Primary 2020: 1st Commission District
Seeking re-election, County Commissioner Evelyn Gill faces challenger Dasha Lundy in the March 3 Democratic primary.
by jesse fox mayshark • january 23, 2020
county commissioner evelyn gill, left, and challenger dasha lundy.
Knox County’s 1st Commission District stretches across East Knoxville, all of downtown and west to Fort Sanders, Mechanicsville, Lonsdale and West View. It is racially and economically diverse, including several public housing developments along with pricey condos and sprawling student apartment complexes.
An incumbent who is also something of an outsider faces an up-and-coming contender.
For the past several decades, it has been represented on County Commission by officeholders with a few things in common: They have all been African American, and they have all been Democrats. That makes the district unique on the 11-member Commission — at the moment, the other 10 seats are all held by white Republicans.
Current 1st District Commissioner Evelyn Gill is seeking re-election to a second term, after emerging as a surprise winner in the 2016 election. In the county primary on March 3, she is facing a challenge from Dasha Lundy, who like Gill is an African-American woman and a Democrat.
The race is the only Democratic primary in the county this year. No Republicans even filed to run in the district, but the winner of the primary will face independent candidate Reginald Jackson in the county general election on Aug. 6.
Gill: An Independent Voice
Gill moved to Knoxville in the 1990s, bringing with her a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University. Working as a special education teacher in Knox County schools, she became active in local progressive politics. She ran for the state Senate as a Democrat in 2012, losing to Republican Becky Duncan Massey; Gill won 31 percent of the vote in the heavily Republican district.
Running to succeed term-limited Commissioner Sam McKenzie in 2016, Gill edged out Rick Staples in the Democratic primary by just under 200 votes. (Staples is now a state legislator representing the 15th House District.) She then easily beat Republican Michael Covington in the general election.
She came with few connections to traditional East Knoxville power brokers like former state Rep. Joe Armstrong and former Commissioner Tank Strickland. As a commissioner, she has remained independent and often unpredictable, not siding consistently with any of the shifting factions on the rest of the body.
Gill made headlines in 2017 when she was first placed on administrative leave from her teaching job and then resigned, after complaints from some parents about her interactions with special education students and concerns from school officials that her Commission position was causing her to miss too much time away from her job.
A lawsuit filed by parents of one student alleging mistreatment by Gill was settled by the county last year for a reported $93,000. That settlement in turn led County Commissioner Larsen Jay to take the unusual step of seeking to have Gill removed from the Joint Education Committee, a group made up of four members each of Commission and the school board.
Jay’s effort failed — Gill still serves on the committee — and Gill publicly rebuked him for what she called “unmitigated gall.”
Although she often speaks during Commission meetings and at public events, Gill rarely gives one-on-one media interviews. For this article she offered to respond to questions via email. The quotes that follow are from those emailed responses.
She is an active supporter of local arts organizations and is one of the few county commissioners who often appears at cultural events around town. Asked to list some of her proudest achievements during her time in office, those organizations figured prominently, alongside education and social service agencies:
“Securing funding for Project Grad; expanding the CAC-EAST facility to improve the size and capacity for residents in this area; and honoring local dignitaries Stan Brock of Remote Area Medical to Nikki Giovanni, poet and author, as well as honoring, in memoriam, several esteemed local community leaders. Additionally, my financial commitments from the County supported the Knoxville Museum of Art ($25K), The Delaney Project ($25K), Marble City Opera ($10K), The Alliance House ($10K) and Big Ears Festival ($25k).”
Gill noted that she opposed County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ cuts last year to the county’s indigent care program.
“My main goal as 1st District commissioner is to listen to the concerns, complaints and compliments of our citizens and to build the bridges necessary for better government,” Gill wrote.
She cited economic development as one of the district’s most pressing needs. “My role is to continue advocating for my district and pushing for more investments in our schools, more affordable housing options, and fostering economic, vocational and entrepreneurship opportunities,” she said.
Asked whether she feels an additional burden of representation as the only racial minority and one of just two women on Commission, Gill said, “No, I do not. I would never get anything done if I spent my time fretting about being the only minority or female or Democrat or whatever. I do view my actions through the lens of those things, but I have a lifetime of experience with that.”
