Council Contests: 3rd District
A progressive incumbent and a conservative challenger are squaring off in the 3rd District primary. Both will move on to the general election.
The City Council primaries are district-only, meaning that voters can cast ballots only in the race to represent their home district. The top two finishers in each district then go on to the general election, when all city voters can vote for every seat.
The candidates for Northwest Knoxville's 3rd District Council seat offer contrasting philosophies and experience.
Sometimes, only two candidates run in a single district and both move on to the general election. That’s the case this year in the 3rd District, where technology business executive Nick Ciparro is challenging incumbent Seema Singh.
The election process can also result in a candidate losing in the district-only primary but winning in the citywide general election. That was Singh’s formula when she won in 2017.
And it wasn’t the first time that voters citywide chose the runner-up in the 3rd District, which covers Northwest Knoxville on either side of Western Avenue. In 2001, Steve Hall finished second to Bedford Chapman in the primary but won easily in the general election. He later served in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Ciparro has run for the seat before, an unsuccessful bid in 2003. He and Singh offer a contrast in political outlook and experience.
Singh broke ground in a couple of ways when she won the 3rd District seat in 2017.
She garnered only 25 percent of the 3rd District vote in that year’s primary, coming in a distant second to James Corcoran in a four-person race. But in the general election, she took 58 percent of the citywide vote.
“I’ve lived in the 3rd District on and off for 40 years,” she said during an interview at her home near Bearden Middle School. “The 3rd District is changing. It’s developing rapidly.”
Singh, 54, became the first person of South Asian descent to win a Knoxville city election. Born in India, she moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 10 and became an American citizen at age 13.
“Many who have lived here for generations didn’t believe an Indian-American could represent them,” she said, adding that she has won over many skeptical constituents by sitting across their kitchen tables and talking about what’s important to them.
She also was the first candidate backed by the progressive City Council Movement to win an election, but in the years since then she has become estranged from the organization that advocates major social justice reforms. The City Council Movement did not endorse her 2021 candidacy.
“I understand being angry with injustices and there is a need for voices that aggressively demand change,” she said. “I, however, am working on long-term policy changes to address inequities. In this position, I can only be effective working with others.”
While Singh’s passion is social justice and improving the lives of marginalized populations, she said that to be effective she had to learn how issues are intertwined. Zoning and land use affect economic development, which affects workforce development, and so on.
“It’s all interconnected,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize that. If you’ve got an issue you’re concerned about, you can’t drop the other stuff.”
Collaboration, especially with people who have different views, is vital to accomplishing anything in city government, according to Singh. She cited her relationship with the Knoxville Utilities Board’s leadership as an example. Singh was highly critical of KUB over increases in the utility’s fixed fees (which have since been frozen), but is an enthusiastic supporter of KUB’s broadband initiative.
Another example is the Knoxville Police Department. Singh, who works to rehabilitate domestic violence offenders, said she is committed to making Knoxville a safer place to live.
“Sometimes that means supporting police, sometimes it means challenging them to do better,” she said. “You’ve got to make relationships deeper than the issue at hand. That’s functional government.”
“Functional government” is a phrase Singh deploys often. She uses it when talking about building coalitions, promoting more inclusive economic development and addressing taxes. According to Singh, being part of a functional government is being flexible.
She initially told Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd she would only support the publicly funded multi-use stadium he has proposed east of the Old City if he would negotiate a formal community benefits agreement. No group has publicly proposed one, however, which Singh said is a disappointment.
Instead, she wants to make sure Boyd follows through on his stated intention to be inclusive in selecting contractors and vendors, and get assurances that the project will have a positive impact on people who can’t afford to go to Smokies ball games.
“I want to make sure the benefits reach everybody,” she said.
Singh has raised $22,020 during the campaign so far, including a $10,100 loan she made to the campaign. After expenditures, she had $5,154 on hand as of June 30.
Singh said her experience on Council is the key reason voters should give her a second term.
“I have proven over the last four years that I can help move status quo policy toward a policy that addresses inequities,” she said, “and I can do this by building relationships and collaboration.”
Ciparro is no stranger to running for office but so far he is unacquainted with success at the ballot box. He’s hoping the fourth time's the charm.
Ciparro ran for the 3rd District seat in 2003, finishing fourth in a four-person primary race. In 2010, he came in last in a four-person race for the Republican nomination for the 7th District state Senate seat won by Stacey Campfield. Two years later, he unsuccessfully challenged former U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan in the GOP primary for the 3rd Congressional District seat.
During an interview at the advanced materials company in Northwest Knoxville where he works as the chief technology officer, the 41-year-old lifelong Knoxvillian said he runs for office when he sees a problem. Or, in this case, two.
“If you boil it down, it’s safety and taxes,” he said. “Safety and taxes.”
For Ciparro, whose company makes ballistic vests, public safety means supporting the Knoxville Police Department. The department’s chronic understaffing is a major concern. Recruiting and retaining quality officers is important, he said, especially with reports of unaddressed racism surfacing recently.
“You can see the urgency — we need more police officers,” Ciparro said. “I’m optimistic our police department isn’t a racist organization. We should recruit really good people.”
Ciparro is one of five conservative candidates running for Council seats working with political consultant Erik Wiatr, who managed County Commissioner Kyle Ward’s successful campaign last year and is gathering signatures in hopes of getting a city property tax cap on the ballot.
Ciparro said he’s in favor of the potential tax referendum because he opposes a property tax rate increase and believes Council merely rubberstamps the mayor’s agenda.
“If everybody can vote, it’s a democratic thing,” he said. “I hate paying property taxes (but) it’s a civic duty and I’m going to pay it.”
Ciparro cited commissioning a $500,000 sculpture from a New York City artist as an example of waste in city government.
“That’s insane. You could have spent that on a local artist and the money could have stayed here,” he said. “We have to tighten our belt.”
He is also skeptical of Council’s pledge to seek $100 million in new funding for programs to promote the creation of generational wealth in the city’s Black community.
“Why would you spend money we don’t have?” he asked.
Ciparro said basic city services aren’t perfect but he’s satisfied they are adequate. The treatment of businesses, on the other hand, needs improvement, he said.
“The city is not a business-friendly entity right now.” Ciparro said, adding that if his company didn’t have contracts with the U.S. Department of Energy, it wouldn’t be able to survive inside the city limits.
Ciparro said he’s not a fan of spending public money on the multi-purpose stadium proposed for the edge of the Old City but hopes an acceptable funding structure will be used.
“I cannot condone spending on something we can’t afford,” he said. “If they figure it out, I’m 100 percent in favor of it.”
Unlike the other conservative candidates, Ciparro didn’t raise much money in the early days of campaigning. He reported having $200 on hand as of June 30. With both 3rd District candidates assured of moving on to the general election, early fundraising for the primary isn’t as urgent as it is in other races.
Ciparro said he doesn’t like the city’s election structure that allows citywide voting for a district representative in the general election. He said residents in his district are angry about the direction of city government and should be represented by a person who understands their concerns and advances them on Council.
“I’m going to do my best to represent my district,” Ciparro said. “I want the city to be better. It’s a chain. The city’s only as good as its weakest link. Let’s make everything stronger.”