Council Contests: 1st District

Council Contests: 1st District

Three candidates with sharply contrasting visions for the city are vying to represent South Knoxville and Fort Sanders.

by scott barker • July 28, 2021
Left to right: David Hayes, Tommy Smith and Elizabeth Murphy.

Voters in Knoxville’s 1st City Council District have three distinct choices in the Aug. 31 primary — a conservative, a progressive and an incumbent in the middle. Only the top two finishers will go on to the Nov. 2 general election. 

The top two finishers in the 1st District race will move on the the general election.

The incumbent is Tommy Smith, who was appointed to the seat last year to fill the unexpired term of Stephanie Welch after she resigned to become the city’s chief economic and community development officer. The conservative option is Elizabeth Murphy, a political newcomer, while City Council Movement stalwart David Hayes, who ran for an at-large seat in 2019, is the progressive candidate.

The 1st District encompasses all of South Knoxville plus Fort Sanders. It’s home to the Urban Wilderness, the South Waterfront and the University of Tennessee. 

Tommy Smith

Smith was born in South Knoxville and has lived in five 1st District neighborhoods — Lindbergh Forest, Fort Sanders, South Haven, South Waterfront and Island Home Park. During an interview on the waterfront, he said his focus is on improving the city overall and the district in particular.

“I enjoy talking to people on their front porch about the half-mile around them,” he said, noting that he has gone door-to-door regularly throughout his year in office. “I’ve walked and talked to folks in different neighborhoods. I don’t need to pay anybody to poll people. I’ve got a pretty good finger on the pulse.”

Smith said his priorities include making sure the Urban Wilderness meets its potential, improving Chapman Highway and revitalizing the Vestal community.

“Vestal needs the most love in South Knoxville, especially downtown Vestal,” he said. “The Urban Wilderness is one of the most special things about this city for the next 20 or 30 years. Preserving land is as popular as building stuff.”

A firner executive with Ackermann PR who began a new job this week with cybersecurity firm Avertium, the 40-year-old Smith has extensive experience volunteering with organizations in the community, with an emphasis on addressing homelessness.

“It’s hard to lead a community you haven’t served,” he said. “Housing and homelessess are the issues I know the most about. We spent more on affordable housing and shelters than we ever had last year and in this year’s budget.”

Smith said the closure of Lakeshore Mental Health Institute and the resulting lack of a major mental health and substance abuse facility are major drivers in the homelessness situation. Getting state assistance to establish a new facility and expanding Medicaid would help.

“It’s too big for any city to handle,” he said. “If people don’t have insurance, they can’t get help.”

Smith said that economic development is vital, especially in areas that have been bypassed in recent years. While not irrevocably committed to the proposed multi-use stadium adjacent to the Old City, he is generally in favor of the project but wants to make sure it’s affordable and that the community wants it built. 

“It’s time for sustained investment in the most challenging parts of our city,” Smith said.

He also serves on the Knoxville Chamber’s Economic Development Committee. “I’m already recruiting businesses to Knoxville,” he said.

In the year since he was appointed to the 1st District seat, Smith said he’s been surprised by the extent that national issues have become localized. However, the phenomenon gives city officials the opportunity to learn what works in other communities.

“It forces us to look outside our towns,” he said. “That’s a good thing. The bad side is that people might overlook the good things hiding in plain sight.”

Smith said he’s proud of the diversity of support he’s attracted. He raised $13,531 during the second quarter of the year, and after subtracting expenditures is the most well-funded candidate in the race with $28,030 on hand as of June 30.

Smith said he’s motivated by the opportunity to help the people of 1st District and the city as a whole.

“For me,” he said, “it’s all about people, not power or pride or politics.”

David Hayes

This is Hayes’ third attempt in as many years to win a Council seat. He lost a bid for an at-large seat to Janet Testerman in 2019, though he had a strong showing with 44.7 percent of the vote. He also fell short in Council’s appointment process for the 1st District seat last year.

“I have more conviction about running,” Hayes said about this year’s campaign during an interview over coffee. “There are so many crises and they’re accelerating.”

Hayes, 28, is a leader in the progressive City Council Movement, which advocates for rapid and dramatic reform across a spectrum of issues. The City Council Movement has seen success the last two cycles, and Hayes is one of the organization’s three candidates in this year’s election. He said progressives should be the preferred alternative to the status quo for working-class Republicans and liberals alike.

“We’re heavily dependent on one another,” he said of the City Council Movement candidates. “We all have a really good chance.”

Hayes said he would push for more affordable housing and oppose gentrification — development that forces low-income residents out of revitalizing neighborhoods.

