Knoxville’s uniformed employees have aligned themselves on opposite sides in this year’s City Council races.
Correction: This article has been updated with the accurate duration of city police officers' shifts.
Knoxville voters headed to the polls Wednesday, the first day of early voting, with the city’s uniformed employees’ organizations split on the direction they want City Council to take.
The Fraternal Order of Police supports City Council challengers, while the Knoxville Fire Fighters Association is backing the incumbents.
The Knoxville Fire Fighters Association endorsed the five City Council incumbents on the ballot — Tommy Smith, Andrew Roberto, Seema Singh, Lauren Rider and Gwen McKenzie.
The Fraternal Order of Police, however, endorsed four of the five challengers, all of whom are backed by the Knox County Republican Party in the nominally nonpartisan election — Elizabeth Murphy, Kim Smith, Jim Klonaris and Garrett Holt.
The challengers are running coordinated campaigns focused on public safety as the leading issue, and they hit the same talking points in public appearances. Though not coordinating their efforts to the same extent, the incumbents tout their experience and are running on their records on a broader array of issues.
The divergent endorsements from police officers and firefighters shouldn’t come as a total surprise — the city’s two uniformed services have different priorities.
The firefighters’ primary concern is pay, Fire Fighters Association President Kevin Faddis said in an interview. Knoxville pays less than other cities, he asserted, and the steps in the pay scale have become so compressed that they are almost meaningless.
“Every one of the Council members understands the pay issues, the compensation issues, and they’re going to address them,” he said.
Faddis said the incumbents’ overall record played a role in the endorsement as well, citing Rider’s hard work and directness in dealing with issues, Roberto’s accomplishments for neighborhoods, Singh’s independence, McKenzie's knowledge of her district's needs and Tommy Smith’s understanding of the city’s needs.
Council has authorized a compensation study that will compare Knoxville city employees’ pay to peer municipalities. The plan is to use the results to adjust the city’s pay structure to be more competitive.
The FOP is focused on the Knoxville Police Department’s chronic staffing shortages, which prompted Chief Eve Thomas to change work schedules to require 12-hour shifts. Council has funded 416 positions for sworn officers, but as of Wednesday only 374 were currently filled.
“We’ve had a problem with KPD for years with personnel shortages,” FOP President Keith Lyon said. “We can’t do it anymore … . City Council wants to say they’re pro-police when it comes to body cameras, but not when it comes to staffing.”
Lyon said the FOP is sending a clear message that officers are dissatisfied with the city’s leadership.
It’s unclear how much weight voters will put into formal endorsements as they head to the polls. Four-term former Mayor Victor Ashe, who has been steeped in city politics for decades, downplayed the effect of the employees’ support. He was supported and opposed by the organizations at various points in his career.
“They’re something to talk about, but they don’t have much of an impact,” Ashe said of endorsements.
The current candidates, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to incorporate the endorsements into their efforts. The challengers’ unified campaign issued a statement last Friday when the FOP’s endorsements were announced.
Murphy, who is challenging Tommy Smith in the 1st District race, said she appreciates the support. “I will dedicate myself to ensuring that the city allocates the funds needed to help with recruitment and retention of good police officers so we can fill the chronic officer vacancies and combat the rising high crime and record murder in our city,” she said.
The 2nd District challenger, Kim Smith, struck a similar chord. “As your next 2nd District city councilwoman, public safety is my top priority,” she said. “We must end the staggering high police officer vacancies by reprioritizing the city's budget. By fully supporting our police officers, we will combat the record murder and high crime we are currently experiencing in our city.”
Tommy Smith and Roberto, the 1st and 2nd district incumbents, respectively, said they are honored by the Fire Fighters Association endorsement.
“Public safety has been a priority for me since day one and I will continue my commitment to addressing competitive pay and a positive work environment for those in uniform service,” Roberto said.
Tommy Smith said that firefighters “are the epitome of public service. They’re willing to sacrifice everything, and I’m grateful to have their support.”
Rider, the 4th District incumbent, agreed. “I’m super excited to have their support and recognition of what I’ve done over the past four years,” she said. “It’s important we make sure our first responders have just compensation.”
Klonaris, who is challenging Rider, said he’s “proud and humbled” by the FOP’s endorsement. “This organization represents our city's front line police officers and as your next 4th district City Council member, public safety will be my immediate and No. 1 priority. We must prioritize the city's budget and end the chronic police officer vacancies that are contributing to rising crime, record murder, and the steady stream of deadly shootings.”
The FOP explicitly stated that completing their vetting process, which included in-person interviews, was a deciding factor in their decision. The in-person interview session was held on the same date and at the same time that the League of Women Voters of Knoxville and Knox County held a virtual candidate forum.
“That meant our time meant something to them,” said Lyon, the FOP president.
The FOP didn’t make an endorsement in the 3rd District race because both candidates, incumbent Singh and challenger Nick Ciparro, attended the forum instead. Lyon said the FOP would have thrown its support to Ciparro if he had completed the interview process.
Some incumbents said they weren’t invited to the FOP’s interview session and expressed puzzlement about the assertion they haven’t supported providing KPD with resources.
“The current Council has voted yes on everything KPD and the chief have brought to us,” Rider said.
Council has approved increased funding for KPD recruitment and bonuses for the COVID-19 response. A proposal to give bonuses of approximately $2,700 per employee from the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act funding will be on Council’s agenda for its meeting next Tuesday.
Roberto said he understands the frustration of FOP members and won’t let their endorsement of his opponent to influence his actions. “I will continue to voice my support for our rank-and-file officers and the need for more competitive pay and a positive work environment at KPD.”
Ashe said the FOP blunted the impact of its endorsement by not inviting the incumbents to the interviews. “They preselected who they wanted to pick — it’s obviously rigged,” he said. “It’s disrespectful and undermines their credibility.”