Election 2022: County Commission District 11
Contending for an open at-large seat are two women with backgrounds as community advocates.
by jesse fox mayshark • June 23, 2022
Democrat Vivian Shipe, left, is running against Republican Kim Frazier.
The two leading candidates for the at-large 11th District seat on Knox County Commission have more in common than you might think if all you know is that one is a Democrat and one a Republican, one African-American and one white.
It's the only countywide race this year with two women on the ballot.
Both Vivian Underwood Shipe, the Democrat, and Kim Frazier, the Republican, are making their first runs for elected office. But both are also already familiar faces at local public meetings and have been deeply engaged in community advocacy for years.
Both have created organizations to further causes they care about. And both are women, which makes this race the only countywide contest this year between two female candidates.
The 11th District seat is currently held by Commission Vice Chair Justin Biggs, who is not seeking reelection because he is running for county trustee.
Since the at-large 10th and 11th district seats were created by a charter amendment in 2008 and first elected in 2010, no woman or Democrat has held either of them. At least one of those will change in this cycle. Should Shipe win, she would also be the first Black candidate elected countywide.
In their campaigns, both candidates are emphasizing the issues that have driven their advocacy efforts to date. For Frazier, those are questions of growth and development and how the county can balance both of them with quality of life for its residents. For Shipe, they are issues of social and economic inequality, particularly focused on housing, mental health and education, though like Frazier she also prioritizes “responsible development.”
Frazier would appear to have several advantages going into the Aug. 4 county general election — she is a Republican, she has already won a countywide contest in the May 3 GOP primary, and she had $19,552 in campaign funds on hand at the end of April, to $916 for Shipe. But Shipe, who is accustomed to facing long odds in her community work, said she is undaunted.
There is a third candidate on the ballot, Donald Bridges, running as an independent. However, he does not appear to be running an active campaign. His campaign Facebook page is nearly blank, he has not reported raising or spending any money, and he did not return messages seeking an interview.
So here is a look at the two major party candidates. (Portions of the profile of Frazier previously appeared in our coverage of the primary election.)
Frazier won one of the hardest-fought races in last month’s Republican primary, defeating a better funded opponent in newcomer Devin Driscoll. Driscoll had financial backing from many establishment Republicans along with developers and homebuilders. But Frazier leveraged her decade of activism and her connections with community and homeowners’ groups across the county to take a 57-43 percent victory.
Her engagement with local politics started where it does for many people: at her children’s school, in this case Hardin Valley Elementary.
“When they were in kindergarten and first grade, I went to school to have lunch with them,” she said. “And I was told, ‘You need to be in the classroom because we're overcrowded and we’re adjusting classrooms for lunch tables.’ I asked, ‘When will my 5-year-old eat lunch?’, and they said, ‘10:45.’ So I started asking a lot of questions.”
Those questions led her from teachers to administrators to county government officials, and she found none of the answers heartening.
“In a few months, I realized that we were getting on the wrong path — that Knox County had no plan, and no vision,” Frazier said. “And the plan they did have was 20 years outdated.”
As she came to understand, the once bucolic, rural corner of West Knox County that she and her husband had moved to in 1996 had become ground zero for the county’s collision of growth, infrastructure and planning.
“Growth is good, when you can support it with adequate infrastructure,” Frazier said. “So that's something that the county needs to work on if we want to continue to see the type of growth that we’re experiencing. We kind of back into our infrastructure improvements, we’re very reactionary, and it's time to be more proactive. We’re spending way too much on Band-Aid fixes.”
Frazier, who is 49, grew up in the kind of unspoiled setting that Hardin Valley used to be — on a 120-acre farm in Huntsville, Ala., “with family on every corner.”
“I had the childhood that everyone deserves and very few get to experience,” she said. “Growing up, I learned the value of community and working together, very early on. And the importance of hard work. My dad really made sure my sister and I knew the importance of putting faith first, family, and being financially independent, not having to depend on anyone but yourself.”
With a Junior Miss academic scholarship and “two or three part-time jobs,” Frazier worked her way through the University of Alabama in Huntsville, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She also met her husband, Russ Frazier, a doctor who was doing his residency at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. They married and settled happily in Knox County.
“I immediately loved the people here,” Kim Frazier said. “Everyone I met just embraced me. And I knew I could see very easily this being my forever home. Even though all of my family's in Alabama, I just knew this is where we were meant to be.”
She worked as a healthcare administrator, a human resources director and a nonprofit consultant. And then she started paying attention to local government. She drilled into what made it work or not work. She spent hours at public meetings — at a Commission candidate forum in March, she estimated she had attended 400 community and planning meetings in the past seven years.
Frazier co-founded a group called Hardin Valley Planning Advocates to, as the name suggests, advocate for better planning in Hardin Valley. She spoke at a lot of Planning Commission and County Commission meetings. She became versed in the language and laws of planning and zoning. She became someone developers both respected and resented, because she sometimes won concessions from them.
“And then through the process and through getting involved locally with county and community meetings, we started meeting other people throughout the county who were experiencing the same issues,” Frazier said. “And so then we formed the Knox County Planning Alliance.”
KCPA brings together representatives of homeowners’ groups, conservationists, and other community organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Knoxville-Knox County.
“I see where we're easily kind of put into a box that we're anti-development,” Frazier said. “We’re not. We want responsible, intentional development projects that offer diverse housing options, amenities, subdivisions that add value back to the community beyond just housing.”
