Politics at an Exhibition
For the first time, all 10 Council candidates in the general election share a stage to answer questions about the future of the city.
Surrounded by works of local artists, City Council candidates painted starkly different pictures of the Knoxville they want to represent at a forum Wednesday evening at the Emporium Center for Arts & Culture.
Topics at the forum included public safety, homelessness and support for the arts.
To most of the challengers in the five races, Knoxville is a once-great city sliding into a grim abyss of lawlessness and addiction. All of the challengers — who are running as a bloc backed by the Knox County Republican Party — referred to the recent spike in crime in general and homicides in particular. Jim Klonaris, the challenger in the 4th District, said he was frustrated by the city’s leadership.
“I’ve watched our city decline over the last decade and a half,” he said.
The incumbents countered that Knoxville has become a great city over the past 15 years and, while there are vexing and persistent problems, it is continuing on an upward trajectory. Andrew Roberto, the 2nd District incumbent, highlighted the city’s $63 million reserve fund, dropping debt obligations (a reduction of $54 million over the past four years) and high bond rating.
“This city is not going in a bad economic direction,” he said. “It’s going in a good economic direction and we need to keep it going.”
All 10 Council hopefuls attended the forum, a first for this election, and for two hours answered questions submitted by members of the sponsoring organizations — the Arts & Culture Alliance, the Alliance for Better Nonprofits, the Downtown Knoxville Alliance, and the Old City Association.
The format was unusual for local forums. Instead of asking one question and all of the candidates responding to it in turn, moderator Liza Zenni of the Arts & Cultural Alliance asked a different question of the contenders for each seat. That resulted in themes emerging over the course of the forum — primarily public safety, homelessness, and support for the arts and nonprofits.
Elizabeth Murphy, the 1st District challenger, pointed to the Knoxville Police Department’s chronic understaffing and higher starting salaries for officers in Nashville and other cities. “Unless we get increased pay, we won’t have quality officers,” she said.
The 1st District incumbent, Tommy Smith, said Knoxville’s recruiting challengers aren’t unique and that officers have received raises every year as well as bonuses. “This Council has provided all the resources KPD has asked for,” he said.
Nick Ciparro, the 3rd District challenger, joined Murphy and others in citing KPD’s staffing shortages for the rise in crime and said it’s one reason Knoxville is in decline. “You can’t have a city in a war zone,” he said. “It’s a fact.”
Third District incumbent Seema Singh said she supports KPD but more funding needs to go to violence interruption efforts. “For me, it’s addressing issues before we have victims,” she said.
The issues of homelessness and panhandling, which are acute in the downtown area, were the subject of several questions. Incumbents and challengers alike identified mental illness and substance abuse as major underlying factors for the city’s homeless population.
“We absolutely need more mental health services for the community,” said Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie, who represents the 6th District, adding that KPD needs to enforce the city’s anti-panhandling law “with dignity.”
Her opponent in the 6th District, Garrett Holt, said city leaders need to lobby the state for funds for a psychiatric hospital but added that he thinks Knoxville is a mecca for the region’s homeless population. “We have a lot of services that attract the homeless from other municipalities,” he said.
Fourth District incumbent Lauren Rider also said state support for a mental health facility is needed, and also pointed to the Tennessee Legislature’s decision not to expand Medicaid as a reason people experiencing homelessness don’t have access to adequate healthcare.
“You cannot solve the homeless problem by not providing services to the ones who need it,” she said.
Several questions touched on the importance of arts and culture to Knoxville.
Smith said he serves on a Knoxville Chamber economic development committee and asserted that quality of life is important to businesses looking to locate here. He cited the Big Ears Festival as an example of a component of a healthy cultural environment.
Ciparro said city government is limited in what it can do to use arts and culture as an economic development tool. “Fostering a good environment — that’s all you can do,” he said.
His opponent, Singh, said the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of the arts. “We’ve been able to see what the absence of the arts does, the damage to our souls, our emotions and our economy,” she said.
Klonaris, however, said the city needs to set priorities for spending and should focus on other issues. Referring to the sculpture commissioned for Cradle of Country Music Park, he said in a comment that likely did not go over well in a room full of arts supporters, “It’s easy to spend half a million dollars on artwork.”
The challengers contended that a property tax increase is around the corner and that the city needs to focus on getting its fiscal house in order.
“I am fiscally conservative,” said Kim Smith, who is running against Roberto in the 2nd District. “Our budget needs to be re-prioritized.”
Klonaris and Rider, the 4th District candidates, did have a spirited exchange about the city’s willingness to work with developers. Klonaris said the city has no business owning the McClung Warehouses or other potentially developable property and shouldn’t give developers incentives such as payment-in-lieu-of-tax (PILOT) or tax increment financing (TIF) agreements.
Rider countered that the city owns the warehouses only because the previous property owner neglected the historic buildings, leading to two destructive fires. She challenged Klonaris’ assertion that red tape hinders development, saying that the city must enforce its building codes.
“The red tape that I talk about is not about codes,” he responded. “The red tape I’m talking about is a cultural issue.”
Some of the challengers returned to the theme of failed leadership, though most only made general statements and did not point fingers at particular officeholders. One exception was Ciparro, who singled out Mayor Indya Kincannon for criticism.
“Our mayor is a problem,” he said. “She’s basically a puppet of the previous mayor (Madeline Rogero).”
That drew a rebuke from Zenni, the moderator. “We don’t condone attacking people who aren't here to defend themselves,” she said.
The format of the forum resulted in a couple of questions only being posed to one set of candidates. For example, McKenzie and Holt, the 6th District candidates, were the only ones asked about their support for the multi-use stadium proposed for the edge of the Old City in their district.
“As it stands now, I’m in favor of it,” Holt said, adding that it could be a transformative project for the city.
McKenzie said the project has the potential to bring jobs into the community and expressed hope contractors would use local labor during construction and pay a living wage to employees.
“With the information I have now, I’m leaning in favor of the stadium,” she said.
Early voting for the general election begins Oct. 13, and Election Day is Nov. 2.