Platforms on Display
At a forum in East Knoxville, Council candidates discussed their proposals for moving the city forward. There were also some no-shows.
City Council candidates discussed the budget, crime, economic development, racial inequities, the proposed stadium and more during a forum held Thursday by the League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County and partner organizations.
Forum topics included the budget, crime, economic development, racial disparities and the proposed publicly funded stadium.
Five of the 13 candidates — all members of a conservative bloc of challengers — were no-shows, leaving the field to the five incumbents and three opponents from the left.
Two incumbents — Andrew Roberto (2nd District) and Seema Singh (3rd District) didn’t have an opponent at the event, which drew approximately 160 people to the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in East Knoxville.
The forum wasn’t a debate but an opportunity for candidates to offer their ideas for the next four years. Moderator Blake Stevens of WATE-TV asked questions submitted by members of the audience.
In the Aug. 31 primary, only voters in each district can cast ballots in their local race. The top two finishers from each primary will go on to the general election in November, when all city voters can vote in all five races.
David Hayes, who is challenging incumbent Tommy Smith for the 1st District seat, framed the election as offering two paths for the city moving forward — a progressive agenda of immediate systemic change versus the status quo.
Smith, on the other hand, emphasized the need to marry principles to pragmatic solutions to achieve results. He said his budget priorities in a second term would be to connect South Knoxville neighborhoods and ensure their safety.
Hayes, who is one of three members of the progressive City Council Movement running for office this year, called for a “citizens’ budget” that would increase the involvement of the general public in the budget development process.
Within the district, which covers South Knoxville and Fort Sanders, Smith said supporting the establishment of small, locally owned businesses in Vestal and along Chapman Highway would create jobs for local residents. “Small businesses in blighted buildings are my top priority, especially in South Knoxville.”
Hayes said a lot of areas of South Knoxville need development and pointed to South Press Coffee, a fledgling coffee shop that has been struggling with city codes officers to get open. “How can we empower South Knoxville residents to open their own businesses?” he asked.
Poverty is the root cause of crime, Hayes said, and grassroots organizations working to address income inequalities are underfunded. “We need a dramatic reallocation of funds,” he said.
For Smith, a key component of creating a safer city would be a mental health facility, but that would require assistance from the state. “That problem is too big for any city or county to solve,” he said.
Asked about the recently created African American Equity Restoration Task Force, which is charged with recommending projects that would help create generational wealth in Knoxville’s Black community, Smith said the Black community should have the biggest voice in setting priorities, while Hayes expressed skepticism that there will be community buy-in if people don’t see real change.
Hayes is opposed to the publicly funded multi-use stadium proposed by Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd on a site just east of the Old City. He noted that the project doesn’t have a formal community benefits agreement.
Smith is generally supportive, as long as the people living near the site want the stadium and the city and county can afford it. “I don’t know anybody who buys something without knowing the price,” he said.
Lauren Rider, the incumbent, said she is proud of the work Council has done over the past four years and pointed to 900 jobs created in the 4th District as an example. Newcomer Jen McMahon, a City Council Movement candidate, said she would listen to constituents and be the voice of the people on Council.
The differences between them showed in their budget priorities. The 4th District covers much of North Knoxville and Fountain City, and reaches to the east to take in Washington Pike and Holston Hills.
McMahon said there are unmet needs, such as transportation and housing for the homeless population, that need to be addressed. “We don’t need to increase spending,” she said. “We need to reallocate funds.”
Rider said her priorities are basic services and public safety. “The city is primarily a service provider,” she said. “Seventy-five percent of the city budget goes to city employees.”
They also have differing views of the 4th District’s job creation needs. Rider pointed to empty buildings along Broadway in North Knoxville and Fountain City that would make ideal locations for new businesses. McMahon said support for already existing businesses is vital as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both said the Black community should take the lead in providing input to the Equity Restoration Task Force. “I can’t say what the priorities ought to be, because I’m not a Black person,” McMahon reasoned.
Rider blamed much of the city’s crime issues on drug abuse, which is exacerbated by the state’s failure to pass Medicaid expansion so people can get treatment. McMahon, who works with recently released prisoners at a nonprofit, said the city should invest in programs to reduce recidivism.
McMahon is adamantly opposed to public funding for the proposed multi-use stadium, especially given Boyd’s wealth. “If you want to build a stadium, use your own dollars,” she said.
Rider said she’s talked to a lot of people in East Knoxville and is generally supportive of the stadium project. She cited a letter the late former Councilman Danny Mayfield wrote imploring the city to find a way to keep the Smokies here before they moved to Sevierville in 2001.
Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie said she wants to complete some of the work Council has begun over the past four years, while Deidra Harper, a City Council Movement candidate, said serving on Council would give her a bigger platform to do the community work she’s already engaged in.
Harper said the mayor has a strong grip on the budgeting process and leaders need to figure out a way to get residents more involved in determining priorities.
The 6th District takes in most of East Knoxville and all of downtown, and stretches west through Mechanicsville and along Sutherland Avenue to Pond Gap.
