Council Contests: 4th District

Council Contests: 4th District

Three candidates give North Knoxville voters clear options in this year’s City Council primary election.

by scott barker • August 4, 2021
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City Council District 4 candidates (left to right) Jen McMahon, Lauren Rider and Jim Klonaris.

The primary race for Knoxville’s sprawling 4th City Council District is a three-way contest offering clear choices for voters — a conservative challenger, a progressive challenger and an incumbent who takes the middle ground.

The 4th District race has a candidate for every spot on the political spectrum.

The incumbent is Lauren Rider, who was elected in 2017 with 48.6 percent of the vote in a general election race against former state Rep. Harry Tindell and Amelia Parker, who had an unusually strong showing for a write-in campaign.

The conservative option is restaurant owner Jim Klonaris, while nonprofit executive Jen McMahon is the progressive alternative. The top two finishers in the district-only primary on Aug. 31 will square off in the citywide Nov. 2 general election.

The 4th District stretches from the northern edge of downtown to Fountain City along the east side of Broadway and fans out east through the Alice Bell-Spring Hill area to Holston Hills, even reaching out Interstate 40 to the Strawberry Plains exit.

Lauren Rider

Rider got involved in local politics through Old North Knoxville Inc., the historic neighborhood’s residents association, and has kept a focus on district concerns during her four years in office.

Zoning matters, rehabilitating blighted properties, traffic calming projects and enhancing transportation alternatives in North Knoxville have been at the forefront of her agenda. 

“There’s a lot of things that we started that I still want to work on,” she said during an interview on the front porch of her restored Old North Knoxville home.

Rider is a Georgia native who earned an undergraduate degree from Georgia State University and a Master of Library Science from Indiana University. She is a librarian at the Division Street campus of Pellissippi State Community College.

She cites the Old Broadway sidewalk project, which is aimed at enabling pedestrian access between North Knoxville and Fountain City, as one such initiative. The proposed greenway through Broadway Shopping Center and the redevelopment of the former St. Mary’s Hospital site, which is technically in the 5th District but borders the 4th, are other priorities.

Rider also points to approximately 900 jobs to be created by Amazon’s redevelopment of the former East Towne Mall complex, the expansion of Fraley & Schilling’s trucking and logistics operations in Strawberry Plains, and the expansion of Axle Logistics on Central Street as positive accomplishments for the district.

“I’m really excited that East Towne Mall is getting redeveloped,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a good win for the community. It says something that Knoxville was chosen.”

Rider said she’s proud of how the city was able to update its entire zoning code through the Recode Knoxville initiative, but she said it’s important to watch how it’s applied. “We constantly monitor improvement to see how development happens and to keep progress going,” she said.

Rider said Mayor Indya Kincannon’s new developers roundtable, which would work toward streamlining the city’s development regulations, will help eliminate red tape.

“We have to figure out how to make it better, easier,” Rider said. “Some of the things they’re addressing in the roundtable will change that. There’s a huge push to get things done.”

Homelessness is an issue that is especially important in the 4th District, since many of the major service providers are located just north of downtown. Rider said a comprehensive approach is needed to address homelessness, one that includes more robust mental health services and a greater commitment to funding drug treatment programs. 

“We have got to find a united way to respond to homelessness,” she said, adding that if was an easy problem to solve it would have been solved long ago. “City Council has approved pretty much all the housing that has come before us. Housing alone doesn’t work.”

Rider has deferred to East Knoxville leaders regarding the publicly funded, multi-use stadium proposed for a site east of the Old City. She said the backing of the Knoxville Area Urban League and the Beck Cultural Exchange Center is important.

“They’re voicing great support for it and that carries a lot of weight,” said Rider, adding that Council’s job is to make sure any deal is fair for city taxpayers.

Rider has raised $47,791 during the campaign through June 30. After expenses, she had $35,093 on hand as of June 30. 

Jim Klonaris

Klonaris, who is a prominent restaurant owner, said he decided to run for City Council in part out of frustration. He said that when he opened Cafe 4 and the Square Room on Market Square in 2007, the city rolled out the red carpet. By the time he was trying to open The Vault in the Holston Building last year, however, officials made compliance difficult.

“It wasn’t COVID,” he said. “It was the city. It wasn’t the welcoming feeling we felt in previous years. Why is there red tape instead of a red carpet?”

After growing up in Farragut, Klonaris earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee, worked as an executive in the private sector and with his wife opened several restaurants in Knoxville. 

