Election 2020: 15th House District Primary
Three candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination in the county’s most reliably blue legislative district.
The 15th House District is the most diverse of all the legislative districts in Knox County, lying entirely within the city and including East Knoxville, downtown, Mechanicsville and South Knoxville.
Criminal justice reform will be a key issue in Knox County's most diverse legislative district.
The district is home to downtown and riverfront condo developments, working-class and middle-class neighborhoods, and some of Knoxville’s poorest communities, as well as the highest concentrations of African-American residents in the county.
The district also reliably elects Democratic candidates — no Republican is even on the ballot this year, which is not uncommon, and the winner of the Democratic primary will run against independent candidate Troy Jones in the Nov. 3 general election.
Incumbent Rick Staples, who will face voters for the first time following high-profile reports of ethics and campaign finance violations, is being challenged by former County Commissioner Sam McKenzie and first-time candidate Matthew Park.
Because the district contains neighborhoods that are predominantly African American such as Burlington, Morningside and Mechanicsville, the issue of criminal justice reform has taken heightened emphasis because of the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The resulting protests in Knoxville and across the country have galvanized reform efforts, and all three candidates are addressing the issue.
Staples, who won re-election in 2016 with 63 percent of the vote over former legislator Pete Drew and Rhonda Lynesse Gallman (who withdrew but stayed on the ballot and managed to get 3.5 percent of the vote), is running on his record.
McKenzie, who left Commission in 2016 because of term limits, and Park, a business consultant, are running to unseat Staples.
One of only 26 Democrats in the 99-member House of Representatives, Staples has managed to get some legislation passed and makes that the central theme of his campaign.
His most notable bills are the JuJuan Latham Act, which increased the penalties for drive-by shootings; a bill that legalized online sports betting in Tennessee; and legislation that requires school systems to test for lead levels in school buildings.
Staples has a reputation for working with Republicans on legislation — he’s joined state Sen. Richard Briggs of Knoxville to push for assistance to non-parental relative caregivers.
“The 15th District has had a seat at the table because of my relationships,” he said.
That doesn’t mean negotiations aren’t sometimes bruising, Staples emphasized, saying he’s had to fight members of the Republican supermajority for every bill he has been able to get passed.
“Everything I’ve done has come with scar tissue,” he said. “I’ve been beat up in the process.”
Staples’ term has been rocky in other ways as well. In April 2019, he resigned as assistant minority leader after the House Ethics Subcommittee determined he violated the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy.
He also ran afoul of campaign finance regulations for questionable spending following an audit of his books by the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance and scrutiny from the media. He agreed to repay $8,910 in unallowable charges, most of them related to travel.
Staples said he’s paying back the money and has put safeguards in place to make sure his campaign account is used only for campaign expenses. He said his constituents still have faith in him.
“There was a lot of misrepresentation about that,” he said. “People who know me know I didn’t do anything nefarious.”
Staples grew up in East Knoxville and graduated from the former Holston High School, which is now a middle school. He studied sociology and religious studies at the University of Tennessee. He’s a former Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputy and is active with 100 Black Men of Greater Knoxville, an organization that mentors African-American youth.
He had run unsuccessfully for office before his 2016 victory. He lost a race for the City Council’s 4th District seat to Nick Della Volpe in 2013 and was passed over by County Commission for John Fugate for an appointment to fill an open school board seat (the 2nd District seat had been held by current Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, who resigned from the school board when her family moved to Slovenia for a year).
Staples lost a race against Evelyn Gill in 2016 for the 1st Commission District seat. Days after the election, however, state Rep. Joe Armstrong had to step down from the 15th House District seat after a federal felony conviction for filing a false tax return. Armstrong had been unopposed in the Democratic primary, and the Knox County Democratic Party named Staples to run in his place. He easily won re-election in 2018.
If he’s re-elected to a third term, Staples said one of his priorities would be to establish a historical corridor from Blount Mansion through the area east of downtown razed during urban renewal to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. He also would continue working with Briggs on the relative caregiver bill.
One piece of legislation he wants to push is a bill to legalize the cultivation of marijuana. “We have the best soil and we’re a centrally located state. I think it’s worth an argument,” Staples said.
Staples said he’s been asked to work with Gov. Bill Lee’s recently formed Law Enforcement Reform Partnership, a statewide effort to improve communications, enhance training and revise use-of-force and duty-to-intervene policies at law enforcement agencies across Tennessee.
“I already have a seat at the table,” he said. “We need someone established. I have a lot of work to do.”
In late 2007, during the tumultuous aftermath of the Black Wednesday sunshine law scandal, McKenzie felt the need to step up and help clean up County Commission.
So he resigned as a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Knoxville Utilities Board and ran for the 1st Commision District seat. He defeated four other candidates in the Democratic primary and triumphed in the general election with 71 percent of the vote.
McKenzie decided to get into the 15th House District race this year with the same motivation.
“I had no intention of running, but similar to Black Wednesday, we’re not getting good representation in Nashville,” he said.
“Character issues aside, when your hallmark legislation is online sports betting, it’s gotten to the point that we need responsible leadership.”
If elected, McKenzie said, he would focus on healthcare, criminal justice reform and the economy.