McKenzie said public safety must be a spending priority and that there are plenty of opportunities for discussion as the budget is being developed. “That’s part of building relationships and getting things done,” she said.
McKenzie, who proposed the Equity Restoration Task Force and is a member, said the group’s first priority is addressing disparities in the Black community. Workshops with stakeholders can be used to identify gaps that need to be filled, she said.
As a business owner, Harper said fostering entrepreneurship is one of the keys to building wealth. “We know there’s a lack of development going on in the community,” she said.
Both said Burlington in East Knoxville is ripe for development (McKenzie added that Mechanicsville also needs an economic boost). The candidates also agreed that job training and workforce development are needed, with Harper adding an emphasis on providing access to capital for entrepreneurs and small businesses.
With gun violence surging in East Knoxville, the candidates have made crime reduction a priority. McKenzie said stronger neighborhood organizations are important, because police officer liaisons work directly with the groups to solve problems. Harper said job creation to reduce poverty should be at the forefront of the discussion. Violence intervention organizations also need support, she said.
Like others in the City Council Movement, Harper is opposed to the proposed multi-use stadium. She said the uncertainty surrounding the ultimate cost is a concern. “It’s difficult to support such an endeavor when there’s a lack of transparency.”
McKenzie said she was initially skeptical of the project, but research into other cities’ experiences convinced her it will bring growth, jobs and opportunity. “At this point, I’m in favor of the stadium,” she said.
Roberto, the incumbent, had the 2nd District spotlight all to himself. He said the experience he’s gained — from working to get people involved in the revision of the city’s zoning code to the pandemic response — is invaluable.
“If the past four years have taught us anything, it’s that experience matters.”
He cited his record as a neighborhood advocate as a key reason for voters to return him to office for the next four years. The 2nd District runs through West Knoxville and includes some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city.
Roberto said Council’s fiscal responsibility that has led to the city’s highest bond rating ever enabled taxpayers to save $6 million while funding important initiatives.
“Over the past four years, Council has invested $12.6 million in affordable housing,” he said.
Roberto said zoning is one way to strengthen neighborhoods and encourage mixed-use development along the city’s corridors. When asked about areas in his district in need of economic development, he broadened his response to include the city as a whole.
“We have fantastic people who are hard working,” Roberto said. “If you were to design a community for the future, it would be Knoxville.”
Like other candidates whose districts don’t include large concentrations of African-American residents, Roberto said he would defer to the Equity Restoration Task Force to come up with priorities for increasing wealth in the city’s Black communities.
Roberto said he is in favor of the proposed multi-use stadium as long as it appears to be a good investment and meets the needs of the community. “In general,” he said, “I’m supportive of it.”
Like Roberto, Singh didn’t have an opponent at the forum.
Four years ago, Singh was the first City Council Movement candidate to get elected to office, but she has since become estranged from the organization.
“My values haven’t changed, (but) if I’m going to make change, I have to do it with other people,” she said.
Singh said increasing spending on violence intervention initiatives without cutting police funding would be her top budget priority. “When we prevent crime, we reduce (the number of) victims,” she said.
She also said addressing poverty and other root causes of crime will be needed. One avenue she would like to explore is an income-based property tax break that would help low-income households keep their homes.
Singh said she has asked for a corridor study of Western Avenue, the main thoroughfare in her mixed-income Northwest Knoxville district. “We don’t just need jobs,” she said. “We need jobs that will enable people to survive and thrive.”
Singh also wants to see the recommendations from the Equity Restoration Task Force before weighing in with her thoughts on what its priorities should be. “If I had the answers, I would have fixed this already,” she said.
Singh has warmed up to the idea of the proposed multi-use stadium. “My knee-jerk reaction was, we’re not going to build a stadium for a millionaire,” she said.
She said she would have preferred that one or more community groups worked out a community benefits agreement with Boyd, but no group has come forward.
The Missing Candidates
The candidates who did not attend are all conservatives. According to the League of Women Voters, Garrett Holt (6th District) declined to attend, while Jim Klonaris (4th District), Kim Smith (2nd District) and Elizabeth Murphy (1st District) all said they had scheduling conflicts. The League had expected Nick Ciparro (3rd District) to attend and had a place at one of the candidate tables reserved for him, but he did not make an appearance.
City Council races are nonpartisan. Some Republican candidates in recent partisan elections have not attended forums held by the League of Women Voters, alleging a liberal bias within the nonpartisan organization.
The candidates who did attend took a dim view of their opponents skipping the forum.
“It must have been an important event,” Smith said of the unidentified conflicts that kept them away. “I don’t know of a more important event than talking to Knoxville residents.”
McMahon said people aspiring to hold public office have a responsibility to face the voters. “You need to show up and be accountable,” she said.
Political consultant Erik Wiatr, who is working with all five of the conservative candidates, did not respond to questions on Thursday about why they would not be at the forum.
The League of Women Voters' partner organizations for the event were the American Muslim Advisory Council, Centro Hispano de East Tennessee, the Knoxville Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Knoxville Chapter of the NAACP, YWCA of Knoxville and the TN Valley, Knoxville Area Urban League, East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists, and the Knoxville News Sentinel.