Donors and Dollars

Donors and Dollars

The money has been rolling into this year’s city election, though the distribution among candidates has varied wildly.

by scott barker • October 25, 2021

City Council candidates in this year’s Knoxville had raised a collective $453,942 as of Sept. 30, a number that is almost certain to top a half-million dollars by the time Election Day rolls around on Nov. 2.

Candidates raised nearly a half-million dollars during the first three quarters of 2021.

That figure doesn’t include the money spent by the political parties in the nominally nonpartisan election. The Knox County Republican Party is backing the five challengers in this year’s contests. While not as overtly involved, the Knox County Democratic Party leadership is supporting the incumbents.

According to financial disclosure forms submitted to the Knox County Election Commission, Jim Klonaris, who is challenging 4th District Councilwoman Lauren Rider, led the field by raising $94,264 in the first three quarters of the year. Rider raised $68,346. Bringing up the rear was 3rd District challenger Nick Ciparro with $8,050.

Dollars don’t necessarily translate into votes. Klonaris raised more money than Rider in the first two quarters but came in second to the incumbent by 6 percentage points in the Aug. 31 district primary.

A look beyond the numbers to the names of the donors shows many business owners are supporting Klonaris and 6th District challenger Garrett Holt, but many developers are supporting Rider, 6th District Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie and other incumbents.

Virtually all the candidates relied on family members and neighbors for contributions. For the most part, the incumbents shared one pool of donors, while the challengers drew on a different pool. 

There were exceptions. Former Councilman George Wallace gave mostly to incumbents but made donations to both Klonaris and Rider. Developer Tim Graham gave to nine of the 10 candidates (1st District challenger Elizabeth Murphy was the lone exception). 

The Numbers

Klonaris tapped into the network of people he’s done business with over the past three decades. “People I’ve known for a long time offered to donate,” he said. “I didn’t even have to ask.”

Rider had a similar experience, with many of her donations being unsolicited. “I raised $30,000; the rest just came to me,” she said. “These are voters all across the city that have been constantly donating to the campaign, some $25 at a time, because city voters want to back a campaign that has real experience and real solutions.”

McKenzie came in first in the 6th District primary  race with 52 percent of the vote. Holt edged Deirdra Harper with 25 percent to finish second. In fundraising for the general election, however, they are running neck-and-neck.

Holt raised $38,476 through Sept. 30, while McKenzie raised $37,180. McKenzie had a little more cash on hand for the final month of the campaign — $22.464 to Holt’s $19,166.

First District incumbent Councilman Tommy Smith raised $72,071, the second highest total among all candidates. His opponent, Murphy, raised $21,074, with three-quarters of that amount coming in the second quarter. Smith had a cash advantage of $23,495 to $3,630 on Sept. 30.

Smith said he called a lot of friends who in turn called friends of theirs he didn’t personally know. “I’m proud of all the people who played a role in my life who stepped up to support me,” he said. “I’m also proud of the diversity of my support.”

Councilman Andrew Roberto, the 2nd District incumbent, dominated fundraising in his race against Kim Smith in similar fashion. Roberto’s donors gave $55,571 to his campaign, while she raised $17,071. He also spent much more than Kim Smith, leaving both with a little more than $10,000 for the final weeks before Election Day.

Councilwoman Seema Singh took in $40,660 through Sept. 30, nearly five times the amount in Ciparro’s coffers. 

In 2017, Singh ran as a progressive outsider with the endorsement of the City Council movement. She’s now estranged from the organization and has a more establishment-oriented base of donors.

Ciparro loaned his campaign $3,500 and only listed seven individuals as donors, including Knoxville Focus publisher and East Knox County Republican power broker Steve Hunley.

“I get the most bang for the buck,” Ciparro said. “I’m very independent. I don’t yield to anyone.”

Parties and PACs

This year’s city election is notable for the overt partisanship among the candidates and their supporters, especially on the Republican side of the aisle. Knox County Republican Party Chair Daniel Herrera has made electing GOP-backed candidates to City Council a top priority.

