Primary 2020: 5th Commission District
In Farragut and Concord, an incumbent with roots in homeowners’ groups faces an energetic and well-funded challenger.
by jesse fox mayshark • february 11, 2020
Clayton wood, left, is running against incumbent john schoonmaker in the republican primary.
Knox County’s 5th District is in the densely populated southwestern corner of the county, taking in most of the area west of Pellissippi Parkway between the Tennessee River and Interstate 40.
Growth and infrastructure are on the minds of many West Knox voters.
It includes all of incorporated Farragut, as well as the Concord area stretching along Northshore Drive by the river. It is among the most affluent areas of the county, with median household incomes ranging from the mid-$60,000s up to nearly $140,000 in some areas near the Loudon County line.
John Schoonmaker has represented the district on County Commission since 2015, when he was appointed by Commission to serve out the remainder of Richard Briggs’ term, after Briggs was elected to the state Senate.
Schoonmaker, whose political roots are in the powerful Council of West Knox County Homeowners, easily won re-election to a full term in 2016. His initial partial term doesn’t count against him under the county’s term limits law, so he is seeking a second full term this year.
He is facing a vigorous Republican primary challenge from political newcomer Clayton Wood, a pastor and lawyer who runs the nonprofit organization Thrive Lonsdale and has raised a lot of money, including from some GOP heavy-hitters. The winner of the primary will face Democrat Kimerly Peterson in the Aug. 6 general election.
Schoonmaker: Eyes on the Roads
Schoonmaker was already a familiar face in county civic life when Commission appointed him to fill out Briggs’ term in 2015.
He settled with his family in the 5th District in the 1980s, after moving to Knoxville for a job. He worked in sales, first for a furniture manufacturer and then later for a binocular manufacturer.
His road into local politics began like many before, through involvement with his local neighborhood group, in this case a homeowners’ association. From there he eventually ended up as an officer of the Council of West Knox County Homeowners, a group that has been advocating for area residents since 1971. He was president of the organization for 12 years.
“We helped homeowners and homeowners’ associations navigate through Knox County government,” Schoonmaker, who is 65, said in an interview at Vienna Coffee House in the Regas Building. “We dealt with a lot of zoning issues that were coming around.”
As a homeowners’ representative, he was deeply involved in the long process of formulating the county’s Growth Policy Plan, which was mandated by state law in the late 1990s. The plan, which had to be approved by Commission, Knoxville City Council, and the Farragut Board of Mayor and Aldermen, has been in the news again in the past year as County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has sought to amend it.
Growth and its consequences are much on the minds of 5th District residents, who see daily traffic back-ups on roads from Northshore to Campbell Station.
“I think our biggest problem now is our road infrastructure,” Schoonmaker said. He noted that it took three years to get a $7 million improvement to Canton Hollow Road through the county’s capital spending plan, and that’s just one of many needs in and around the district.
“We have got to do something with Campbell Station interchange north to Hardin Valley, but the problem is, there’s been no action taken,” he said.
Schoonmaker said he’s not anti-growth or development, but he thinks the county has to do a better job of balancing growth with existing infrastructure and resources.
“I’m a firm believer, as most people are in Tennessee, that you have a right to sell your property,” he said. “The next part of that is, it’s got to be within the guidelines of what it’s zoned for. If a development is zoned for three homes per acre, and it has been that way, then that makes sense to me. But what happens now is the developers are coming in and saying they have to have five. Well, then again you’re back to the infrastructure.”
Schoonmaker often votes on the side of homeowners when there are zoning disputes with developers. Recently, for example, he reversed course on a provision he had originally supported to allow a microbrewery into a Neighborhood Commercial zone. He said he was concerned that a late-night bar could create a disturbance for nearby residents.
He has sometimes ended up voting with a coalition of commissioners in support of Law Director Bud Armstrong in Armstrong’s legal disagreements with Jacobs. But Schoonmaker said he’s not part of any faction, and he scoffed at the idea that he is beholden to Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley, a staunch Armstrong supporter. “He doesn’t own a newspaper in the Farragut district,” Schoonmaker said of Hunley.
He is active in the Tennessee County Commissioners Association and chairs Commission’s Government Affairs Committee, which often places him in a liaison role with the county’s state legislators. If re-elected, he said he would continue pushing for a bill at the state level he has been working on for a few years, which would return a portion of the state fee imposed for sales tax collection to local cities and counties.
He is also eager to see the results of the state’s new approach to collecting and distributing online sales tax, which Schoonmaker believes will be a boon to Knox County. He thinks the county should consider designating new revenue from online sales to a special infrastructure fund.
