Election 2020: 2nd Commission District
In one of County Commission’s few swing districts, Democrat Courtney Durrett faces off against Republican Grant Rosenberg for an open seat.
by jesse fox mayshark • July 8, 2020
Grant Rosenberg, left, is running against Courtney Durrett.
The densely populated North Knoxville communities that make up Knox County Commission’s 2nd District constitute a rarity in local politics: a true political swing district.
Two candidates who have worked in government but never run for office.
Running from just north of downtown through the grand Victorian homes of 4th and Gill and Old North and neighborhoods on both sides of Broadway to eventually encompass all of Fountain City, the district is diverse both socioeconomically and politically.
It is the only Commission district that has alternated between Democratic and Republican representatives in recent years. Since Commission switched to its current form with one representative per district, the 2nd has been represented by Democrat Amy Broyles and then Republican Michele Carringer. (Former Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero represented the district as a Democrat in the 1990s.)
The district is almost entirely within Knoxville city limits, which means the city provides many of the direct services like public safety, street paving and sanitation. That leaves its county government representative often playing a liaison role, connecting constituents to city services.
With Carringer opting not to seek a second term this year as she instead runs to succeed state Rep. Bill Dunn in the 16th House District, two political newcomers are vying for the seat.
Democrat Courtney Durrett and Republican Grant Rosenberg have a lot in common: They’re about the same age (she’s 39, he’s 40), both married with young children, both live in Fountain City, and both say they are less interested in partisan politics than community service. Both have experience working in government at various levels, but neither has run for office before.
Also, if you’re looking for a candidate who will pledge never to raise taxes, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Although both said it should be a last resort, Durrett and Rosenberg said they would be open to a tax increase if necessary to provide needed services.
The race will be decided in the Aug. 6 county general election, and the new commissioner will take office for a four-year term at the start of September.
Grant Rosenberg: Ensuring a ‘Strong City’
Rosenberg first entered Knox County government as a college intern during the administration of former County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, eventually working his way up to director of community development. It was not exactly a planned trajectory.
“I didn’t know anything about government,” Rosenberg said. “I just wanted to learn.”
He ended up spending a decade in the City County Building, learning the ins and outs of constituent services and issues like housing, literacy, disaster preparedness and homelessness. He stayed on for two years under Ragsdale’s successor, former County Mayor Tim Burchett, before leaving for the private sector. He is now vice president for business development at Denark Construction.
“It was a challenge, but a great, huge opportunity,” he said of his years in government, where he often found himself managing people twice his age with decades of experience. “I really just focused on what resources they needed to be effective, and then tried to make their jobs easier.”
Rosenberg grew up in Rochester, Mich., a northern suburb of Detroit. His father, a secular Jew, grew up in Detroit; his mother, a rural Methodist, was from a farming family near Ann Arbor. Rosenberg was raised Methodist, spending time in the summers on the family farm, showing hogs at the state fair.
The youngest of three children, when it came time for college he decided not to follow the well-worn path his older brother and many friends took to Michigan State. Instead, having been impressed by Atlanta during a trip to the 1996 Olympics, he looked south — and found the University of Tennessee.
“I picked UT really because of proximity — it was only eight hours away — and it was inexpensive,” Rosenberg said. “It was actually cheaper to go to UT out-of-state than to go to Michigan State in-state.”
He entered as a freshman in 1998, majoring in journalism. In 2002, he heard that a classmate’s father was about to become the new local county mayor, and he asked about internship possibilities.
Rosenberg meshed well with the Ragsdale administration and stayed on after graduation. He found himself appointed to a series of jobs of escalating responsibility — first heading up an office of neighborhoods, then adding codes enforcement and eventually becoming head of community development. Along the way he built relationships with people inside and outside of government, many of whom are supporting his current campaign.
Seeking new challenges, he enrolled in night school at Lincoln Memorial University and earned a Master’s of Business Administration. When he left Burchett’s administration, he first joined the Southeastern Housing Foundation, a nonprofit that was developing the Minvilla Flats and Flenniken Landing permanent supportive housing complexes.
“I took it as a good opportunity to move on, try something new,” Rosenberg said. “It was a private sector job, but it was still a publicly oriented nonprofit that worked with federal and state and local funds, local entities.”
After two years there, he was recruited to Denark, the construction company owned by local powerbroker Raja Jubran. His job is to identify and pursue prospective projects with both public and private clients. About two-thirds of the firm’s current work is in higher education, Rosenberg said, building facilities for community colleges and technical schools.
He has continued to pay close attention to local government and when Carringer announced in December that she would not seek re-election, Rosenberg received phone calls from friends urging him to run.
“In the back of my mind, it was always something I thought I would do,” he said, having seen the importance of County Commission during his time in government (which spanned the Black Wednesday scandal and the subsequent overhaul of the entire county legislative body).
He had expected to pursue it later, when his kids were grown, but he accepted the opportunity when it came. Rosenberg said his detailed knowledge of county government and how it interacts with city, state and federal agencies would serve the district well. His wife, Allison, works in environmental health for the county Health Department.
“What I feel like I bring to the table is experience, qualifications, knowledge of county government, knowledge of the people, relationships and just the skill set to be able to negotiate and get some good outcomes for our entire county but particularly this district,” Rosenberg said.
