Election 2022: County Commission District 10

Dylan Earley and Larsen Jay

Election 2022: County Commission District 10

A well-funded Republican incumbent faces a Democratic newcomer for an at-large seat in a battle of two moderates.

by jesse fox mayshark • June 9, 2022

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Dylan Earley and Larsen Jay

Democrat Dylan Earley, left, is challenging Republican incumbent Larsen Jay.

There is only one incumbent running in the four County Commission races on the Aug. 4 general election ballot, and he entered the last three months of the contest with a sizable fundraising edge.

The at-large 10th District seat is elected countywide.

Republican Larsen Jay, first elected to the at-large District 10 seat in 2018, faces Democrat Dylan Earley, after surviving an intra-party challenge in May’s primary election.

Jay has staked out something of a middle ground on the Republican-dominated Commission, positioning himself as a pragmatic problem-solver rather than an ideological combatant. Earley — who at 26 is by far the youngest candidate on the August ballot — claims more or less the same from the other side, as a former Republican turned off by the party’s turn in the Trump era.

Jay’s positions on some issues, particularly his support of the county Health Department during the COVID-19 pandemic, cost him politically on the right and fueled the primary campaign against him by conservative newcomer Steve Weiner. But it probably gained him some crossover goodwill from Democratic voters in the primary, which Jay won with 57 percent of the vote.

Given both the countywide Republican lean and Jay’s considerable fundraising prowess — at the end of April he had $89,227.83 on hand, compared to $3,858.69 for Earley — the incumbent appears to be in a strong position.

One X factor in the race is widespread speculation that Jay may run for Knoxville mayor in next year’s city elections, which he has so far not confirmed or denied. For now, he says only that he is focused on his County Commission re-election.

The 10th District seat is one of two at-large positions on Commission — the other is the 11th District — meaning its occupant has both the responsibility and opportunity to represent the interests of the entire county population.

Here is a look at both of the contenders. (Much of the profile of Jay previously appeared in our coverage of his primary contest, although it has been updated for the general election.)

Dylan Earley

Earley has only to look around his own South Knoxville community to see the effects of what he sees as a housing crisis in Knox County — one of the key issues that motivated him to make a first-time political foray.

“I bought my house here for $125,000 in May of 2020,” he said. “Now, according to Zillow — and take what you see on Zillow with a grain of salt — its (value) is double that. It’s less than 1,000 square feet, two bedroom, one bath, on less than an acre in South Knox. And it would probably get $40,000 over asking. That’s happening everywhere.”

He feels fortunate to have bought before the spike in housing demand and prices of the past two years, but he said a middle-income household like he and his partner would have a hard time finding an affordable starter home now.

“The equity you develop as a homeowner is the gateway into so many other opportunities, and I think everyone deserves a fair shot at it,” Earley said. “Because at this point teachers, nurses, sheriff's deputies in Knox County simply don't make enough money to afford a home in Knox County.”

Earley is an East Tennessee native. He grew up in Greene County and graduated from West Greene High School, and attended college one county over at Carson-Newman University. He initially planned to go to law school, but after earning an undergraduate degree in history, he shifted career paths and wound up working for a mortgage company in Knoxville.

It was while servicing and originating loans that he came to understand the dynamics and challenges of the housing market. He now works in digital communications for an international data service housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is working on a master’s degree in strategic communications via an online program offered by American University.

Earley said he had never thought about running for office until recently, much less running as a Democrat. As a college student he identified as a Republican and even helped found the Greene County chapter of Young Republicans. But the nomination and election of former President Donald Trump troubled him. He said after he told the Greene County GOP chairman that he couldn’t support Trump, he was essentially told to quit the party.

“I said, ‘All right, I’ll see you later,’ and I left,” Earley said. “I spent the next several years kind of politically homeless.”

After moving to Knoxville, he met members of the local Democratic Party, whom he thought were advocating for issues and perspectives that more closely matched his own priorities.

“I still have some of my own issues with the national party,” he said, “but in Knox County I really felt like the Democratic Party had a home for moderates like me.”

So when the party was recruiting candidates for this year’s local elections, Earley said he felt comfortable putting a “D” by his name.

“I thought that I could be a centrist candidate as a Democrat, and be a centrist candidate that could represent the majority on both sides,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, I do believe that most of us are closer to the middle.”

But that doesn’t mean he lacks for strong opinions on local issues. On housing, for example, he charges that County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and the Republican majority on Commission are letting developers dictate the pace of growth and the kinds of housing being made available — which, he said, are outside the reach of most Knox County families.

“Increased inventory only works to (reduce) prices if you’re diversifying your inventory,” he said. “What we don’t seem to understand is that building only these high-end subdivisions out in the rural part of the county is not going to stabilize prices. It’s just not going to work.

