For Knox County, It’s Status Quo

Eddie Mannis speaks

For Knox County, It's Status Quo

Local voters turned out in record numbers for Tuesday’s election, but despite some new faces the balance of political power remains the same.

by jesse fox mayshark and scott barker • November 4, 2020

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Eddie mannis speaks Tuesday night at the Knox County Republicans' election celebration at the crowne plaza.

In an election charged with suspense at the national level, Knox County voters settled into their comfort zones on Tuesday. Republicans retained all their legislative seats, Democrats didn’t lose any ground and even the Knox County Charter emerged unchanged.

One notable first: an openly gay state legislator. And he's Republican.

Republican Eddie Mannis did make history with his victory in the 18th District state House race, becoming the first openly gay state legislator in Tennessee. 

“I understand that it’s history,” Mannis said, moments after speaking from the stage at the county Republican Party’s election night celebration in the Crowne Plaza hotel. “But I don’t want to be defined by it. I’m a gay man who’s a business owner, and I want to serve the community. And that means all the community.”

Mannis defeated Democratic attorney and businesswoman Virginia Couch by 6 percentage points in a district that nearly flipped in 2018, when Democrat Greg Mackay fell just 747 votes short of overcoming GOP incumbent Martin Daniel. Daniel opted not to run for re-election this year, opening the door for Mannis, the owner of Prestige Cleaners who unsuccessfully ran for Knoxville mayor last year.

Couch said Tuesday that Mannis’ name recognition was tough to overcome. “I know we fell short,” she said. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault, but we just didn’t have enough time for people to get to know us.”

No GOP Flips

Local Republicans like to remind people that they have held Tennessee’s 2nd U.S. Congressional District since before the Civil War, and Tuesday’s election did not break that streak. Incumbent Rep. Tim Burchett, who is finishing his first term in office, held off Democratic challenger Renee Hoyos in a rematch of their 2018 contest.

Burchett won 68 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Hoyos, improving his margin of victory by 2 percentage points from two years ago. Addressing the crowd Tuesday night at the Crowne Plaza, Burchett spent most of his time recognizing his office staff and campaign volunteers.

“I have the most wonderful group of people that work in Washington and Knoxville and over in Blount County,” Burchett said. “You just can’t imagine the constituent service they do.”

Hoyos said Tuesday that despite the outcome, Democrats are making inroads in the area and could flip the district in future elections. “It’s tough losing, but not everybody wins,” she said. “My campaign may not have won, but all of our efforts are not lost.” 

The GOP also held onto all five of its state House seats on Tuesday, as well as the 6th District state Senate seat.

In the 16th District, former County Commissioner Michele Carringer easily beat Democratic challenger Elizabeth Rowland to claim a seat that has been represented since 1995 by state Rep. Bill Dunn, who also chose not to run again this year. Carringer won with 69 percent of the vote in the district, which encompasses Powell, Halls and part of Fountain City.

State Rep. Jason Zachary handily defended his 14th District seat in a rematch with Democrat Justin Davis, taking 65 percent of the vote in the West Knox district. And in the 89th District, incumbent Republican Rep. Justin Lafferty easily dispatched independent candidate Greg Mills and write-in candidate Kari Keeling, with Lafferty taking 72 percent of the vote.

State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey was re-elected to her 6th District seat with 63 percent of the vote, defeating Democratic newcomer Jane George. Massey said she’s looking forward to getting back to Nashville to work on the state’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We're going to continue to work together to reboot the economy and get it going, keep working on the unemployment figures and getting those down,” Massey said Tuesday night. She said she also hopes there will be opportunities to revisit some bills that were sidelined by the pandemic this year, including an initiative she has been working on to encourage the state to hire more people with disabilities.

Despite her loss, George said Democrats have “moved the dial” in local politics. “We knew we were up against a machine,” she said of her race against a member of the Duncan political dynasty. “I’m pleased with the results.”

President Donald Trump carried Knox County over former Vice President Joe Biden, 55 percent to 43 percent in an election that featured a record turnout of 69 percent of registered voters. Of Knox County’s 290,804 registered voters, 200,724 cast ballots this year.

Tim Burchett addresses the crowd

U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett speaks to the Republican Election Night crowd.

The president’s margin was smaller than his 58.5-35 percent win in Knox County over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. Statewide, Trump took Tennessee’s 11 electoral votes with 61 percent of the vote.

Knox County Republican Party Chairman Randy Pace credited the results to the strength of the party’s candidates.

“During the last election cycle, there was a lot of talk about, ‘Oh, is Knoxville purple?’” Pace said. “It’s not purple. The residents of Knox County tend to elect people who they believe are going to serve their interests, regardless of political stripe.”

Democratic Holds

Knox County Democrats held onto both state House seats they controlled going into the election, in the 13th and 15th districts. “I’m very proud of the movement we’ve made in Knox County,” said local party Chair Matt Shears.