He said one of his goals would be to focus more county attention and resources inside city limits. He is not opposed to growth in the unincorporated areas of the county but said it often comes at higher cost in requirements for new infrastructure, schools and other amenities. All of those already exist in the 2nd District, with its redeveloping commercial corridors along Broadway and North Central Street.
“We don’t have a strong county, we don’t have a strong region, if we don’t have a strong city,” Rosenberg said. “So what can the county do to ensure that we have a strong city?”
Conscious of the district’s mixed political allegiances, Rosenberg notes that he has support from some Democrats, like former city Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders, and civic figures like former City Council members Mark Campen, Larry Cox and Carlene Malone.
Jubran is a close associate of the influential Haslam family, and Rosenberg said he is honored to have the support of former Gov. Bill Haslam. But he said he is nobody’s hand-picked candidate.
“I believe local government issues are generally nonpartisan in nature,” Rosenberg said. “In my 10 years with the county and eight years since leaving the county and staying involved, I’ve yet to see a party-line vote (on County Commission).”
Courtney Durrett: ‘Be the Difference’
Durett is a 2nd District native, born at the old St. Mary’s Hospital. Meeting for an interview in Edgewood Park, she reminisces about playing there as a child.
“I lived on Emoriland (Boulevard) from the time I came home from St. Mary’s to the time I went downtown for school to UT,” she said. Along the way, she attended Belle Morris Elementary School, Whittle Springs Middle School and Central High School.
Durrett graduated from UT in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, which she put to work immediately as a legislative staffer in the General Assembly in Nashville. She worked in the clerk’s office of the state Senate.
“I worked for all 33 senators, whenever I was needed, and then helped run sessions,” she said. “I actually was the person who had to create the calendars for the committees and the sessions and all that.”
After two years there and a brief stint in the state Department of Economic and Community Development, where she worked on the state’s first efforts to bring broadband internet to rural areas, she applied to graduate school.
Following to some degree in the footsteps of her mother, an elementary school music teacher, Durrett got a master’s degree in education and became a certified history teacher. She taught in schools in Clarksville, where she met her husband, and the two of them decided to move back to Knoxville.
Durrett taught at Austin-East High School for two years, until the first of her two children was born. Since then, she has been a stay-at-home mom while continuing to substitute teach in Knox County schools.
She also became active in the Fountain City neighborhood where she and her husband settled, helping to organize a new neighborhood group for an area now known as Fountain Crest. Through that work, she got to know staff in the City of Knoxville Office of Neighborhoods. As a volunteer, she helped organize the office’s annual Neighborhood Conference, and two years ago, she was recruited to work for the office part-time.
“I’ve gotten to know a lot of the neighborhood folks and being a neighborhood leader, too, I love meeting neighbors and being able to connect them with other people and even being able to connect them with services,” Durrett said.
She said her time working in and around government, both locally and at the state, made her see the value of good, engaged representation.
“It made me want to do it more just to be the difference, be the change,” Durrett said. “I know It sounds like kind of a cliché, but that’s really why people do it.”
She would be the second generation of her family to serve in local office — her father was a member of the old Knoxville city school board. Durrett was 6 or 7 at the time he ran for office, and she thought it meant that the family was going to move into the White House. “When he won, I went upstairs and started packing my bags,” she said with a laugh.
She said she had always kept the possibility of running for office someday in mind, and now seemed like a good time. She announced her candidacy even before Carringer had said she wasn’t going to run again.
“I have kids now and I want them to kind of see that same thing that I did, that you don't have to be anybody famous or wealthy or whatever, that just the average person can make a difference,” she said.
She said the major issues she sees in the 2nd District have to do with schools, infrastructure and development. Noting recent debate on Commission about the costs of sprawling growth, she said, “We really need to focus on what we've got, see if we can do more density, can we rework it to mixed-use? Can we rework it to not just keep expanding and expanding and expanding and increasing the need for infrastructure?”
As a teacher, she said she’s attuned to the needs of both educators and students. Although County Commission does not directly govern the school system, it approves its budget and Durrett said she would be a champion for more resources.
“It’s a lot more than just teaching,” she said. “It’s mental health, it's teaching social skills, it’s behavior, it’s so many other things that are involved. I want to make sure that those things stay top of mind.”
She would also support a civilian review board for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, similar to the city’s Police Advisory and Review Committee.
“It would help bridge that gap and mend the relationship with the community that has become negative,” Durrett said.
As for why she’s running as a Democrat, she said she grew up in a Democratic family and has always associated the party with looking out for the most vulnerable members of society.
“I grew up in a family that wanted to help everyone, that felt everyone had a place at the table when it comes to being able to live their lives the best that they can,” she said.
But Durrett said the prospect of being one of just a few Democrats on County Commission doesn’t bother her.
“I feel like we need to celebrate our differences, because that's what makes us diverse, but it should not hinder anyone's ability to work with me and vice versa, just because of the party affiliation,” she said. “Because when it's all said and done, my main goal is to improve the quality of life for the residents of Knox County. And I can't do that by myself.”
CORRECTION: Corrected to note that Rosenberg earned his MBA from Lincoln Memorial University.