She believes the county needs to invest more money in infrastructure, both to maintain existing schools, roads, bridges and drainage systems and to build new where needed. But how to generate the revenue that would take, and balance it against other needs, remains to be determined.
“It is a balance, and it will be a collective effort to look at what we need to do,” Frazier said. “I mean, I don't have those answers. What I can do is start those conversations, and include citizens — who are weary — in that conversation, and bring people to the table and hopefully seek realistic short- and long-term revenue goals with real outcomes.”
That raises the question of whether the county should consider a property tax increase, which has not happened this century. After a downward adjustment to account for growth in the county’s new reappraisal, the county’s tax rate next year will be well under $2 per $100 assessed, down from $3.32 in 1999.
“Increasing taxes or implementing new taxes should be a last resort,” Frazier said.
She called the county’s current planning update effort, Advance Knox, a “Hail Mary” to find creative ways to grow without overwhelming local resources. She serves on the Advance Knox community advisory committee.
“It will help us identify strategies and goals for our future,” Frazier said. “I can foresee us looking at planned growth areas differently where infrastructure is present. We can increase density, encourage mixed-use. Because property tax is our biggest revenue source. We've got to grow, we've got to build houses. But how we grow is as important as if we grow.”
Vivian Underwood Shipe
Shipe was born and grew up in Knoxville, one of six children in a family that valued and practiced community service.
“My mother and father raised us to be civil servants,” she said. “My dad was one of the first Blacks hired for the Postal Service (in Knoxville). My mother, she came from the country. She lived up in Hoop Creek and Morristown, she used to teach school up there in a one-room schoolhouse. From her, that's how we learned that people learn different ways. And she and my father both always decreed that we would be college graduates. We knew that when we were little, like 4 and 5 years old.”
Shipe graduated from Austin-East High School in 1973, where she had her first experience with advocacy. The school had recently been integrated, and the Black students felt underserved by their predominantly white teachers and administration.
“In the beginning, we got all the used books from other schools,” she said. “So we walked out of school. We walked out because we wanted books like everybody else, we wanted some Black teachers and we wanted a Black principal.”
Their effort was successful — the school system (then run by the City of Knoxville) appointed Jimmie Thacker as principal, a post he held for a decade. When Shipe went on to the University of Tennessee, she was among the students who fought for the establishment of a Black Cultural Center on campus. It opened in 1975.
Professionally, she followed in the Postal Service footsteps of her father, whom she still speaks of with reverence.
“My father was a Korean War and World War Two veteran, and he was a graduate of Knoxville College,” Shipe said. “But when he started at the post office, he started as a janitor. He took a lot of abuse back in those days from people that knew he was a college graduate, teasing him about being a janitor with a college degree. But he moved from there to being a mail handler to being a carrier on the street.”
He also became president of the local postal workers’ union — a trajectory Shipe followed when she joined the Postal Service. During her 35 years as a postal worker, she also became head of the union.
“I used to watch my dad come (home from work), go upstairs in janitor gear or mail handler or whatever he was working as,” she said. “And he would come back downstairs in a three-piece suit with his shiny black shoes and a briefcase, and then he would go and defend and be a voice for those that needed an advocate.”
Shipe’s broader community advocacy was partly driven by tragic personal experience. She has three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. One of her sons developed schizophrenia in his 20s and she watched him struggle with homelessness and incarceration because of a lack of resources and treatment options.
That prompted her to form an organization called “I Am” the Voice of the Voiceless. The quotation marks are important.
“I was trying to find help for my son, and the Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Go before them and tell them I sent you,’” Shipe said. “I said, what do you mean? He said, ‘Tell them ‘I Am’ sent you.’ He said, ‘You shall go before the kings and queens and you will be the voice for my people.’ So when you see ‘I Am’ the Voice of the Voiceless, ‘I Am’ is the Lord and the voice of the voiceless is me.”
Shipe has abided by that command, appearing not before kings and queens but City Council and County Commission, mayors and police chiefs, anyone she thinks can and should be providing resources to people in need.
Her advocacy helped push the city and county to collaborate with the state and the McNabb Center to open the Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center, a jail diversion program for people with mental illness.
She has advocated for the elderly residents of the Five Points area of East Knoxville, pushing for bus shelters along Magnolia Avenue so they don’t have to stand out in the sun waiting for their ride. She worked for the 2020 Census effort, spreading the word and urging people to make sure they were counted. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has worked to encourage vaccination among lower-income communities.
“Right now I’m a navigator for the Urban League, trying to get people to get their shots,” Shipe said. “Because, you know, it hasn’t gone away.”
Since her retirement from the Postal Service, Shipe said she has been looking for the right opportunity to run for office. The open 11th District seat presented her with one.
“I wanted to get on the other side of the podium,” she said. “Because trying to fight for all the different issues, people come to me all the time and about different things, I said OK, let me think about how can I serve.”
She is focusing her campaign on five priorities: education, responsible development, mental health, sustainability and affordable housing. Although she is running as a Democrat, she chose purple as her campaign color because she said she wants to bring people together.
“The only way you can make purple in this world is you have to mix red and blue,” Shipe said. “We’re running a human platform, we’re not running a divisive platform. You’ll never hear me or anyone on my team, we’re not going to run a negative (campaign).”
She said she wants to see more collaboration among local entities and institutions like the one that produced the behavioral health center.
“I want to see us partner as city and county, I want to have satellite stations all over the city and county so that people can get the help they need,” Shipe said. “Where your money is is where your heart is. That’s your priority. We prioritized and we worked and we collaborated to get that (downtown) stadium. We need to do it with the same aggressiveness for mental illness.”