“We need representation that stands up for neighborhoods, not the administration or developers,” he said. “My primary interest is residents and neighborhoods.”

Hayes opposes raising property taxes on low-income and working-class residents and promotes greater participation of regular citizens in developing the city’s budget.

“The budget system is not democratic,” he said. “The mayor makes the budget and City Council rubber stamps it.”

Hayes said the city’s approach to homelessness isn’t working either, in particular clearing encampments. He said the practice destabilizes working-class neighborhoods.

As part of his social justice platform, Hayes, who said he self-identifies as queer, also wants to break down barriers for the LGBTQ+ community. 

“We need to work on domestic violence, gun violence, police violence,” he said, adding that there’s a need for more alternatives to calling police to resolve mental health issues and that the focus needs to be placed on poverty and other root causes of crime.

Hayes was one of the leaders of the protest movement prompted by the death of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. during an encounter with police at Austin-East Magnet High School. Some of the other leaders called Kincanon and City Council members murderers at public meetings, though Hayes himself didn’t use that rhetoric. Still, he said city leaders bear the responsibility for the actions of the police department.

He said his protest activity shouldn’t present a problem with Council colleagues if all three City Council Movement candidates win on Nov. 2.

“You can’t just create a rational argument (with some Council members) ... they have their own agenda,” he said. “That’s why we want a majority.”

Hayes works at the Highlander Research and Education Center and lives in Vestal. 

Compared to his opponents, he is campaigning on a shoestring budget. As of June 30, he had $2,138 in his campaign account. He said he believes his message of empowerment will resonate with voters.

“I believe in collective liberation,” Hayes said. “We’re not free until we’re all free.”

Elizabeth Murphy

Murphy burst onto the public political scene last year as a fierce critic of the Knox County Board of Health and its COVID-19 mitigation restrictions, regularly delivering impassioned speeches during public forum of Knox County Commission meetings. 

She helped launch a group called Empowered Knox and was the area director for Tennessee Stands, both conservative anti-mandate organizations. A skeptic of the COVID-19 vaccine, she posted on Facebook that “It filled my heart with glee” when Republican state legislators assailed the state Department of Health’s vaccination outreach efforts. 

In an interview at a South Knoxville restaurant, Murphy, 33, said the COVID-19 response was an example of government overreach and is 100 percent of the reason she’s running for the 1st District seat.

Particularly galling to her was the use of the Knoxville Police Department to enforce early closing times for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol that were passed by the Board of Health.

“We have so many issues facing the city, why do we have police telling a business what they can and can’t do?” she asked.

Murphy, who’s also a consultant with Stand for Tennessee PAC, said economic development is the top issue facing South Knoxville. She said she’s talked to numerous business owners who won’t locate inside the city limits because of onerous regulations. One business owner wanted to move to Vestal, she said, but the city required too many upgrades to the building to make it financially feasible.

Murphy called the decision by former Mayor Madeline Rogero not to extend James White Parkway “a missed opportunity” for South Knoxville and said improvements to make Chapman Highway safer are critical for residents and businesses. 

Holding the line on property tax increases is important to Murphy. She supports a referendum to cap the city’s property tax rate advocated by conservative political consultant Erik Wiatr, who helped recruit Murphy and other conservatives to run for Council seats and is working with their campaigns. 

“I feel we’re taking enough money in now and need to spend it more wisely,” Murphy said.

“There’s just as much poverty in District 1 as there is in rural West Virginia,” added Murphy, who used to live in the Mountain State. “Raising taxes would be devastating to them.”

Like several current and aspiring Council members, Murphy said the state’s closure of Lakeshore Mental Health Institute has contributed to the city’s homelessness issues. She said she’d like to work with the state to build a new mental health facility in Knoxville.

Unlike Wiatr, who has also formed a group called Knoxville Against Taxpayer Stadiums (KNATS), Murphy is generally supportive of the multi-use stadium proposed for the warehouse district east of the Old City, but has one reservation.

“It’s a great chance to bring economic growth to that part of the city, but I need to see the financial report from the Sports Authority,” she said.

Murphy asserted that police officers have told her that the administration hampers their ability to do their jobs. She said a strong police department is essential to ensuring public safety.

“People want more of a police presence in their neighborhoods,” she said. “I’m pragmatic in that we need police to have safe communities.”

Tapping into the pool of Republicans who have donated to the conservative Council candidates, Murphy raised $15,433 in the second quarter of the year. She had $10,428 on hand after expenses as of June 30.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to accurately reflect Elizabeth Murphy's affiliation with Stand for Tennessee PAC and Tommy Smith's change in employment.