In the Running

County Commission district map

In the Running

Believe it or not, the next local election is right around the corner. Here’s a look at county offices up in 2020.

by jesse fox mayshark • december 4, 2019

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It has been barely a month since the City of Knoxville election put an end to a year of campaigning, and the winners in those races haven’t even taken office yet. But the next local election is already approaching.

7 County Commission seats, 4 school board seats, lots of incumbents and a clutch of challengers.

The 2020 primary for Knox County offices will be held on March 3, to coincide with the statewide presidential primary. (In non-presidential years, the county primary isn’t until May.) The deadline for candidates to submit qualifying petitions is next Thursday, Dec. 12, at noon. 

Since it takes signatures from just 25 registered voters who reside in the district to qualify, there is still plenty of time for candidates to pick up and return petitions in the next week. But here’s a look at the offices on the March ballot and those who have signaled an interest to date.

Public Defender

This is a special election to fill the final two years of the term of Mark Stephens, who retired at the end of October. Stephens had held the position since it was first created in 1990, and he built it into a national model with social services as well as legal representation for its low-income clients. (The office, created by state law, is not subject to the county’s term limits.)

At Stephens’ recommendation, Gov. Bill Lee appointed Stephens’ deputy Eric Lutton to fill the chair on an interim basis. Lutton is running to serve out the rest of Stephens’ eight-year term, which ends in 2022.

In the Republican primary, Lutton is facing local criminal defense attorney Rhonda Lee, whose campaign Facebook page identifies her as “very conservative” and includes photos of her taken earlier this week with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former press secretary to President Donald Trump.

Although the office is partisan and Stephens is a Republican, he has always been perceived as a moderate, particularly on social issues. No Democratic candidate has yet picked up a petition in the race.

Law Director

Knox County remains the only county in Tennessee with an elected law director, a quirk of its home rule charter. Current Law Director Bud Armstrong is term limited after serving eight sometimes contentious years.

Armstrong, a former county commissioner, has taken an unusually assertive approach to the office, ruffling feathers with opinions on issues ranging from former schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre’s contract to the current proposed lease of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s East Tower, which Armstrong has been skeptical of. He filed a lawsuit against the county’s Retirement and Pension Board alleging improper calculations of benefits for Sheriff’s Office retirees, which pitted him against County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Sheriff Tom Spangler.

Running to succeed Armstrong is Chief Deputy Law Director David Buuck, who has been at Armstrong’s side through many of those battles. Buuck is a veteran lawyer who, before he came to work for Armstrong, may have been best known for his successful efforts on behalf of East Knox County residents to fight off development of the Midway Business Park and contesting annexations when Victor Ashe was mayor of Knoxville. Both Armstrong and Buuck have been close to Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley.

The only other candidate to pick up a petition for the position so far is local attorney Jackson Fenner, who identifies as an independent and so will not be in the primary. He has not turned in his qualifying petition yet.

One potential wrinkle in this race is the pending appointment of a charter review committee, convened every eight years to recommend potential updates to the county’s charter. It is possible the issue of changing the law director from an elected to an appointed position will come up, as it has before.

The question was last put to county voters in 2008, in a proposed charter amendment that would have made the law director, county trustee, register of deeds and county clerk all appointed rather than elected positions. It was overwhelmingly voted down.

County Commission

Seven of the 11 Commission seats are on the ballot this year, and five have incumbents seeking re-election. 

  • In District 1, which runs from Holston Hills across downtown and through Fort Sanders, Mechanicsville and Lonsdale, Commissioner Evelyn Gill is finishing her first term and seeking a second. She is the only Democrat, the only African-American and one of two women currently serving on Commission.

    She is facing a Democratic primary challenge from Dasha Lundy — also an African-American woman — who is active in the League of Women Voters and Burlington Residents Association, and sits on the Historic Zoning Commission. Among those who signed Lundy’s candidate petition were City Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie and school board member Evetty Satterfield, both of whose districts overlap with Gill’s. 
  • District 2 Commissioner Michele Carringer, a Republican who serves as Commission’s vice chair, is also seeking a second term. The North Knoxville district runs from Magnolia Avenue north through Fountain City to Black Oak Ridge, taking in neighborhoods on both sides of Broadway. So far, the only other potential candidate to pick up a petition is Sam Ford, a declared independent from Fountain City.