“We’ve got to get an emphasis on mixed-use properties. We’ve got to look at refurbishing these empty buildings that are sitting all across the county, we’ve got to make actual infrastructure investments, and we’ve got to encourage developers to start building actual starter homes.”

Earley said he supports increasing pay for Knox County Sheriff’s Office deputies to try to address the department’s problems with recruitment and retention, and providing more funding to the school system for teacher salaries. He doesn’t believe a tax increase would be necessary to do either.

“We don't have to raise taxes, we just have to spend our money better,” he said. “We have to spend it smart, more efficiently. We're just not doing that. We're just prioritizing all the wrong things.”

He said that would start with challenging Jacobs’ proposed budgets more than the current Commission has been willing to do.

“I understand wanting to work together,” Earley said. “But at some point, you have to stop getting along, to actually pass some policies, pass some budgets that are good for the people of Knox County, and not good just for the political agenda of Mayor Jacobs or whoever the mayor is.”

Larsen Jay

Jay made clear from early on in his time on Commission that he wanted to get things done. In just his fourth month in office, he brought a proposal to his colleagues to extend and connect pedestrian and bicycle paths at the Cove at Concord Park — a popular but tricky county amenity built on both sides of busy Northshore Drive.

His presentation caught some colleagues by surprise and produced some grumbling about line-jumping in the county capital plan. 

“I came in with a lot of energy and ideas, and things that I'd like to make an impact on pretty quickly,” he acknowledged. “And I did get that pushback of sort of ‘Hey, new kid, settle down.’ But I just kept with it.”

He talked to people who lived in the neighboring communities, who enthusiastically supported the idea of better pedestrian access to the park. He worked with Jacobs’ administration to map out the project and made the case for funding it. As a result, early phases have already been built, with more to come.

“That is real, in the trenches,” he said with evident satisfaction. “I can see it, you can see it, we all saw where the money went. And we know the impact that it's going to make and how it's going to help that community.”

Before running for Commission in 2018, Jay founded and ran the nonprofit Random Acts of Flowers — which recycles flowers from various special events and other sources and sends them to people in local hospitals — and also worked in the film industry. He now works as director of business alliances for the accounting firm PYA.

Born on an Air Force base in Texas and largely raised in Syracuse, N.Y., Jay came to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee. He founded Random Acts of Flowers after falling off a ladder on a roof in 2007 and nearly dying. A long recovery in the hospital led him to understand how much small acts of kindness meant in that setting. His first deliveries were flowers from his own room to other patients.

On Commission, he said, his greatest motivation is to get things done for local communities. He has been a major force in promoting the county’s Water Trail along Beaver Creek, making the cross-county waterway more accessible and inviting to outdoor recreation.

He is also a proponent of the county’s current Advance Knox effort to update its General Plan and transportation plan.

“I think that good local leadership is super important, and there’s a lot of people that need help,” he said. “And they need a voice, they need somebody that will show up and help them and I take that as a great privilege.”

But if those kinds of problem-solving efforts are what appeal to him most about continuing on Commission, half of his tenure on the body has been marked by larger challenges and struggles.

Jay assumed the chairmanship of Commission in September 2020, six months into the local manifestation of the COVID pandemic and just as resistance to public health measures was beginning to gather momentum. Larger and angrier groups of residents appeared at Commission meetings every month, demanding an end to the county’s mask mandate and restrictions on some businesses, and calling for the abolition of the Board of Health.

By the end of the months-long fight over the Board of Health’s authority, Jay was often the sole Republican voting to support the volunteer board of medical experts, joined by Commission’s two Democrats. The board’s dissolution, along with changes in state law, placed ultimate public health authority in the hands of county mayors and the governor.

“It was a disagreement about, do you think the people with XYZ skill set ought to come together and collectively make decisions and have some checks and balances?” Jay said. “Or do you think that all of the health decisions should be put in the hands of one or two people? I had a difference of opinion on that.”

He said that what mattered to him throughout that fight was whether he was doing what was best for the community overall.

“Could I stand there and look someone in the eye and say, ‘This is why I made this decision?’” he said. “And could I look myself in the mirror and say that I didn't lie and I didn't play games, I've made the decision that I thought was best for the community? That’s all I can do. And sometimes that’s not very popular.”

And what about the persistent rumor, seized on by his opponent, that Jay is contemplating a run for city mayor next year? The speculation was further fueled when he spoke during public forum at a City Council meeting last month to oppose Mayor Indya Kincannon’s proposed property tax increase. 

“I will consider anything, but I have zero plans in the works,” Jay said. “I'm focused on being a good commissioner. If the opportunity presents itself on any level for local leadership, then I'll consider it.”