Klonaris said he wants to use his business experience on City Council. “I bring a tremendous amount of business acumen to the table,” he said. 

He said the city needs to quit spending money frivolously. “We bring in more than enough money to do the things we need to do,” he said. 

Klonaris is one of the conservative candidates running with the help of political consultant Erik Wiatr and his Scruffy Little City PAC. He said Council has shifted too far to the left.

“I don’t feel like we have any balance in our city government right now,” he said.

Klonaris said the city needs to improve how it treats firefighters and police officers. Keeping up with other cities regarding pay and benefits is important to fully staff the public safety arm of the city.

“You can’t have a society where you don't feel safe,” he said. “We’ve got to remain vigilant in keeping our kids safe in the schools and the people in our community.”

Fiscal responsibility — he is opposed to raising property taxes  — would enable the city to meet the needs of the people, he said. He said the city needs to raise revenues through economic expansion.

Klonaris said knocking on the doors of residents who live in poverty has moved him. “We have to be aware of how our decisions affect people who are struggling to stay alive,” he said.

The extreme result of poverty is homelessness, according to Klonaris, who said the city has a responsibility to help the segment of the homeless population that wants help. The solution, he said, is not government spending but more business development and employment opportunities. 

One development opportunity he supports is the multi-use stadium proposed near the Old City. He owns three buildings and five businesses within a quarter mile of the stadium site.

“From a selfish standpoint, I am absolutely for the stadium,” he said, though he added that Council needs to carefully consider how public money is spent on development projects.

Klonaris, taking advantage of his business connections and the Republican Party network of donors, has raised $64,669 so far this year — the most of any candidate in the election. After expenditures, he had $56,650 in his campaign account heading into the final two months of the race.

Klonaris said the city has yet to reach its potential. “Knoxville is the greatest little secret place to live on the planet,” he said, “but we can do better.”

Jen McMahon

McMahon’s interest in politics began with her family. Her grandmother was one of the first women to serve on City Council in Holloway, Ohio, and  a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. 

“From a very young age, it was about using my privilege and knowledge to make life equitable for all,” she said during an interview at St. John’s Lutheran Church in North Knoxville, where she was married.

McMahon grew up in Dennison, Ohio, and earned her undergraduate degree in anthropology, French and linguistics from the University of Akron. She moved to Knoxville six years ago as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and fell in love with the area.

She said she has seen people expressing their needs but their needs are not being met. “I want to bring people’s needs to the forefront,” McMahon said.

Her campaign emphasizes three main themes.

First, she said, she would work toward “equitable, affordable and transformative housing.” She said money could be transferred from the Knoxville Police Department’s operating budget to housing programs and utilities support for low-income households.

Second, she would promote a living wage and equitable workforce development focusing on youth, people with intellectual disabilities and people exiting incarceration.

“Those are the three populations that need support to gain entry to living wage jobs,” she said.

Third, she would focus on creating safe and healthy communities for all city residents. McMahon would take a comprehensive approach toward the concept of safety.

“When I think of a safe community, I think of folks having jobs to support their families so they don’t have to commit crimes,” she said. 

McMahon is the co-founder and CEO of Century Harvest Farms, a nonprofit that provides agricultural skills to people in recovery and those who have been released from incarceration.

She noted that the 4th District is large and contains residents across the economic spectrum. 

“Our government is not working for working class folks in North Knoxville,” she said.

McMahon is opposed to the publicly funded multi-use stadium proposed for property east of the Old City. She said Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd, who proposed the stadium, can afford to build a ballpark if his minor-league baseball team wants one. “I don’t think taxpayer dollars should go to this project,” she said.

McMahon has been endorsed by the progressive City Council Movement. She said she was inspired to run by Councilwoman Amelia Parker, whose write-in campaign for the 4th District seat in 2017 showed surprising strength and who won an at-large Council seat in 2019. 

“I saw her as someone looking out for the interests of all people,” she said. 

But McMahon also said today’s political divisions have led to confusing labeling.

“I was called a socialist and a plant for the GOP the same day,”  she said. “We’ve got to stop looking at people as Democrats or Republicans.”

Like the other City Council Movement candidates, McMahon trails her opponents in fundraising and is counting on a grassroots effort to put her into the general election. She raised $200 in the 2nd quarter and spent all but $1.56.

While firmly committed to helping the underserved, McMahon said working with others in city government is imperative. “No significant change can happen without significant relationships,” she said.