    It would be historically unusual for there to not be a Democratic candidate in the 2nd District race. It’s one of the few Commission districts where Democrats have traditionally been competitive, and its former commissioners include Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero.
  • In District 4, incumbent Commissioner Hugh Nystrom has decided not to seek a second term. Nystrom, currently the Commission chair, cited family obligations in bowing out. That has created what appears to be the year’s most crowded field, with two Republican candidates and one Democrat vying for the West Knoxville district, which extends from Sequoyah Hills southwest through Rocky Hill to Bluegrass.

    On the GOP side, Nystrom’s friend Scott Broyles, president and CEO of the National Safe Skies Alliance, has already begun a social media campaign and set up a campaign website. His petition includes several high-profile names including Nystrom, Commissioner Larsen Jay, school board member Virginia Babb, City Councilwoman-elect Lynne Fugate, and Leadership Knoxville president and CEO Tammy White. 

    He is facing local businessman Kyle Ward, an Air Force veteran and founder of Ward Waste Solutions. Ward says he is looking for ways to continue to serve.

    Whoever wins the Republican primary could face Democrat Todd Frommeyer in the August general election. Frommeyer, who describes himself as a retired Air Force JAG and formerconsumer financial regulator, has not yet returned his petition, but he does have a campaign website.

  • District 5, which covers Farragut and Concord in West Knox County, is represented by Commissioner John Schoonmaker, who is finishing his first term. Schoonmaker is Commission’s unofficial parliamentarian and its liaison with the state Legislature. He has sometimes been crosswise with Jacobs.

    He faces a challenge in the Republican primary from a neighbor down the road (they both live on Tan Rara Drive). Clayton Wood, a pastor and lawyer who is executive director of the nonprofit Thrive Lonsdale, says he feels “called to serve” on Commission. 
  • District 6 has no incumbent on the ballot — Commissioner Brad Anders is term limited and can’t run again. The only candidate so far to have taken out a petition to succeed him is Terry Hill, who currently represents the same district on the Knox County school board. The district stretches across the northwestern expanse of the county, from Pleasant Ridge to Karns to Hardin Valley.

    Hill comes from a political family; her husband, Steve, and daughter, Cindy Buttry, both served on the school board before her.
  • So far, the Republican incumbents in districts 8 and 9 have no declared opposition. In the East Knox County District 8, Commissioner Richie Beeler is running for election to his first full term. He was appointed by Commission last year to fill the remainder of former Commissioner Dave Wright’s term after Wright was elected to the state Legislature.

    District 9 covers all of the county south of the French Broad and Tennessee rivers. Commissioner Carson Dailey is seeking re-election to a second term.

School Board

Four of the board’s nine seats are up this year. Incumbents are running for re-election in all of them, and at the moment three have potential challengers. School board members are not subject to term limits.

School board races are nonpartisan. If a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, theirs will be the only name on the ballot for the district in the August general election.

  • In District 2, which covers North Knoxville through Fountain City, incumbent Jennifer Owen faces a challenge from Midwest Railcar executive John Meade. Owen, a former teacher, was a fierce critic of former Superintendent Jim McIntyre and has opposed what she sees as overreliance on standardized testing. She is also a vocal opponent of school vouchers and charter schools.

    Meade has been president of the PTO at Gresham Middle School and co-president of the Central High School Foundation. He has said he wants to be “a voice of reason.”
  • District 3 covers northwest Knoxville, including Norwood, West Haven and Cedar Bluff. Incumbent Tony Norman, a retired teacher and former county commissioner, is running for a second term on the board. He has seemingly embraced a role as the board’s cantankerous skeptic, railing against student cell-phone use in schools and the system’s emphasis on diversity training.

    He faces a challenge from Daniel Watson, who co-founded the Christian nonprofit the Restoration House with his wife, Mandy. It provides housing and services for low-income single parents and their children.
  • In East Knox County’s District 8, incumbent Mike McMillan is seeking a third full term. Before joining the school board, he served on County Commission. McMillan, also a former teacher, is part of an East Knox dynasty — his father, Joe McMillan, served on Commission before him.

    Adam Brown, who lives in the Carter community, picked up a petition in October to challenge McMillan but had not returned it yet as of yesterday.
  • And in District 5, which includes Farragut and Concord, current school board Chair Susan Horn appears to be running for an uncontested second term.

Property Assessor

Also on the ballot this year is the county property assessor, who oversees the office responsible for establishing property values for tax purposes. Incumbent John Whitehead is seeking a second consecutive term and fourth term overall — he was also property assessor from 2000 to 2008.

He faces a challenge in the Republican primary from Tina Marshall of West Knox County.

UPDATED: This story was updated at 3:16 p.m. on 12/4/19 to add a link to Scott Broyles' campaign website.