Election 2020: 5th Commission District

5th District candidates

Election 2020: 5th Commission District

In Concord and Farragut, incumbent Republican John Schoonmaker faces a challenge from Democrat Kimberly Peterson.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 14, 2020

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republican incumbent john schoonmaker is running against democrat Kimberly Peterson.

As in many other parts of Knox County, growth and infrastructure figure heavily in the concerns of residents of County Commission’s 5th District.

Concerns about growth and infrastructure in one of the county's most affluent districts.

In this already heavily built up western corner of the county, which runs from Gallaher View Road south of Gleason Drive all the way to the Loudon County line, any new development raises concerns about its impact on traffic, flooding and schools.

It is no accident that the incumbent commissioner, John Schoonmaker, arose from the powerful Council of West Knox County Homeowners, which he led for years before seeking office. That history of involvement allowed Schoonmaker to withstand a well-funded challenge in the March Republican primary from political newcomer Clayton Wood. Although Wood reported raising about $30,000 more than Schoonmaker, the incumbent held on to win by a margin of 52-48 percent.

In the county general election on Aug. 6, Schoonmaker faces another newcomer, Democrat Kimberly Peterson, who has been active in the Women’s March Coalition of East Tennessee. Like Schoonmaker, she is running a low-budget race in one of the county’s most affluent districts, reporting $3,665 on hand last week compared to his $4,413.

The 5th District, which lies almost entirely outside Knoxville city limits and includes all of the incorporated Town of Farragut, is affluent and traditionally Republican. In 2016, Schoonmaker defeated Democrat Sheri Ridgeway by a 76-24 percent margin to win his first full term. 

Still, Peterson earned 4,268 votes running unopposed in the March Democratic primary, which was more than the 3,502 combined votes Schoonmaker and Ridgeway received in 2016 — though behind the 5,115 combined Republican votes Schoonmaker and Wood posted in March.

Like many residents of the 5th District, both Schoonmaker and Peterson moved there from other places, and both have found a calling in civic engagement. (Some portions of this article originally appeared in our coverage of the March primary.)

Kimberly Peterson: ‘Better, Smarter Growth’

Both of Peterson’s parents are U.S. Navy veterans, and the family moved often during her childhood as her father was assigned to different bases. She lived in the Washington, D.C., area, along with Idaho, Maine and Charleston, S.C. 

“All different parts of the United States,” said Peterson, who is 49. “And I think that the military is a very diverse place for people to see all different backgrounds, all different parts of the country, all different socioeconomic classes. I really hark back to that a lot because that very much shaped who I was as a person.”

Her father grew up in the Rocky Hill area of Knoxville, and when he retired from the military he wanted to move back to East Tennessee. They settled in Morristown, where Peterson graduated from high school. She attended James Madison University in Virginia, earning a degree in cultural anthropology, and then worked for many years in the nonprofit sector for organizations including United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the American Cancer Society.

She first became politically active in college, particularly focused on environmental issues and women’s rights. But both her career and her activism had to be put on hold after the birth of her second child, a daughter with a rare genetic disorder that causes severe disabilities.

“It was clear that I would have to be a 24-7 caregiver,” Peterson said. “I had to leave my career and just devote myself totally to her.”

The disruption extended to her marriage, and she soon found herself a single mother with great needs and few resources.

“All of a sudden the person who used to give the help was needing the help,” she said. “I was on the receiving end of needing services and things like that. So that was very humbling and very eye opening. And again, I think it gives me a very unique perspective on things.”

About five years ago, she met her current partner, whom she said is supportive and engaged both in taking care of the children and supporting her return to political activism — largely ignited by the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

“That's when I started doing the Women's March and getting involved in other issues and building relationships from there,” she said.

Those relationships led to a phone call late last year from local Democratic leaders, who were looking for candidates to run in local races. Peterson had not previously considered running for office, preferring issue-based advocacy. But she said yes because she said she wants to make sure voters have a choice.

“We have 5th District Democrats who are extremely active, and they really needed a candidate to rally around,” Peterson said. l

Some of her concerns reflect national political discussions — for example, she said she would like to see the Sheriff’s Office engage in more community dialogue.

“I see the Knoxville Police Department being very open to reviewing their use of force policies and things like that and meeting with the community groups, and we're not seeing that in the county,” she said.

But Peterson said many of the issues she hears about from district residents are local and nonpartisan.

“They're very fired up about the lack of infrastructure and traffic and school overcrowding and development that is not necessarily well planned or well thought out,” she said. “How can we have better, smarter growth as we expand our county?”

As for taxes, Peterson said she would be open to proposals to increase them if needed to provide more resources for education and infrastructure. Commission has not increased the property tax rate in 21 years, which means it has fallen due to countywide reappraisals from $3.32 per $100 assessed to $2.12.

“I understand why people are opposed to property tax increases or even sales tax increases, because nobody wants to pay more money,” she said. “But there is that saying, you get what you pay for.”

Peterson said she thinks what she would contribute most to Commission is a fresh perspective and willingness to tackle problems.

“We just need some new solutions, some creative ideas, and really some new perspectives,” she said. “I am hearing and I see myself that it’s almost like County Commission speaks with one voice, you know, it's very unified.”

She recounted one Commission meeting she attended where a group of citizens were complaining about a flooding issue and one commissioner noted that it had been a known problem for 20 years, without being addressed.

“What we’re doing is not working,” Peterson said.

John Schoonmaker: ‘We Need Some Experienced People’

Schoonmaker, on the other hand, argued that now more than ever is a time for experienced hands, given the economic turmoil of recent months. He is one of Commission’s fiscal wonks, chairing its Finance Committee and serving on its Investment Committee.

“You have to have somebody on Commission who understands that,” he said, “who’s really attuned to the budget process, who’s read the budget and understands where the money comes from and where it goes.”

Schoonmaker noted that the 11-member Commission will already have at least four new faces in September, in the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 6th districts. In his district, he said, projects like long-planned improvements to Canton Hollow Road require diligence and background knowledge to see them through.

“We need some experienced people on Commission to make sure we are staying on top of those things, to keep these projects on the front burner instead of the back burner,” he said.

Schoonmaker was already a familiar face in civic life in 2015 when Commission appointed him to fill out the remainder of former Commissioner Richard Briggs’ term. (Briggs stepped down after being elected to the state Senate.) 

Schoonmaker, who is 65, 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 said. “We dealt with a lot of zoning issues that were coming around.”

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 the $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. He has also sometimes voted with a coalition of commissioners in support of Law Director Bud Armstrong in Armstrong’s legal disagreements with County Mayor Glenn 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 a supporter of the Sheriff’s Office and notes that he has been endorsed by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. He said 5th District residents are strongly pro-law enforcement.

“I have yet to hear anybody who’s called me who lives in my district say they want to defund the police,” he said.

Schoonmaker 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.”