She added, “It seems to me that it is a much greater burden for a group of white male Republicans to represent and serve all the diversity of people who live in Knox County.”
Gill often ends up at district events alongside school board member Evetty Satterfield and City Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie (wife of former Commissioner Sam McKenzie). But both Satterfield and McKenzie signed Lundy’s nominating petition.
Asked about that, Gill said, “Our democracy is more inclusive and stronger with a diversity of voices participating in government. I have known my opponent for years and we have had good relations; it's encouraging to see more women candidates running for office. If she were running for another office besides the one to which I am seeking re-election and had asked me, I would have signed her petition. I assume that it was in that same spirit that other elected officials signed her petition, so I see no reason why I cannot continue collegial relationships with them.”
Still, she said, “I am the best choice for this seat with my County Commission experience, 20 years as a community advocate and my educational background, including a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration. My passion is to build strong constituent services in county government for the 1st District.”
Lundy: The Next Generation
Lundy (whose first name is pronounced DAY-sha) is a Knox County native who grew up in East Knoxville and graduated from Carter High School in 1998. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a master’s in physical therapy from Tennessee State University, and then a doctorate in physical therapy from UT Chattanooga.
Like many younger African-Americans in Knoxville, when she moved away for college she didn’t really expect to come back to her hometown, preferring the greater diversity and vibrancy of Nashville.
“I moved back here when I was 25 and I just cried all the way back,” she said with a laugh, during an interview at the new Perk City coffee shop on Magnolia Avenue.
But returning as an adult caused her to see and appreciate Knoxville anew, digging into its culture and history — particularly the ups and downs of its African-American community through the turmoil of urban renewal.
Lundy, who will turn 40 next month, is part of a wave of younger African-American leadership that has arisen in recent years, which also includes Satterfield, recently elected City Councilwoman Amelia Parker (who has endorsed Lundy), new city empowerment director Charles Lomax Jr., and others.
She first attracted notice as head of the Burlington Residents Association, pushing for reinvestment in the historic East Knoxville neighborhood where she lives. She got a mural painted honoring former Burlington resident Cal Johnson, a former slave who became Knoxville’s first black millionaire.
Her interest in history led to an appointment to the Historic Zoning Commission by former Mayor Madeline Rogero. She also serves on the board of the East Tennessee Community Design Center and is a member of the board of trustees of Knoxville College, the historically black school that has been struggling for years to resurrect itself in some form.
Lundy works as a physical therapist for Smoky Mountain Home Health & Hospice in Newport, spending three days a week in Cocke County and two days at the company’s Knoxville location.
She said her run for office was prompted by people who “kept nudging me.”
“I’m community minded, I love people,” Lundy said. “I think we need to show our youth leadership. Especially because I’m homegrown.”
She said she is often aware of serving as a role model or inspiration to others from the same geographic and demographic backgrounds.
“I think about the people who come behind me when I do stuff,” she said. “I got my doctorate — I didn’t need my doctorate. It wasn’t a difference in pay. It was just like, I’m from East Knoxville, and you can grow up in East Knoxville and become a doctor.”
Like Gill, she cites economic development and opportunity as the most pressing need in the district.
“I always had questions about, why is our community getting worse? Why are businesses on decline?” Lundy said. “How can you develop an area without losing its culture and without displacing people?”
She added, “I’m hoping just having those hard conversations with people that maybe we can come up with the answer together.”
She said she knows one county commissioner can’t accomplish much by themselves.
“You have your role as a county commissioner and you have that limitation,” she said. “Most of your budget goes to the school system, and you have just a small chunk to do everything else. But, you know, you’re a leader. And I know I have to be a visionary leader, and I have to be a leader who works well with others.”
Lundy said she’s undaunted by the prospect of being a minority voice in many different ways on Commission.
“I work in Newport,” she said. “I rarely see anybody who looks like me. Even with my work in Burlington, when I have to talk to maybe a group of developers or architects or planners, I’m usually the only woman and the only black. I’m comfortable.”
Early voting in the March 3 primary begins Wednesday, Feb. 12. The last day to register to vote before the election is Monday, Feb. 3.