“The biggest priority is to fully expand Medicaid,” he said. “The best thing you can give somebody is a healthy body and a healthy mind.”
Though the GOP supermajority has been resistant to Medicaid expansion, McKenzie said that could begin shifting as rural legislators are seeing the devastation caused in their communities by the opioid crisis.
The recent protests over police brutality have changed the conversation surrounding reform, he said, including reconsidering the wisdom of privately run prisons and reducing penalties for nonviolent offenders. “I think we can have a conversation that we couldn’t have before,” McKenzie said.
In a message posted to his campaign website, he wrote that Floyd’s death has put Tennessee at a crossroads and that leaders cannot allow a similar incident here.
“We must respond to racism in all areas of activity: education, healthcare, racial profiling in restaurants and retail establishments,” he wrote. “We must stand united to address and correct all injustices against Black people.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the Legislature next year will be the budget. McKenzie is under no illusions about launching big spending initiatives.
“What we’re really looking at is an austere budget,” he said. “It’s a sales tax-driven budget, and that’s slowing down as the coronavirus persists. We’re going to have to focus on the basics, like education.”
McKenzie does support raising the minimum wage to a living-wage level, which he said would stimulate consumer spending. “We’ve got to increase our wages. We’ve got to pay our people more,” he said.
McKenzie grew up in East Knoxville and graduated from Austin-East High School. His brothers, Reggie and Raleigh McKenzie, were AE and University of Tennessee football stars who played in the NFL. Sam McKenzie continued a part-time career on the gridiron, too, as an award-winning high-school official.
After graduation from Austin-East, McKenzie earned a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in Nashville and a master’s in physics from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). He has worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he is the Environmental, Safety, Health and Quality Group Leader at the lab’s Spallation Neutron Source, for longer than three decades.
McKenzie is a card-carrying member of the African-American political establishment in Knoxville. In addition to serving on County Commission and the KUB Board of Commissioners, he helped found the East Knoxville Athletics Association. His wife, Gwen McKenzie, is the city’s vice mayor.
McKenzie served on Commission during the transition from 19 members to 11, as well as the redistricting following the 2010 Census. He said his service during a time of tumult and change has prepared him to go to the Legislature during a pandemic and economic downturn.
“Do the research. Look at what I’ve done, look at what Rick’s done, look at what Matthew’s done,” he said. “If you stack it all up, there’s only one clear choice.”
Park, who is running for office for the first time, is positioning himself as the most progressive of the three candidates.
“We have people from the most conservative wing of the Democratic Party representing one of the most progressive districts in the state,” he said. “The communities of the 15th District are ready for progressive voices.”
Park is a business technology consultant who became more politically active in 2017 when his work brushed up against the disenrollment of TennCare recipients. In 2018, he got involved in former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s failed U.S. Senate bid and decided to run for the 15th House seat this year after concluding that Staples was not representing his constituents’ interests.
“We have very few legislators who are conversant in technology,” Park said. “I have a voice to lend to several of these conversations and can bring some expertise to the table.”
Park has a wide range of policy interests — his website lays out detailed stances on 16 issues — but will make three areas his top priorities.
“The first would be criminal justice transformation,” he said.
Park, who identifies himself as a “prison abolitionist,” wants to end cash bail, the death penalty, mandatory minimum sentencing and for-profit prisons. He also would like to demilitarize police forces and legalize marijuana.
Park, who is white, said his second priority would be pursuing what he calls “A Black Agenda for Tennessee.” The proposal, which he said he created in consultation with Black leaders, would use a “racial equity framework” for decision-making that includes housing, financial, health, voting and other sectors. Among the particulars are the creation of a Black-led nonprofit lending institution, an end to predatory lending, offering incentives for grocery stores to locate in food deserts, and more.
Park’s third priority would be the Tennessee New Green Deal, which would establish a “Green Bank” to finance environmentally friendly infrastructure projects, create green energy jobs and establish a Green Conservation Corps, based on a program in California, for young people to work on public lands, retrofit buildings and other conservation projects.
Park said he thinks Democrats can make gains in this year’s elections. “The divide isn’t so much Republican vs. Democratic, it’s urban vs. rural,” he said, adding that progressives need to frame issues in a way that appeals to rural voters and legislators.
Park was raised in Benton, Tenn., and other communities in the southeastern corner of the state. He moved to Knoxville to attend UT and also got certified as an EMT, inspired by the people who treated a younger brother who was critically injured in an ATV accident.
Park didn’t finish his computer science degree at UT but did find a job in technology. He got in on the ground floor in the development of cloud computing, which he has parlayed into his consulting business.
Park is gay and an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. He vowed that as the first openly LGBTQ+ legislator in state history, he would fight against discriminatory policies in the Legislature.
Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects will be part of the job. “I’ve been really disappointed but not surprised by the state’s response,” he said.
State officials, he said, should have expanded broadband coverage and trained teachers to deliver lessons remotely in anticipation of schools being closed. “This is what we should have spent our summer on,” Park said.
He emphasized that this election comes at a pivotal moment for the state. “This election is about where we want Tennessee to go in the next 10 years,” Park said. “We need candidates who know the theory of change and will make change when they get there and hold the line against mediocrity.”