Assembling the Field


Assembling the Field

Partisan politics and ideological principles undergird candidate recruiting efforts for City Council races in this year’s election.

by scott barker • March 3, 2021

Candidates for this year’s City Council races can’t pick up petitions to run for office until March 22, but many are already lining up their campaigns.

Though technically non-partisan, this year's city election promises to come with a heavy dose of political ideology.

Incumbents occupy all five district seats that will be on the ballot, but there is an unusual amount of organized candidate recruiting efforts from both ends of the political spectrum this year. 

“If anything, it speaks to the power of teamwork and community action, rather than individual action,” said Charles Al-Bawi, speaking for the progressive City Council Movement, which is recruiting candidates.

Typically, Council races involving incumbents in non-mayoral election years produce small candidate fields. In 2013, the last time those political planets aligned, three of the races were uncontested and the other two had only two contenders. The incumbents won both.

Four years ago, when the same seats were on the ballot but without incumbents, at least four candidates ran for each office in the primary and 13 ran in the 6th District.

This time around, Tommy Smith (1st District), Andrew Roberto (2nd), Lauren Rider (4th) and Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie (6th) are seeking new terms. Third District Councilwoman Seema Singh is still weighing her options. “I think it’s something I really need to examine,” she said. “I don’t have to make a decision until May.” (May 20 is the deadline to file candidacy petitions.)

Smith, Rider, Roberto and McKenzie each said they have unfinished business on Council — addressing issues within their districts and across the city as a whole — that they want to complete. “Four years goes by very fast,” McKenzie noted.

Smith, who was appointed by Council last year to fill the unexpired term of Stephanie Welch after she stepped down to become the city’s economic and community development director, listed investments in the Urban Wilderness, along Chapman Highway and in Vestal as being important for his South Knoxville district.

Rider said the pandemic threw the city off its rhythm. “Due to COVID-19, the past year feels like an interruption to so many projects I'd like to follow through on and continue momentum — additional housing, pedestrian safety improvements, park improvements in the 4th District,” she said. 

All the incumbents, including Singh if she runs, are likely to face opposition, including from candidates recruited for ideological purposes.

The City Council Movement, a coalition of progressive activists and organizations, is both encouraging people to run and vetting candidates for endorsements this year. 

The group has had success at the ballot box during the last two city election cycles. Singh and At-Large Councilwoman Amelia Parker, who is not up for re-election this year, won their first races with the support of the City Council Movement, though the relationship between Singh and the organization has grown strained during her term in office.

Al-Bawi, who ran unsuccessfully as a City Council Movement candidate for the 5th District seat in 2019, said the group has had an impact on public policy.

“I am excited about the team we’ve put together,” he said. “It’s been a beautiful experience getting to know them and how they’re working to make the community better for the underrepresented and underserved.”

Al-Bawi said the City Council Movement is confident that it will be able to field candidates in every race and could gain a majority on the nine-member panel. “That’s been our stated goal since 2014, when we were founded,” Al-Bawi said. “I think this is our year.”

But conservatives are also in the game. Gary Loe, chair of the Tennessee Conservative Union, is actively seeking out candidates devoted to small-government, low-tax principles who would “change the course” of Council, which he views as being too liberal. 

“We feel we need more of a conservative voice,” he said, “especially when you see members who identify as Republicans vote with the Democrats. There’s no distinction between conservatives and liberals.”

Loe said he’s identified several promising candidates who would advance conservative principles but it’s too early to say whether they will actually run. “We need that representation, we need the balance,” he said.

Erik Wiatr, who managed Republican Kyle Ward’s successful County Commission bid last year and is active in the effort to block a publicly-funded minor-league baseball stadium in Knoxville, has launched an independent vetting effort.

He runs Scruffy Little City PAC and said he’s less concerned about party labels than in finding candidates who will address his concerns about good government.

“I am helping to identify and support well-qualified candidates who are looking to change the direction of the city of Knoxville and work to help reduce our city's high poverty and record crime and also maintain low taxes,” Wiatr said.

City elections are nonpartisan, which essentially means nothing more than names don’t appear on the ballot with a party affiliation next to them. Party politics, however, or at least ideological leanings, have always hovered in the background.

When Victor Ashe, a Republican, was mayor for four terms ending in 2021, he could rely on a GOP majority on Council to advance his agenda.

The city electorate has shifted to the left in recent years, and by 2017 former Mayor Madeline Rogero could count on a majority of fellow Democrats on Council.

The Knox County Democratic Party is not recruiting candidates this year, chair Matt Shears said, and typically doesn’t get actively involved in city campaigns out of respect for the nonpartisan nature of the races.

“The city has become more Democratic, so more people who are running are Democrats,” he said. “The City Council we have now is the most diverse and progressive ever in the city of Knoxville.”

Randy Pace, the outgoing GOP party chair, said Republican leaders have been talking to possible candidates but not in a formal way. “Elections by their nature are partisan,” he said. “There is little conservatism in city government.”

One of the candidates to succeed Pace, Daniel Herrera, has made “taking back Knoxville” from “socialists” bent on the city’s destruction a key element of his platform in this weekend’s contest to be the next chair of Knox County Republican Party.

Twenty years ago, the two well-worn paths to Council originated in neighborhood organizations or the business community. While that still holds true in some cases (Rider, for example, got her start with Old North Knoxville’s neighborhood group), political ideology is playing an increasingly important role. In 2019, the City Council Movement’s Parker defeated longtime West Knoxville neighborhood advocate Amy Midis for her seat.

Roberto said he welcomes efforts to increase participation, no matter the ideological reasons.

“I support any effort to engage our citizens in our electoral process,” he said. “Left or right, the people of the 2nd District and Knoxville know me and they know my record. In this election, experience matters.”

Smith, too, discounts the importance of partisanship in city affairs. 

“I have been helping small businesses, creating apprenticeship programs, and working with neighborhoods, and party affiliation seems to be less important when it comes to these issues that impact peoples’ lives on a local basis,” he said. “As far as city representation goes, I find that the more we focus on people, and less on party, the more we are able to make good progress for the people we represent.”

With the deadline to file candidate petitions more than two months away, anything can happen. None of the candidates or activists involved in the city election are willing to make any predictions about how the field will look for the Aug. 31 city primary.

As Wiatr said, “We’ll see what happens during petition time.”