Incumbents Roll to Victory

Incumbents Roll to Victory

City voters re-elect five Council members over GOP-backed challengers in an unusually partisan election.

by scott barker • November 3, 2021
Knox County Democratic Party Chair Matt Shears and 4th District Councilwoman Lauren Rider celebrate the incumbents' victories Tuesday in the Knoxville city election.

Knoxville voters on Tuesday rejected the Knox County Republican Party’s attempt to seize a majority on City Council and re-elected the five incumbents by convincing margins.

Each of the incumbents garnered 55-58 percent of the vote in Tuesday's election.

The incumbents each received 55-58 percent of the vote in a nominally nonpartisan election that featured a partisan-fueled record turnout. No challenger reached 45 percent of the vote.

The Knox County GOP succeeded in turning the election into a partisan affair, but a majority of Knoxville voters — as they have in recent state and federal elections — remained steadfastly blue.

“The people have spoken,” Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie said. “The voice of reason has spoken. The people of Knoxville want to keep their elections nonpartisan.”

McKenzie handily defeated challenger Garrett Holt in the 6th District race, garnering 57.51 percent of the vote. The other incumbents reached similar numbers — Tommy Smith (1st District), 56.88 percent; Andrew Roberto (2nd District), 55.5 percent; Seema Singh (3rd District), 55.63 percent; and Lauren Rider (4th District), 55.66 percent. 

"The community wants people who look at each decision and base their decisions on the merits,” Rider said at a post-election gathering of the incumbents at the rooftop bar of the Hyatt Place downtown. “The opposition ran on dog whistles. And that's not what we do."

Newly elected Knox County GOP Chair Daniel Herrera made electing Republicans to City Council a priority in his first year. The five challengers — Holt, Elizabeth Murphy (1st District), Kim Smith (2nd District), Nick Ciparro (3rd District) and Jim Klonaris (4th District) — ran coordinated campaigns and hit the same talking points. They painted Knoxville as a crime-ridden city on the brink of economic collapse, and the GOP filled mailboxes with attack mailers painting the incumbents as radical socialists intent on ruining the city.

The incumbents, who ran independent campaigns and received support from the Knox County Democratic Party only in the election’s final weeks, said the negative strategy backfired.

“It’s hard to look at this city and say it’s terrible,” Tommy Smith said. “It’s important for people to support problem solvers.”

Rider agreed. "People like what they've been seeing happening in Knoxville,” she said. “They like the parks and the improvements and new housing. They like the improvements to the bus lines."

At their post-election party at the Press Room, a North Knoxville venue owned by Klonaris, the challengers and Herrera were defiant in defeat.

“This is not the end of an election cycle; it’s the beginning of a movement,” Klonaris told supporters.

Herrera said negative campaigning didn’t hurt the GOP-backed candidates, adding that the Republicans had ignored city elections in the past. “Our biggest disadvantage was our starting point,” he said.

Erik Wiatr, a GOP consultant who helped run all five challengers’ campaigns, agreed. “We ran faster than them, but not fast enough with the starting point they had.”

Matt Shears, chair of the Knox County Democratic Party, countered that his party had never participated in city elections in the past. The only reason the local Democrats got involved this year, he said, was “to repudiate the lies and misinformation the GOP put in play.”

Shears said the incumbents had a broad spectrum of support from Democrats, Republicans and independents. Singh agreed, saying voters are more concerned with character and competence than party affiliation.

“So many Republicans voted for us because they were looking at a functional body that knows how to get things done, knows how to agree and how to disagree,” she said of the incumbents. “So I'm proud of my city."

The GOP effort did succeed in boosting voter turnout in a city election — a longstanding concern among those active in local politics. According to unofficial results from the Knox County Election Commission, 21,739 people voted in the general election, the most ever in a city election without a mayor’s race at the top of the ballot.

“Anytime more voters turn out, it’s good for everybody,” Herrera said.

The people of Knoxville should be prepared for another partisan-themed election in two years, he said. “This is just the beginning,” Herrera vowed. “We are going to bring it again next time.”

Shears, his Democratic counterpart, noted that the increased turnout didn’t represent a change in the public’s attitudes toward city elections. “As much as they intended to make this partisan,” he said, “the people of Knoxville said, ‘No.’”

Tommy Smith said that’s because the people of Knoxville understand that local elections are about the circumstances people find themselves in on a daily basis, not ideology.

“Local government’s more about public service than politics,” he said. “This is about sidewalks, quality of life and neighbors.”