Council Contests: 2nd District
In the race for West Knoxville’s Council seat, a political newcomer is challenging a seasoned incumbent.
The 2nd City Council District encompasses the bulk of West Knoxville and contains some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods, including Sequoyah Hills, Westmoreland and West Hills.
Incumbent Andrew Roberto and challenger Kim Smith will both move on to the general election.
Kingston Pike, which bisects the district, is the city’s busiest commercial corridor, home to the shops of Bearden, West Town Mall and numerous restaurants, specialty stores and automobile dealerships. Much of the Turkey Creek shopping area is also in the district.
In 2017, Andrew Roberto finished first among four hopefuls in the 2nd District primary with 39 percent of the vote. He triumphed in the citywide general election that year, earning 59 percent of the vote against second-place primary finisher Wayne Christensen’s 41 percent.
This time around, Roberto is facing political newcomer Kim Smith. Both are guaranteed a spot in the general election, regardless of the outcome in the primary.
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.
As is typical among incumbents, Roberto, 44, is running on his record over the past four years, while Smith, 56, is running as a fiscal conservative challenger to the status quo.
For Roberto, his service on City Council begins and ends with neighborhood advocacy. He touted his record on neighborhood issues, including traffic calming, sidewalk construction and zoning, as one of the best reasons for people to vote for him.
“As a district representative, the most important thing voters expect is for me to be accessible and connect them with the services they need,” he said over lunch in West Knoxville recently. “Having vibrant neighborhoods is important.”
An attorney, Roberto is a Knoxville native who earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Tennessee. He is a former Knox County election commissioner and currently serves as chair of the Knoxville Beer Board.
Before the pandemic hit last year, Roberto scheduled community meetings with his counterparts on the school board and County Commission to address constituents’ concerns on a variety of issues that affect them.
He also was heavily involved in the overhaul of the city’s zoning ordinance through the Recode Knoxville process. Roberto went to neighborhood meetings about Recode and successfully fought for notifying all property owners of the upcoming changes before Council voted on the revamped code.
“I’ve been a consistent voice for public process,” he said.
Public safety is a major component of building healthy neighborhoods, according to Roberto. The city must do a better job of recruiting and retaining officers at the chronically understaffed Knoxville Police Department, he said.
“We want to get back to community policing,” Roberto said. “We don’t want to over-police or under-police.”
He said he’s proud of Council’s fiscal responsibility and pushes back against the notion that the city is in financial trouble. He pointed to the practice of keeping 25 percent of the general fund — approximately $63 million this year — in reserve, which helps keep the city’s bond rating high.
“That resulted in saving $5.4 million when we refinanced our debt last year,” he said.
He said he’s leaning in favor of the multi-use stadium proposed for a site east of the Old City, but is holding back on a hearty endorsement for now. “Generally, I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “I’ll want to know more details, such as the economic impact statement.”
He’s enthusiastic about the Knoxville Utilities Board’s broadband initiative, which he voted to approve earlier this summer. “It will increase opportunities for jobs,” he said. “Access to the internet is vital for everyone.”
Roberto said he was initially surprised by the time commitment required to be a thoughtful and involved member of City Council, and subsequently saw many curve balls thrown Council’s way — not least the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The challenges we’ve faced aren’t necessarily the ones we expected,” he said. “That’s why you need experience.”
Roberto has been a solid fundraiser, taking in $30,382 during the quarter ending June 30, according to financial disclosure documents. After expenses, he had $36,885 available for the last two months of the primary campaign.
Roberto said his experience matters. “I have a record of being an advocate and a voice for transparent and effective government,” he said.
A native of Nashville, Smith has lived in Knoxville for the past 34 years and works as a financial officer at New Hope Christian School, where she also serves on the school board.
“I have a heart for public service,” she said at an interview in a coffee shop in Bearden. “I like to meet people and solve their problems.”
Smith was recruited to run for the 2nd District seat by conservative political consultant Erik Wiatr, whose Scruffy Little City PAC is working with four other candidates in this year’s election. She supported Wiatr’s unsuccessful effort to put a property tax cap referendum on the ballot.
“I met with them and learned about the issues,” Smith said. “The last six weeks have been interesting. I’ve talked to hundreds of people.”
She said she wants to use her financial experience to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars and would oppose any effort to raise property taxes while in office.
“It’s taxpayer money, so I want to make sure it goes where it needs to go,” Smith said.
She said job creation would be a top priority if she is elected. According to Smith, removing bureaucratic obstacles for developers and business owners would achieve that as well as increase tax revenues.
“We need to be rolling out the red carpet for these people to increase the tax base,” she said.
In that vein, she supports the multi-use stadium proposed for a site east of the Old City because it would increase the tax base by bringing in new businesses and new jobs. “I don’t see how it could be a bad thing,” she said.
Public safety and addressing homelessness are also major issues facing the city, according to Smith.
“If we don’t have money for public safety, we can’t get where we need to be,” she said, adding that increasing officer pay would be a priority. “There’s not a parent walking around who doesn’t want their kids to be safe.”
Smith said providing mental health services, housing and job training are all needed to help those who are homeless.
“Our homeless issue is spreading rapidly, and spreading to places you’d never imagine,” she said.
When it comes to issues directly affecting the 2nd District, Smith said residents want city government to take care of basic needs such as filling potholes.
She said a recurring issue in several West Knoxville neighborhoods — Westland and West Hills, for example — is motorists cutting through residential areas to go from one thoroughfare to another.
Smith raised $9,081 during the 2nd quarter of the year and had $8,749 in her campaign account at the end of June. She said fundraising isn’t necessarily enjoyable, but people have been responsive.
“We all want the same thing — good government and good values,” she said.
Smith said city government needs to be responsive to its residents because the city belongs to the residents. “Knoxville is a great place to live, and I want to make sure it stays that way,” she said.