Council Contests: 6th District
Three candidates, each staking a claim to different sections of the political spectrum, are vying to represent the city’s most diverse district.
With five incumbents seeking re-election, the progressive City Council Movement looking to build on its recent electoral successes, and conservatives mounting a coordinated effort to win Council seats, this year’s city election has created a new dynamic.
A conservative, a progressive and a middle-of-the-road incumbent are running in the city's 6th District.
In three districts, the ballot will feature a conservative candidate, a progressive candidate and an incumbent occupying the middle ground. The 6th District, the city’s most diverse, is among them.
Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie is the incumbent. Challenging her from the left is businesswoman Deidra Harper and from the right is executive Garrett Holt. The top two finishers in the Aug. 31 primary will square off in the citywide general election on Nov. 2.
The district, which borders every other district in the city, spans from East Knoxville through downtown and Mechanicsville and into Pond Gap in West Knoxville. The district has the city’s largest concentration of Black residents, and African-Americans have held the seat for the past half century.
McKenzie was first elected in 2017, defeating 12 other candidates in the district-only primary and snaring 58 percent of the vote in the two-way general election battle.
As the incumbent, she is running on her record. Her colleagues selected her to succeed Finbarr Saunders, who left office because of term limits, as the vice mayor.
In an interview in the offices of the Legacy Housing Foundation, where she is executive director, McKenzie cites her ability to work with others on Council and in the administration as a strength. “At the end of the day, you’re just one vote,” she said. “If you don’t have allies, you can’t get anything accomplished.”
McKenzie spearheaded the effort to persuade then-Mayor Madeline Rogero to stop hosting gun shows in city facilities. Before the policy change, Chilhowee Park in the 6th District held three or four gun shows annually.
She also sponsored a Council resolution apologizing to the city’s Black community for slavery, segregation and urban renewal, as well as setting a goal of spending $100 million over the next 10 years, mostly in grant money, on programs with the potential to help expand household weath in the African-American community. A newly formed African-American Equity Restoration Task Force will help identify funding opportunities.
“Getting unanimous support meant so much to me and to so many other people who experienced Urban Renewal,” she said.
McKenzie supports the multi-use stadium and accompanying private development proposed for the edge of the Old City, which is in the 6th District. “In order to have economic growth, you have to have investment,” she said. “I can’t think of a community that needs it more.”
East Knoxville has been particularly hard-hit by the surge in gun violence over the past year and a half. Though she recently expressed a lack of confidence in Police Chief Eve Thomas, McKenzie is generally supportive of law enforcement officers and wants to see their pay go up.
“Public safety has to be a priority,” she said. “The two people we depend on the most — law enforcement and teachers — we pay the least.”
McKenzie, along with African-American civic organizations, clergy and medical professionals, launched the Faith Leaders Initiative last year to focus on combating the spread of COVID-19 in the Black community.
The first Black woman to serve on City Council, McKenzie is a member of the city’s African-American political establishment, which includes Theotis Robinson Jr. (the first Black Councilman of the modern era), former County Commissioner Thomas “Tank” Strickland, former state Rep. Robert Booker and former Mayor Daniel Brown, the city’s first Black mayor.
“I am a person who respects the people who came before me,” McKenzie said. “I need to learn from them.”
Her father was the first executive director of the Knoxville Area Urban League, and she is married to Democratic state Rep. and former Knox County Commissioner Sam McKenzie. They have a blended family of six children.
The Black civic establishment also includes many African-American church leaders, Black fraternities and sororities, and organizations such as the Urban League and the NAACP.
“If nothing else,” McKenzie said, “I’ve proven to people that I have the heart and passion and ability to move our district forward through collaboration and partnerships.”
In 2017, Seema Singh became the first candidate affiliated with the City Council Movement to win an election in Knoxville, followed two years later by At-Large Councilwoman Amelia Parker. This year, Harper is one of three Council hopefuls supported by the progressive organization. (Singh is running for re-election in the 3rd District without the organization’s endorsement.)
During an interview in an Old City coffee shop, Harper cited two high-profile deaths of African-Americans during police encounters as reasons she feels that now is the right time for her to do something to expand her impact on the community. “With George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year, I thought serving on Council would give me a platform to continue advocating for the marginalized.”
A Knoxville native, Harper is co-owner of Elite Facility Maintenance, a janitorial and building maintenance firm. She’s also co-founder of the Teaching to Eliminate Negative Stereotypes through Education (TENSE) Summit, a group of professionals dedicated to empowering young people, and of The Women LLC and The Women Foundation, which works to create financing opportunities for small Black-owned businesses and startups.
