago, she said during an interview in her office at the Birdhouse, a community center in the 4th and Gill Neighborhood, “it was about diverse voices and who was represented.”
She ticks off a number of issues -- Recode Knoxville, corridor plans, gentrification, public input and more. “The concerns have only grown,” she said.
Recode Knoxville could have been used to attract more affordable housing and bring back neighborhood stores, Parker said, and tax incentives and streetscape plans too often don’t result in the types of development people need, such as grocery stores.
“We are creating development deals that require very little of developers, and it shortchanges the people of Knoxville,” she said.
Homelessness (“I view housing as a human right”) and the environment (“Reducing our carbon emissions significantly must be a goal of the city”) are vital issues for Parker.
Parker was born in Eastern Kentucky coal country but her family moved to Knoxville when she was young. She graduated from South-Doyle High School, the University of Tennessee and American University’s Washington School of Law. A former leader at Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), she now is executive director of Peace Brigades International-USA, which provides nonviolent interventions in war zones.
Like many of her fellow candidates, Parker is running her campaign on a shoestring. Her last financial disclosure form showed she had $703 on hand at the end of June. She doesn’t have a staff but is coordinating efforts with fellow City Council Movement candidates Charles Al-Bawi (5th District) and David Hayes (At-Large Seat B) to the extent allowed by law.
Parker also made a name for herself with her strong showing in 2017, though she joked about its significance. “I may have name recognition,” she said, “but I don’t know what they’ve heard about me.”
On the first Friday of every month, Smth hosts the Motley Crew Community Luncheon, an informal gathering of public officials, people active in the community, friends and strangers at the Crowne Plaza on Summit Hill Drive.
The luncheon started out because he wanted to break bread (actually, it was catfish) with the late Avon Rollins, the Civil Rights activist and former executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. Over the past two and a half years it’s grown to around 75 to 80 guests, who talk about anything that crosses their minds. “No agenda no speaker,” Smith said. “It’s a mixer.”
It’s also created a citywide network he can tap into for his campaign. “I feel I’ve done all I can do as a volunteer,” Smith said during an interview in the lobby of the hotel.
Smith has been around politics in Knoxville for years, ever since the unified government push of the 1990s. He’s a radio talk-show host who has had programs on both WUTK 90.3 FM and WETR 92.3 FM (he’s on leave while running for office). He serves as secretary of the Public Building Authority Board of Directors and is a former Knoxville Transit Authority board member.
He also has cautioned all who will listen that City Council is limited in its powers -- approving the budget and expenditures, serving as the Beer Board and confirming mayoral appointments are the primary responsibilities.
Smith described himself as a moderate who hates political labels, but said, “I’m a fiscal conservative. They won’t have to worry about me voting for a tax increase unless there’s a disaster.”
Smith is adamantly local in his outlook. “When you’re calling 911, you’re not calling Washington, D.C; you’re calling over to Bernard” -- referring to Bernard Avenue, where the E-911 Center is located.
Among Smith’s priorities are making sure the proposed safety complex at the former St. Mary’s hospital site works out, as well as implementing Recode Knoxville, assuming Council approves it before the new members take office. Improving transit is also a passion.
“My job is, when changes come forth, and they will, to make informed decisions,” he said.
He has recently proposed offering one-time retention bonuses to increase staffing at the Knoxville Police Department, intending to fund them with $500,ooo from the city’s general fund.
Smith is a Knoxville native who graduated from Central High School but didn’t decide to go to college at UT until he turned 30. In the meantime, he worked in fast food and drove a taxi, which he called “the best one-year experience of my life.”
Last year, Smith suffered a stroke, and almost didn’t run. He uses a cane, but shows up at meetings and is knocking on doors and, while he only had $1,005 on hand at the beginning of July, he’s still hosting his network at the Motley Crew luncheons.
Thomas has led a varied career in Knoxville. He’s been the owner of the old Knoxville Cherokees hockey team, organizer of Christmas parades, a popular radio personality, a county commissioner and probably a few more things that could easily slip his mind.
