Election 2020: The Independents

Reginald Jackson, Sherif Guindi, Jackson Fenner

Election 2020: The Independents

Unaffiliated with any political party, three candidates wage personal campaigns for law director, public defender and County Commission.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 15, 2020

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Reginald Jackson, sherif guindi and jackson fenner are on the aug. 6 ballot.

Most of the candidates on the ballot for the Aug. 6 Knox County general election will have a familiar “R” or “D” next to their names — all of the offices on the ballot, besides the already-decided school board races, are partisan.

A 5th-generation Knoxvillian, a New York transplant and the son of Egyptian immigrants.

But that doesn’t mean you have to be a Republican or Democrat to seek those offices, and three candidates will appear on next month’s ballot solely under their own names.

Two are attorneys — Sherif Guindi, who is running for public defender, and Jackson Fenner, who is up for law director. The third, Reginald Jackson, works in real estate and is running for the 1st District County Commission seat. 

All are up against better-funded major-party candidates. Republicans Eric Lutton and David Buuck, for public defender and law director respectively, and Democrat Dasha Lundy in the 1st District race.

In interviews, they all say they want to provide independent, community-focused leadership in the positions they are seeking. (You can read profiles of their opponents in our primary coverage from earlier in the year.)

Sherif Guindi: ‘Fair Treatment’

Knox Countians are electing a new public defender this year for the first time since the office was created in 1990. Mark Stephens, who essentially created the office and ran it for nearly 30 years, retired last fall. His top deputy and handpicked successor, Eric Lutton, was appointed to fill the post on an interim basis by Gov. Bill Lee.

Lutton defeated attorney Rhonda Lee in the March 3 Republican primary and is now facing Guindi in the general election. The winner will complete the final two years of Stephens’ final term and would then be eligible to run for a full eight-year term in 2022. The office is not subject to term limits.

Guindi said he admires Stephens’ Community Law Office approach, which provides representation for criminal defendants who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Stephens has created a holistic model that includes social workers and family services for the office’s clients.

“If you use the holistic approach and people are given a second chance by not being intertwined in the cycle and in the criminal justice system, they’re a better member of society,” said Guindi, who is 46 years old. “They can contribute more to society.”

Guindi was born in England to parents who had emigrated from Egypt. They moved again when he was just a year and a half old, landing in Harlan, Ky., where Guindi grew up. In high school, though, he attended and graduated from the Webb School of Knoxville.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from Arizona State University and a law degree from the University of Georgia, Guindi returned to Kentucky, where he worked for several years as a criminal defense lawyer. He was an assistant public advocate — Kentucky’s equivalent of public defenders — and handled a range of cases for the Harlan office.

Guindi was eventually offered a job on the opposite side of the docket, working for the local prosecutor. He said his biggest focus was streamlining the grand jury process to move cases through more quickly.

“There were people that were waiting six months, a year,” he said. “It was taking a long time for cases to get indicted.”

After reconnecting with a high school friend, Guindi soon found himself engaged and married, and relocated back to Knoxville. He went into private practice and joined the local firm of McGehee and Cole, where he has primarily worked in criminal defense and family law. He does a lot of appointed work, representing indigent defendants that the public defender’s office either doesn’t have the staff to handle or can’t because of conflicts.

In that work, he said he has gotten to know a lot of the attorneys in the public defender’s office and has been impressed with them.

“It’s a great place, and they have all these resources,” Guindi said. “Especially the attorneys, but the social workers are very important and helpful, and the investigators. They’ve got a good set-up there.”

He said when he heard that Stephens was retiring, it struck him as an opportunity to take on a new challenge. But he didn’t want to run as a partisan candidate. In Kentucky, where public advocates are appointed, the offices are nonpartisan.

“I have not claimed a political party,” Guindi said. “I have never said, ‘I’m a Republican,’ or ‘I’m a Democrat.’ I don’t necessarily go with one set of candidates or another set of candidates.”

He said his voting history would show he has voted in more Republican than Democratic primaries, but that’s primarily a function of the local political landscape — a lot of races are essentially decided in the Republican primaries.

“I wish people would not look at (party affiliation) and just look at the person,” he said. “Running as an independent, is that going to cause that to happen? I don’t know, maybe. At least in my specific circumstance.”

He said his primary goal is to ensure fair representation and administration of justice for people with few resources.

“If you're charged with a crime, it shouldn't come down to whether or not you have money to defend yourself,” Guindi said. “Everyone should get the same treatment, everyone should get fair treatment.”

Jackson Fenner: ‘The Law Should Not Be Politicized’

In most Tennessee counties, the county attorney is a staff or contracted position, hired by the county mayor or County Commission. But Knox County has elected its law director since the 1960s, creating a unique office that provides legal services to the entirety of county government.

Even as an elected post, it has not always been a politically charged office. But in recent years it has been much in the headlines. Incumbent Law Director Bud Armstrong has taken an assertive approach that has variously put him at odds with former schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre, the county Retirement and Pension Board, the Sheriff’s Office and County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.