She said Knoxville has not experienced “equitable community growth” and that East Knoxville has been bypassed by investments in downtown, South Knoxville and other areas.
But, she said, the multi-use stadium that would be the new home to the minor-league Tennessee Smokies isn’t the answer. “I don’t agree with public tax dollars being spent on the stadium,” Harper said.
She’s also skeptical about the Knoxville Utilities Board’s plan to provide broadband service in its electricity service footprint, not least because one-third of a planned 9 percent electricity rate increase over three years will go toward building out the fiber optic network that will make broadband possible.
“Why do the customers have to pay for (KUB’s) infrastructure?” she asked, asserting that KUB’s leadership is out of touch with customers struggling to pay their electric bills.
She said African Americans need to be more forceful to make their voices heard. “When it comes to District 6, being primarily a Black community, I feel like we haven’t pushed back enough.” she said. “We can have radical progressive change if we push back.”
Harper said the Black establishment has become increasingly ineffective, citing the Urban League and the NAACP specifically as failing to do enough for the people they serve. “We have to get younger people involved to carry the torch,” she said. “Be bold in making change.”
She said the people of the 6th District need to be more involved to hold city government more accountable. She cited the death of Austin-East Magnet High School student Anthony Thompson Jr. during an encounter with police at the school as one example.
“I can make that a priority,” she said. “I can be a voice for the community.”
Some of the protests over Thompson’s death have led to arrests, and a few organizers have accused city officials of murder (no charges were filed — the District Attorney General’s Office determined the shooting was justified). Harper said the raw emotions over the incident shouldn’t prevent her from working with other Council members or the city administration.
“Sometimes you get uncomfortable with change,” she said. “Sometimes those uncomfortable spaces are where change occurs.”
Holt is young, upbeat and concerned about the direction of city government.
“I grew up in Knoxville,” he said during an interview in a coffee shop in Marble City. “I love this city. It’s a great city and I want to be a part of making it better. I’m on the outside looking in, but I think we can do better.”
A medical equipment sales executive and former West High School valedictorian, Holt wanted to give back to the community and decided to run for City Council. He met with Kyle Ward, a Republican friend who won a seat on County Commission last year. Ward suggested Holt meet his campaign manager, Erik Wiatr, who is now helping with Holt’s campaign. Wiatr is also working with conservative candidates in the 1st and 4th Districts.
Holt said his No. 1 priority, if elected, would be public safety. He said the Knoxville Police Department is short-staffed, underpaid and doesn’t get enough respect. “If we have an understaffed, overworked police force, how can we expect to get a grip on crime in this city?” he asked.
Another priority is fiscal responsibility. He pointed out that revenues aren’t keeping pace with expenditures and could lead to service cuts or a property tax increase. “We’re setting ourselves up for failure,” he said. “You can’t keep spending more than you bring in.”
Still, he hasn’t completely bought into another of Wiatr’s efforts, a petition to get a referendum on the ballot that would cap the city’s property tax rate. “I haven’t signed the petition, but I’m not against it,” he said.
Affordable housing and homelessness are other issues Holt wants to tackle. The red hot real estate market has consumed housing availability, he said, and the city should remove red tape that stymies new development.
Homelessness, he continued, is one of the trickiest issues facing Knoxville, but breaking up large encampments isn’t the solution. “We really need a huge mental health facility,” Holt said. “We need to stand up and fight for that.”
Holt, who is white, knows he’s facing an uphill battle in the 6th District, which has been represented by African-American council members since 1970. He also lives at the western edge of the district — its boundary with the 2nd District is at the bottom of his driveway — far from the crucial concentration of voters in East Knoxville and Mechanicsville.
One advantage Holt enjoys indisputably is in funding. At the end of the second quarter, he had $14,654 on hand compared to McKenzie’s $7,724 and Harper’s $5,227.50.
Holt said he’s been well received when canvassing majority Black precincts in the district. Most people, he asserted, are happy to have someone show up on their doorstep and listen to their concerns. “Your ability to represent someone doesn’t rely on your ethnicity,” he said.
At 27, he’s the youngest candidate in the race with the least amount of civic experience. “Age does not dictate ability,” he said, noting that most City Council members are elected without previous government service.
“I want to be a public servant who listens and to leave the city of Knoxville better than I found it,” he said.