Incumbent state Rep. Gloria Johnson defeated the GOP’s Elaine Davis by 10 percentage points in the highly competitive 13th District. “The Republicans like to come at me hard and come at me with lies and distortions, but my supporters lifted me up,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Democrats need to stay on message — access to healthcare, education, paid family leave and other kitchen-table issues. “With COVID, it’s going to be a tough year ahead, but we’re going to lift up everybody,” she said.

Former Knox County Commissioner Sam McKenzie breezed to victory in the 15th District, which is so reliably Democratic that no Republican ran for the seat. McKenzie seized 73 percent of the vote over independent Troy B. Jones.

McKenzie had defeated incumbent Democrat Rick Staples, who was embroiled in ethics and campaign finance irregularities, and Matthew Park in the Democratic primary. 

McKenzie said Tuesday night that he’s excited about working in the next legislative session, though he’s aware Democrats are vastly outnumbered in Nashville. “At the end of the day, people know I have a service heart,” he said. “I look forward to the challenge. And it will be a challenge.”

McKenzie is married to City of Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie. (Fortunately for them, state open meetings laws do not apply to conversations between local officials and state legislators.)

Making Up

In welcoming Mannis to the stage Tuesday night, Pace acknowledged the disputed elephant in the room. He and some other local Republicans had challenged Mannis’ Republican credentials earlier in the year because Mannis had voted in the Democratic presidential primary in March and had supported Democrats in the past.

“I learned something,” Pace said of the conflict. “I'm not going to apologize for anything I've done, because I don't think I did anything wrong at all.”

But he said he was happy for Mannis’ victory, which keeps the 18th District seat in Republican hands.

Mannis also indirectly addressed the contretemps in speaking to the crowd Tuesday night. He quoted former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee Chair Haley Barbour.

“The quote goes like this — ‘Remember, in politics, purity is the enemy of the victory,’” Mannis said. “Barbour said winning is about unity. Winning is about sticking together to achieve the main thing.”

Massey, who has served as chair of the Knox County legislative delegation for the past two years, said she was thrilled to have Mannis joining the General Assembly.

“He’s my state rep,” Massey said, happily. “I supported him. He’s an outstanding person who’s given of his life to the community.”

As for the historic dimensions of Mannis’ win, in a state that overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage in 2006, Pace was dismissive. 

“The decisions Eddie makes are his own in his personal life,” he said. “How he governs is an entirely different matter. And I expect fully that Eddie will govern what he believes is in the public's best interest.”

Mannis was not the only LGBT representative elected Tuesday night — in Memphis, Democrat Torey Harris, who identifies as bisexual, defeated incumbent state Rep. John DeBerry, who had been ousted from the Democratic Party for his Republican-friendly voting record.

Henderson Joins School Board

In the only nonpartisan race on Tuesday’s ballot, first-time candidate Betsy Henderson won a sizable plurality in a three-way race to become the new 6th District representative to the Knox County Board of Education.

Betsy Henderson

Betsy Henderson

Henderson, a former PTO president at Hardin Valley Elementary School, will finish out the unexpired term of former board member Terry Hill, who resigned when she was elected to County Commission earlier this year. The seat will come up for election again in 2022.

Henderson took 44 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Hannah Kirby and 26 percent for Rob Gray. Although it will be her first time in elective office, it won’t be her first exposure to politics — she previously worked in Washington, D.C., as an aide to congressmen Jimmy Duncan and Connie Mack IV. 

“I want to make sure that parents’ voices are heard,” said Henderson, who has children in Hardin Valley’s elementary and middle schools. “I want to build on the success of our schools.”

Unchanged Charter

Finally, as expected by many local political observers, both of the proposed amendments to the Knox County Charter on Tuesday’s ballot were voted down.

Amendment No. 1 would have changed the county’s law director position from an elected to appointed office. Proponents of the change cried foul in August when former county Law Director Bud Armstrong — who opposed the amendment — submitted ballot language that they said was designed to prejudice voters against it. 

There was no organized campaign in support of the amendment, and a well-funded effort in opposition to it covered the county with signs saying “Vote No on Amendment 1.” The measure failed by a walloping margin of 81-19 percent.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, who had spoken in favor of the change but did not actively promote it, said in a statement Tuesday night, “While I had my preference, there are good arguments on both sides of this issue. A majority of citizens chose to continue electing their own law director, so we will continue working with the department in the future.”

Amendment No. 2 would have required the county mayor to make regular reports to County Commission of any contracts he enters into for less than $100,000. Those contracts do not currently have to come to Commission for review or approval. The amendment would have added a layer of disclosure.

There was no organized opposition to the amendment, but many voters reported being confused by its wording. It failed by a 54-46 percent margin.

The idea may not be dead, though — County Commission could pass a resolution requesting the same information.