Left, Right and Everything in Between

Left, Right and Everything in Between

This year’s Council races will offer voters a range of candidates — some of them well funded, others operating on shoestring budgets — that span the ideological spectrum.

by scott barker • May 26, 2021

Conservative, moderate and progressive voters should all be able to find a candidate to their liking in the five races comprising the 2021 City Council election.

City elections are nominally nonpartisan, but this year's contests are marked by organized political efforts.

Typically, city races that feature incumbents don’t generate much competition. In 2013, the last time these five seats were on the ballot with incumbents running for second terms, three races were uncontested and all incumbents won.  

City elections are also nominally nonpartisan, which means political party affiliation is not noted on the ballot. This year, however, the Knox County Republican Party and the progressive City Council Movement have backed candidates. The City Council Movement has had success in the last two city election cycles, with its candidates winning one Council seat each time. 

“We have a strong team,” said Charles al-Bawi, who ran as a City Council Movement candidate in 2019. “We’ve put a lot of work in and have a lot of momentum.”

In the Aug. 31 primary, voters can vote only in their district races. The Nov. 2 general election contests are open to all registered voters in the city, who will be able to vote in all five races. 

Only the top two primary finishers can move on to the general election. Three of the districts feature incumbents facing challengers from the left and the right. In two West Knoxville districts, the 2nd and 3rd, there are only two  primary candidates so both will advance.

1st District

In the 1st District, which encompasses South Knoxville and Fort Sanders, incumbent Tommy Smith is running against David Hayes, who is part of the progressive City Council Movement, and Elizabeth Murphy, who was a vocal critic of the county’s mask mandate and the authority of the Board of Health.

Smith, a vice president with Ackermann PR, was appointed by City Council to finish the term of Stephanie Welch, who resigned to become the city’s Economic and  Community Development Director. 

According to a financial disclosure report filed in April, Smith raised $30,604 during the first quarter of the year. Contributors include business owners Joe Fox, Bill Pittman, John Sanders, Raja Jubran and David Dewhirst. Former Council members Finbarr Saunders and Marshall Stair also donated to Smith’s campaign.

Hayes is making his second attempt at the 1st District seat, having made a bid for the appointment last year. He also came in second to Janet Testerman for an at-large Council seat in 2019.

Hayes is affiliated with the City Council Movement and has been active in the protests stemming from the death of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. during a confrontation with police at Austin East Magnet High School in March. Hayes raised $1,766 during the first quarter, almost all of it in amounts too small to be itemized on his campaign finance disclosure form.

The third candidate is Murphy, who is one of the drivers behind Empowered Knox, a leading organization in the ultimately successful effort to dissolve the Board of Health. She is the Knox area director for Tennessee Stands, a statewide conservative advocacy organization. Murphy reported that she didn’t raise any money during the first quarter.

4th District

A similar dynamic is playing out in North Knoxville’s 4th District, where incumbent Lauren Rider is being challenged by City Council Movement candidate Jen McMahon and restaurateur Jim Klonaris.

In 2017, Rider won the seat in a three-way contest with former state Rep. Harry Tindell and write-in candidate Amelia Parker, a City Council Movement candidate who subsequently secured an at-large seat in 2019.

Rider raised $11,970 during the first quarter, with several donors who also gave to Smith in her camp. Contributors include Brandon Pace, Daniel Shuh and Grant Rosenberg. Former Council members Finbarr Saunders and Carlene Malone, Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson and former Knox County Commissioner Mark Harmon also made donations.

Klonaris is a restaurateur, with Cafe 4 and Kefi among his establishments. He is a newcomer to politics, but serves on the Mayor’s Business Advisory Council and has assembled a broad range of supporters, many of them regular donors to conservative candidates.

Klonaris came charging out of the fundraising gate, netting $30,344 in the first quarter. Wes Stowers, Leigh Burch, Sam Furrow and Oliver Smith IV are among the business leaders who contributed to his campaign. Conservative online pundit Glenn Reynolds and former Councilman George Wallace also are among the donors. Scruffy Little City PAC, founded by local Republican activist Erik Wiatr, provided in-kind consultation and research services.

McMahon, like Konaris, is a political newcomer. She is the CEO and co-founder of the Century Farms Foundation, which provides agricultural training and support for former prisoners and people in recovery from substance abuse. McMahon is affiliated with the City Council Movement and did not raise any money during the first quarter.

6th District

In the 6th District, which runs from East Knoxville through downtown to Mechanicsville and into West Knoxville, incumbent Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie faces City Council Movement candidate Deidra Harper and business executive Garrett Holt.

McKenzie garnered 58 percent of the vote in 2017 to defeat Jennifer Montgomery for the seat. The district includes many of Knoxville’s predominantly Black neighborhoods, and has elected African-American candidates for decades. McKenzie’s husband is Democratic state Rep. Sam McKenzie.

McKenzie did not file a first quarter financial disclosure form, but in 2017 she received support from prominent African-American leaders such as Sam Anderson, Thomas “Tank” Strickland, former County Commissioner Diane Jordan and former Mayor Daniel Brown. Former Mayors Victor Ashe and Randy Tyree, along with former Mayor and Gov. Bill Haslam, were donors as well, and she was endorsed that year by then-Mayor Madeline Rogero.

Harper is a businesswoman making her first run for public office. She is community liaison for B&B Lawn Services and a partner in Elite Facility Maintenance. Harper reported raising $340 during the first quarter.

Another newcomer, business executive Garrett Holt, is running for the seat as well. He lives off Lonas Road on the far western edge of the district — his driveway ends at the boundary.

Holt raised $10,501 during the first quarter from a donor list peppered with current and Republican officeholders. State Sen. Richard Briggs and former state Rep. Martin Daniel contributed, as did Gina Oster, who ran for the state House of Representatives as a Republican in 2020. Knox County GOP Chair Daniel Herrera and Klonaris, the 4th District candidate, also donated to Holt’s campaign.

2nd District

In the 2nd District, which straddles Kingston Pike in West Knoxville, incumbent Andrew Roberto faces Kim Smith. Both will move on to the general election, regardless of how they finish in the primary.

In 2017, Roberto amassed 59 percent of the vote in defeating Wayne Christensen. He raised $12,600 in the first quarter, with numerous contributions coming from fellow attorneys. Donors include Sid Gilreath, former Chancellor Daryl Fansler, Scenic Knoxville leader Joyce Feld and developer Tim Hill. Former Council members Saunders, Stair and Duane Grieve also contributed.

Smith is yet another political newcomer. She did not file a first quarter financial disclosure report. 

3rd District

Councilwoman Seema Singh is seeking re-election against Nicholas Ciparro in the 3rd District, a broad section of Northwest Knoxville that has Western Avenue as its spine. Four years ago, Singh lost in the district primary to James Corcoran but won the citywide vote in the general election. 

Singh was the first City Council Movement candidate to win an election, though she is no longer affiliated with the progressive group and it’s unclear at this point where her fundraising efforts will focus.

Ciparro is no stranger to running for office, though he has not been successful. In 2010, he finished a distant fourth in a four-person race to succeed former state Sen. Tim Burchett, who had opted to run for Knox County mayor that year. He lost in the 2012 GOP congressional primary to U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr.

Neither candidate began raising funds during the first quarter.