A Primary Sweep

A Primary Sweep

Council incumbents flexed their muscles on Tuesday, but a strong showing by GOP-backed candidates ensures a partisan-tinged campaign in a nonpartisan election.

by scott barker • September 1, 2021
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Fourth District Council candidates Lauren Rider (left) and Jim Klonaris gathered with supporters last night.

The five incumbent City Council members defended their home turf during Tuesday’s primary, but the five Republican-backed candidates had a strong showing to set up the citywide general election.

After a relatively robust early voting period, a steady rain kept primary Election Day turnout down.

The progressive City Council Movement failed to push a candidate forward for the first time in the last three election cycles. 

Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie and Council members Tommy Smith and Lauren Rider finished first in three-person contests. Council members Andrew Roberto and Seema Singh will also advance after finishing first in their districts.

“We’re just going to continue to run on what we’ve done — collaboration and partnerships,” McKenzie said. “That’s what moves the city forward.”

The conservative slate of candidates backed by the Knox County Republican Party — Garrett Holt, Elizabeth Murphy, Jim Klonaris, Kim Smith and Nick Ciparro — each came in second in their district races.

“I’m impressed with the Republican campaigns,” Klonaris said. “If this is any indication of the November election, it’s going to get crazy.”

The local GOP has made the nominally nonpartisan city elections a priority this year. So far, the Knox County Democratic Party has stayed on the sidelines, for the most part, as both parties have traditionally done in city elections. The incumbents could generally be described as center-left Democrats.

Turnout was relatively heavy in early voting, at least compared to previous similar elections, but a soggy Election Day seemed to keep voters away from the polls. Only a little more than one-third of the overall vote came on Tuesday.

The closest contest came in the 4th District, which stretches from the edge of downtown north to Fountain City and east to Holston Hills, with a finger out to Strawberry Plains. Rider came in first with 48.25 percent of the vote, with Klonaris close behind with 42.09 percent. Jen McMahon, the City Council Movement candidate in the race, finished a distant third with 9.66 percent.

The 4th District by far generated the highest turnout, with 3,687 votes cast by absentee ballot, in early voting and on Election Day.

As the results came in, Rider gathered with friends and supporters at Relix on North Central Street, just a few blocks from her Old North Knoxville home. Among those in attendance were Singh, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Knox County Democratic Party Chair Matt Shears.

“I think tonight's results tell us that people want a progressive city that has recreational opportunities, that's bringing jobs, that’s keeping our young graduates here,” Rider said.

She talked about her work on nuts and bolts issues like the city’s zoning code and neighborhood traffic calming, as well as big-picture challenges like homelessness and mental health care.

Klonaris hosted all the Republican-backed candidates at the Press Room, an event space he owns in North Knoxville not far from Relix. Former Republican state Rep. Bill Dunn and Knox County Republican Party Chair Daniel Herrera were among the well-wishers.

“I’m very pleased with the results,” Klonaris said. “Holding your own against an incumbent is a big deal.”

Klonaris said he and the other conservative candidates on the ballot have been emphasizing public safety and crime, which he called the No. 1 issue facing the city.

The 1st District contest was another three-person race. Smith finished in first place by a comfortable spread. He garnered 53.34 percent of the vote, with Murphy, a Republican-backed conservative, coming in second with 3o.23 percent. City Council Movement candidate David Hayes finished third with 16.43 percent.

Smith, who was appointed to finish the unexpired term of Stephanie Welch after she stepped down to become a deputy to Mayor Indya Kincannon, said he felt grateful to the 1st District voters.

“The people I’ve helped turned around and helped me, and I can turn around and help other folks,” he said.

As for his prospects in the citywide general election, Smith said he knows people across Knoxville who are familiar with his service to the community. “I’m not starting from scratch,” he said.

According to Murphy, her strong showing in the district primary will help her with all city voters in the primary, but the race will boil down to trust.

“I think people are drawn to authenticity,” she said. “If they think Tommy is more authentic, it will be Tommy. If they think I’m more authentic, they’ll vote for me.”

In the 6th District, which stretches from Burlington in East Knoxville through downtown to Pond Gap in West Knoxville, McKenzie led the field of three candidates with 52.22 percent of the vote. Holt, another conservative hopeful, nosed out City Council Movement candidate Deidra Harper, 25.18 percent to 22.6 percent.

After celebrating with supporters, McKenzie said in a phone interview that she will continue to run on her record. “I’m grateful to be moving forward and I appreciate all the support,” she said.

Holt credited his strong showing in a district where he was largely unknown to taking the time to reach out to voters. “People turned out to vote because hopefully they believe in me and what I represent,” he said.

In the 2nd District, Roberto and Smith both were guaranteed spots in the general election. Still, 1,850 people in the West Knoxville district cast ballots. Roberto ran away with the first place honors, as he outpolled Smith by a 3 to 1 margin.

The two-person race in the 3rd District was closer and turnout was lighter. Singh took first place with 53.23 percent of the vote. Ciparro secured 46.77 percent. Only 913 people in the Northwest Knoxville district cast primary ballots.

In 2017, Singh finished second in the 3rd District primary but won citywide; this time around, the progressive pragmatist won over a district that leans more Republican than the city as a whole.

“It is a more conservative district, but I received a lot of conservative votes,” Singh said. “Because I've actually gone out to the homeowners’ meetings, I've actually done the traffic calming, I have done the neighborhood empowerment, coming and sitting down with people and talking to them.”

Early voting in the general election begins Oct. 13, and Election Day is Nov. 2.