“Say that new portion should go towards engineering and public works, whatever we need to do,” he said. “It shouldn’t just be, let’s throw it over here and spend it for whatever.”
In his Jan. 31 financial disclosure, Schoonmaker reported that he had raised no money for his re-election. He had $1,245 on hand from prior funds.
Wood: Following a Calling
In contrast, Wood reported raising $15,425 in last month’s financial disclosure. Donors included Haslam family member David Colquitt, developer Scott Davis and former school board Chair Doug Harris, as well as investor Jordan Mollenhour, Wood’s campaign treasurer.
Wood graduated from college at the age of 19 and sometimes it seems like he’s barely slowed down since. A conversation with him at First Watch on Lovell Road was wide-ranging and fast-paced.
He grew up in Sevier County’s Wears Valley, where his parents ran — and still run — Wears Valley Ranch, a Christian children’s home and school. His father is a pastor with a daily radio show on SiriusXm.
After Wood’s early graduation from the University of Tennessee, a high score on the LSAT entrance exam was enough to convince him to try law school.
“I borrowed a pencil to take the LSAT,” he said with a laugh. “My mom actually signed me up for it. I was a senior English lit major.”
He attended Washington & Lee University in Virginia, where he nurtured an interest in constitutional law. This was partly thanks to a friend of his parents who became a professional mentor: attorney Jay Sekulow, who has been in the news a lot lately as one of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyers. (He helped lead the president’s defense in the just-concluded Senate impeachment trial.)
After law school, Wood said, he worked in various capacities for Sekulow for 10 years. He started as a sort of office assistant and took on duties that over time included writing briefs for major cases.
“Jay’s won a ton of Supreme Court cases, I was involved in a few of them,” Wood said. “I loved it.”
He helped Sekulow open an office in Nashville, which is where Wood met his wife, Danielle. They now have five children, ages 3 to 10.
A stint with a tech company in Atlanta followed, and then Wood’s career took an unexpected turn. Partly because of his parents’ experience running the children’s home, he was recruited to work in international children’s care, advising organizations and orphanages around the world.
“God sent me to do that,” Wood said plainly. He traveled extensively, often in poor countries in Africa and Asia. “It was just, over and over, going where I didn’t think I was going to go, where I really, in my flesh, didn’t want to go, and then seeing that God was using that time in a really beautiful way.”
From that job, it wasn’t much of a stretch to Thrive Lonsdale. Wood was already volunteering at the Christian organization, which runs after-school and summer programs for low-income students in the Lonsdale neighborhood.
He took the reins as executive director in 2012, when the organization was struggling to maintain a $200,000 budget. Now, he said, it has a $1.2 million budget and 16 full-time employees, and it serves 180 children in Lonsdale and in a smaller program in Parkridge.
The ministry offers homework help, snacks and Bible study, with programming tailored to all grade levels from elementary to high schools. In his eight years with Thrive, Wood said with satisfaction, “We’ve had no kids arrested from our program.”
His civic engagement came initially from all the contacts with local officials he made in the course of his work in Lonsdale. Although Thrive receives no public money, Wood is active as an advocate for the neighborhood.
County Commission first piqued his interest more from a legal than a pastoral standpoint. He was bothered by Law Director Bud Armstrong’s lawsuit challenging the county pension system; Wood supported Jacobs’ efforts to dismiss the suit.
“If you want to know one of the ways we could save money in our county, it’s by not suing ourselves,” Wood said during a Commission candidates’ public forum at the News Sentinel last week.
He also supports Jacobs’ efforts to amend the county’s growth plan, which he said would lead to more efficient, less sprawling development. In talking to 5th District voters, he said he’s gotten a good sense of their priorities.
“Low taxes, good schools and infrastructure,” Wood said. “Those are the consistent themes that people talk about.”
He adds a shout-out for another county amenity: “The library system is just a jewel, and I love it,” he said. “My kids literally every week are in our libraries. Every single week.”
One thing Wood said he is not running to do is be an evangelical voice on Commission. Although he spoke strongly in favor of religious release time at the Knox County school board’s December meeting, Wood said that was because he thought people were misconstruing the legalities of the issue.
“I’m not eager to make that a big platform for county government,” he said of his pastoral work. “Part of that has to do even with job (recruitment). Corporate culture is pretty hostile to Christianity, and will increasingly be. It’s not the right place and time. It’s like, my calling is over here, my nonprofit doesn’t take any money from the government. On the other side over there, I think the government has important roles that are vital and matter a lot.”