The Knox County Republican Party has paid for anti-incumbent mailers and other campaign-related expenditures. A data analyst with the Republican National Committee is receiving updates on who is turning out each day during the two-week early voting period. The Halls Republican Club, West Knox Republican Club and Volunteer Republican Women’s Club donated to all the challengers.

The amount of support the local GOP is giving those candidates won’t be publicly known until early 2022. In odd-numbered years, political parties are only required to file financial disclosure forms with the state at mid-year and at the end of the year.

Current and former Republican officeholders have given to multiple challengers — the primary exception being Ciparro. State Sens. Richard Briggs, Randy McNally and Becky Massey, state Rep. Justin Lafferty, and former County Mayor Mike Ragsdale donated to Klonaris’ campaign. County Commissioner Kyle Ward and County Clerk Mike Hammond supported at least one of the challengers. Former state Rep. Martin Daniel gave mostly to the challengers, but made a donation to Roberto as well.

Some support has come from outside Knox County. State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and the Conservative Club of Tellico donated to Murphy’s 1st District bid. 

The Knox County Democratic Party did not formally endorse any candidate, but party leaders and officeholders past and present have lined up for the incumbents. Among them are congressional candidate and former County Commissioner Mark Harmon, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, and former state Rep. Bill Owen

For the most part, former city officials are supporting the incumbents. Former mayors Mayors Madeline Rogero and Daniel Brown, along with former Council members Wallace, Duane Grieve, Brenda Palmer, Marshall Stair, Finbarr Saunders, Mark Campen, Barbara Pelot, Larry Cox and Carlene Malone all gave to at least one and in most cases several incumbent candidates. Former Councilman Nick Pavlis, however, is a Klonaris supporter.

A handful of political action committees (PACs) are involved in the election. Most prominent among them is the local Scruffy Little City PAC, founded by Republican political consultant Erik Wiatr. Scruffy Little City is working with every challenger to some degree. 

Scruffy Little City’s involvement is counted as in-kind contributions in the candidates’ financial disclosure forms. The PAC has contributed at least $13,605 in services to the five challengers, ranging from $1,465 to Ciparro’s campaign to $4,115 to Murphy’s. 

Other PACs wrote checks instead of providing services. PACs supporting incumbents were: The Knoxville Area Association of Realtors PAC (McKenzie), Tennessee Laborers PAC (Roberto), Democratic Women’s PAC (Singh), the Indian-American Impact Fund (Singh), and Women for Tennessee’s Future (Rider). The Building Industry PAC donated to two challengers (Holt and Klonaris).

The Businesses

Business leaders are split in this year’s election, and many gave to multiple campaigns. 

Klonaris had the most success raising money from businesses. More than a dozen business entities — including the Bed Store, the Liquor Barn, Kana Hotel Group, and Paratt’s Country Store — wrote checks to his campaign. Developers Scott Davis, Tony Capiello and Leigh Burch donated to Klonaris as well. Other business leaders who donated to him were Sam Furrow, Kevin Clayton and Oliver Smith IV.

Developers Scott Davis, Steve Maddox, Buzz Goss and Victor Jernigan, as well as restaurateurs Mike Chase and Randy Burleson, wrote checks to Holt. 

But incumbents snared a lot of business owners as well. Rider received donations from Brandon Pace, Raja Jubran, Bill Pittman, Ashley Capps, Pete Claussen, Alvin Nance and Cynthia Moxley, as well as developers Tim Hill and Daniel Shuh.

Brandon Bruce and Jubran, Pittman, Claussen and Hill gave to Roberto’s campaign. Developers Rick Dover and Jernigan donated to Singh. Hill, Burch, Jubran, Capps, Jeffrey Nash and Buzz Goss supported McKenzie’s campaign.

Roberto’s opponent, Kim Smith, received support from restaurateurs Chase, Burleson and restaurateur Chuck Ward, along with Roger Cunningham, owner of The Bed Store.

Nonprofit leaders tended to support the incumbents. McKenzie garnered support from Joyce Feld (Scenic Knoxville) and Phyllis Nichols (Knoxville Area Urban League); Dr. Stephen Smith (Southern Alliance for Clean Energy) donated to Singh’s campaign; and Stephen Smith, Feld, and Bruce Spangler (Volunteer Ministry Center) gave to Rider’s effort.