The Compass Guide to Primary 2020

Campaign signs

The Compass Guide to Primary 2020

Forget Bernie, Biden and Trump. With early voting starting today, here’s what you need to know about the local elections on March 3.

by jesse fox mayshark • february 12, 2020


Local primary campaign signs in front of the old courthouse on main street.

Early voting begins today in the March 3 primary elections, with presidential candidates at the top of the ballot and a host of Knox County contests farther down.

In Knox County races, Republican voters have more decisions to make than Democrats.

Early voting runs through Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 10 locations around the county. In general, the polls are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. but there are variations by location and day. You can find the full schedule on the website of the county Election Commission.

As always, voter turnout is the big unknown in this election. Democratic voters might be expected to be more active, since they have a fiercely contested presidential primary. (There are alternatives to President Donald Trump on the Republican ballot — former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh — but nobody expects either to present a serious challenge. Walsh has already formally withdrawn from the race.)

But local Democrats have few other races on their ballot. The 1st County Commission District offers the only contested Democratic primary in the county. Democrats can also vote in nonpartisan school board primaries, if they live in a district with a contested race. Only district residents can vote in either Commission or school board contests.

County Republicans, on the other hand, have four contested countywide primaries, along with three County Commission primaries.

Here are quick summaries of each race, with links to our coverage. (Note: None of the three candidates running for the 8th District school board seat have returned repeated calls from Compass to talk about their campaigns.)

All of our primary election coverage, including this story, has been moved outside our paywall as a public service. Feel free to share far and wide. 

Campaign Overviews

“In the Running” — Dec. 4, 2019

“The Year Ahead: For Knox County, Decisions and Elections” — Jan. 1, 2020

“Fund Race” — Feb. 5, 2020

Countywide Races

Criminal Court: Recently appointed Judge Kyle Hixson faces defense attorney Wesley Stone in seeking to finish out retired Judge Bob McGee’s term. Our story here.

Law Director: David Buuck, who is currently chief deputy to term-limited Law Director Bud Armstrong, is facing off against former Circuit Court Clerk Cathy Quist-Shanks. Armstrong, who has been an unusually assertive law director and has sometimes tangled with other county office-holders, is strongly supporting Buuck. Our story here. The winner will face independent candidate Jackson Fenner in the Aug. 6 general election.

Property Assessor: Incumbent John Whitehead, who held this office from 2000-2008 and was elected again in 2016, is facing challenger Tina Marshall. Whitehead has assembled the largest campaign war chest of any local candidate this year, with donations from developers, real estate professionals, construction company CEOs, landlords and others with property interests. Our story here. (Details on fundraising are in this story.)

Public Defender: Knox County voters will elect a new public defender for the first time since the office was created in 1990. Former Public Defender Mark Stephens held it for 29 years and retired last fall. His chosen successor, Eric Lutton, was appointed to the position on an interim basis by Gov. Bill Lee. Now Lutton faces challenger Rhonda Lee, an attorney who has never worked in the office, in the Republican primary. Our story here. The winner will face independent candidate Sherif Guindi in the Aug. 6 general election.

County Commission

1st District: The only Democratic primary race in the county is in this center city district, which stretches from East Knoxville across downtown and into Mechanicsville, Fort Sanders, Lonsdale and West View. Incumbent Evelyn Gill is seeking re-election after a sometimes turbulent first term, and is facing challenger Dasha Lundy, an up-and-coming community leader. Our story here. The winner will face independent candidate Reginald Jackson in the Aug. 6 general election.

4th District: Incumbent Hugh Nystrom, who is currently Commission chair, opted not to seek re-election this year. The Republican primary in this West Knoxville district features a former Memphis police officer, Scott Broyles, running against Air Force veteran Kyle Ward. Broyles has been active in civic circles for some time and has Nystrom’s support. Ward is a young political newcomer. Our story here. The winner will face Democrat Todd Frommeyer in the Aug. 6 general election.

5th District: Incumbent John Schoonmaker, longtime president of the Council of West Knox County Homeowners, faces well-funded challenger Clayton Wood in the Republican primary in this western district, which includes Farragut and Concord. Our story here. The winner will face Democrat Kimberly Peterson in the Aug. 6 general election.

School Board

2nd District: Incumbent Jennifer Owen, a former teacher, was elected in 2016 over a better-funded candidate as part of the wave of reaction against former Superintendent Jim McIntyre. With the McIntyre turmoil receded, Owen again faces a better-funded opponent in John Meade, a business executive who has been an active parent in Fountain City schools. Our story here.

3rd District: Incumbent Tony Norman, a former teacher and two-term county commissioner, was also part of the anti-McIntyre wave. He faces a challenge in the northwest Knoxville district from Daniel Watson, CEO of the nonprofit Restoration House, who has attracted support from the Haslam family and other deep-pocketed donors. Norman has reported raising no money for his re-election campaign. Our story here.

8th District: We have no story to link to here, because none of the three candidates running in this largely rural East Knox County district has returned repeated phone calls for comment. Incumbent Mike McMillan, a former county commissioner who enjoys the strong support of Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley, has been ill in recent months and hasn’t attended a school board meeting since December. He reported raising just $1,500 for his re-election bid, all of it in the form of in-kind contributions from Hunley.

Of McMillan’s challengers, Adam Brown reported raising $100 and Leon Daugherty raised no money at all. Even with his health issues, McMillan’s name recognition and Hunley’s endorsement will be high hurdles for any other candidate to match.