Armstrong’s second four-year term ends next month, and term limits prohibited him from running again. In the March 3 Republican primary, his chief deputy, David Buuck, easily defeated challenger Cathy Quist-Shanks, the former Circuit Court clerk.

As in the public defender’s race, no Democratic candidates submitted petitions for the position. But Fenner did. An attorney in private practice who handles a range of cases from criminal defense to property disputes, he said the law director’s office first caught his attention with its pursuit of a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office pension plan.

“I was just disappointed with the way that pension lawsuit went, I thought it was an embarrassment,” said Fenner, who is 42, married with three children, and has been practicing law for nine years.

Fenner grew up in Ellicotville, N.Y., a small town in the western part of the state. He came to Knoxville in 1998 for college.

“I came down here to get away from the cold and look for new opportunities, and fell in love with the area,” he said.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Tennessee, and returned to UT for his law degree, which he completed in 2011. In between, he said, he held a range of blue-collar jobs — waiting tables, unloading trucks, working at a recycling plant.

He said the law director’s office should work in support of its clients in the legislative and executive branches, rather than at odds with them. The pension lawsuit he cited was ultimately dismissed by a judge at the direction of Jacobs and County Commission. Fenner said it should not have been brought in the first place without their consent.

“I have to follow my clients’ wishes,” he said. “We had to go and spend $1 million and go to Chancellor (John) Weaver for him to tell the law director what every first-year law student knows.”

More recently, he took issue with the Law Department’s opinion that the county Board of Health’s mandate for face masks inside public buildings was unconstitutional. “The Health Department has the statutory authority and the authority granted by the county charter to make that call,” he said.

Fenner said he believes the Law Department refuses to settle too many cases that end up costing the county unnecessarily.

“I would like to divert some of the funds we are squandering over needless lawsuits and that back into the public (budget),” he said. “I would like to see more efficiency, more transparency and more accountability.”

He said he has been endorsed by the local Fraternal Order of Police, which includes officers from the Knox County Sheriff’s Office — many of whose members were unhappy with the pension lawsuit.

“A big part of it was I am listening to their concerns,” Fenner said. “They’re just disgusted and disappointed at the way they’ve been treated by the law director.”

He said running as an independent made sense to him because he doesn’t think the office should be political in the first place.

“The law should not be politicized,” he said. “Politics should not have anything to do with whether one lawyer is the best for the job.”

Reginald Jackson: A Voice ‘From the Community’

Reginald Jackson said he has experienced first-hand what many people — particularly Black residents — in County Commission’s 1st District already know: There are significant barriers to success for people who lack resources.

“That’s what made me run for office, all the disparities that are going on,” said Jackson, 35, who works for Emerald Housing Management and also for his family’s real estate business, Hodge Properties.

The 1st County Commission District is drawn to be a “majority minority” district and includes many of Knoxville’s traditionally African-American neighborhoods. But it also takes in all of downtown, stretching from Holston Hills through all of East Knoxville across to Fort Sanders, Lonsdale and West View.

“District 1 is the most diverse district in the county, and if District 1 is not thriving, then the rest of the county is falling apart,” Jackson said.

The district has been represented by African-American commissioners for decades, and in recent years it has also been the only Democratic seat on the 11-member Commission. Incumbent Commissioner Evelyn Gill lost the March 3 Democratic primary to Dasha Lundy, who has the support of many Black community leaders.

There is no Republican candidate for the seat, leaving Jackson as Lundy’s only opposition next month. He said he ran as an independent because he doesn’t think the major parties really represent working people.

“Democrats and Republicans tend to be far apart, there’s always a lot of arguing and fighting between each other,” he said. Although he grew up in a Democratic family, he said, “I found out if you’re not rich, you’re not really Republican or Democrat. You’re independent.”

Jackson is a fifth-generation Knoxvillian who was born on the east side of the city, living in Austin Homes, and then moved with his family to the Pleasant Ridge area. When he was a teenager, they moved to Morristown, where he graduated from high school.

Not interested in college, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served eight years. When he returned to Knoxville, he said, he struggled to find employment and was homeless for about six months.

He wanted to become a police officer but was turned down by the Knoxville Police Department and the University of Tennessee. A job in school security with Knox County turned sour, he said, because of racism in the leadership. (Three former school officers — Jackson is not one of them — have filed a lawsuit against school security Chief Gus Paidousis, accusing him of racism and misogyny.)

Jackson said the biggest needs he sees in the district are for opportunities for young people. He thinks the county and the school system need to invest more in career and technical education for students who aren’t going to go to college. He also cited affordable housing as a pressing need. 

“My whole platform is from what the community wants to see done,” he said. “You’ve got to have somebody who understands that people matter and everybody should have a voice.”

Jackson said the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted underlying inequities in the community.

“That person who works 40 hours a week for $10 an hour, they’re struggling,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen.”