Now he wants to serve on City Council. “The city’s at a crossroads. It’s an exciting time,” Thomas said over a meal at Sam & Andy’s in Fountain City.
Thomas wants to use his business and government experience to improve the city’s financial position. “I’ve read this and it scares me,” he said about the budget’s expectations of relatively low revenue growth. “We’re going to have to be fiscally responsible and make good decisions.”
While Thomas said downtown’s growth has boosted property tax revenues, he’s concerned about the future. “We can’t afford to let downtown backslide,” he said.
Thomas said the city must get Recode Knoxville right and that it needs to be flexible because all properties have their own characteristics. “You start messing with people’s properties, they get upset,” he said.
It’s vitally important that the codes are consistent to prompt business investment, he added, noting that he’s served on the Development Corp. of Knox County’s board of directors. He’s also been a member of the Knox County Pension and Retirement Committee, as well as the Knox County Parks and Recreation Board.
An enthusiastic supporter of the idea of a minor-league baseball being built east of the Old City, Thomas said a city-county partnership and increased sales tax revenues would benefit the community. He said his sports management experience would be a plus. “I know exactly what is needed. A lot of people in the East Coast Hockey League were baseball people,” he said.
Thomas has come up with likely the most creative proposal among the candidates -- an elevated electric train that would connect five entertainment areas in and around downtown. He emphasized at a recent forum that he raised the idea to get Knoxvillians talking about possibilities, and that if it ever became a reality, he would want a private-sector company to run it.
Thomas served one term on County Commission and then finished third in the Republican primary for county mayor last year. He raised $9,000 in his Council campaign during the second quarter, more than any candidate other than Midis. He also reminds voters that he held monthly constituent meetings as a commissioner -- a practice he would resume as a Council member.
“I’ve got six grandchildren here,” he said. “I want this to be a great city.”
The political bug bit Williams when he campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964. To this day he calls himself a Goldwater Republican (though city elections technically are nonpartisan).
Williams is the longtime president of the Pond Gap Area Neighborhood Association in West Knoxville. Like Midis, who lives just a few streets away from him, he has a wide network of people he’s gotten to know while engaged in neighborhood work; unlike Midis, he doesn’t have much cash to work with -- a shade under $1,000.
Williams does have a campaign pal, though, an oversized stuffed pig -- he's no fan of pork spending. And he’s hoping to tap into the anger and frustration he sees in many Knoxvillians, especially when confronting what he calls an unresponsive government.
“People think you’re an adversary if you go before City Council,” said Williams, who recently led a losing battle to stop or scale back a low-income apartment complex in Pond Gap.
“The people have intelligence and good sense. Let’s listen to the people,” he said over lunch at Dead End BBQ on Sutherland Avenue.
His experiences with Council have led him to propose requiring developers to meet with neighborhoods before projects get approval, and one of the key issues he sees is traffic. Neighborhoods want traffic calming measures, but he asserted the city isn’t responsive to citizen-driven solutions. “All around, people say, ‘Why won’t you deal with traffic?’” he said.
Williams wants small businesses to have a better chance of benefiting from tax incentives and said Recode Knoxville is too intrusive.
“Recode’s really bothering me,” he said, and will need to be revisited if approved by the current Council.
Williams isn’t opposed to all tax incentives, however. For example, he said he wouldn’t be opposed to tax-increment financing for infrastructure improvements in the Old City to support a minor-league baseball stadium under discussion between the city and the Tennessee Smokies -- but that’s as far as he’s willing to go. “Government’s getting in places it shouldn’t be. Private developers should rule the day,” he said.
A math tutor, Williams also wants to involve young people by inviting them to meetings and get their observations about Council’s agenda over dinner. He also said he’d rather see a Council member, not the mayor, preside over Council meetings.
This is the third time Williams has run for City Council, and he said he hopes he’s learned from previous mistakes. Win or lose this time around, he said he would continue to connect with city residents. “You’re dealing with people’s lives,” he said. “You have to have the feeling to help people.”
“Council Contests: At-Large Seat A” (June 7, 2019)
“Council Contests: At-Large Seat B” (June 12, 2019)
“Council Contests: 5th District” (June 17, 2019)