Election 2022: Knox County Mayor
After a first term that included tensions around the response to COVID-19, incumbent Glenn Jacobs seeks reelection against Democrat Debbie Helsley.
by jesse fox mayshark • June 30, 2022
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs is facing first-time candidate Debbie Helsley.
When Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs took office in 2018, he was famous as a professional wrestler but mostly unknown as a political player.
Speculation has already started about a possible Jacobs gubernatorial run in 2026.
His surprise win in a three-way Republican primary that year put him on track to take the highest executive office in county government, despite no experience in the public sector and a self-proclaimed libertarian’s distrust of it.
Now, Jacobs has a significant track record to run on as he seeks a second term. It has been a busy four years, marked by economic development efforts and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the latter, Jacobs maintained a consistent if not universally popular opposition to any and all public health mandates, including mask and vaccine requirements.
His retention of the Nashville-based Baker Group political consulting firm has fed widespread speculation that he is planning a future statewide race, possibly for governor in 2026. Jacobs is noncommittal on that topic, noting that he has to win his current election before thinking about anything else.
On the Aug. 4 county ballot, he is facing Democrat Debbie Helsley, a longtime local labor leader and Democratic Party officer. She easily won a three-way Democratic primary in May, taking 74 percent of the vote against community activists Tyler Givens and Bob Fischer.
Helsley appears to face long odds. Although she is fond of noting that Jacobs won the Republican primary in 2018 by just 23 votes, his performance in that year’s general election is the more telling indicator — he won by a 66-34 percent margin over Democrat Linda Haney, an edge of more than 25,000 ballots.
The partisan advantage carries over to fundraising. As of the end of April, Helsley reported $8,247 in campaign funds on hand to $91,837 for Jacobs, who faced no primary challenge.
Here’s a look at both candidates, starting with a review of Jacobs’ time in office. (Portions of the profile of Helsley were previously published in our primary coverage.)
Early in his tenure as mayor, Jacobs made clear that he wasn’t going to shy away from challenges. Just a month after taking office, he joined Sheriff Tom Spangler — also newly elected — in opposing a lawsuit brought by the county Law Department against the county’s pension system, which stood to potentially reduce pension payments to some Sheriff’s Office retirees.
That led to a convoluted legal battle which Jacobs ultimately won in court, asserting the right of the county mayor and County Commission to direct the Law Department’s litigation efforts.
Around the same time, Jacobs’ administration committed to finishing a task that previous County Mayor Tim Burchett had left dangling — moving Knox County Schools offices out of the Andrew Johnson Building so that the historic structure could be sold to private developers.
That necessitated a protracted effort to secure a lease on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s vacant East Tower, and to address the school administration’s concerns about the cost of the move. (As in the pension lawsuit, Jacobs’ primary obstacle was then-Law Director Richard “Bud” Armstrong, who made no secret of his distaste for the deal.)
Now, the school system offices are in the newly rebranded UT Tower on the TVA plaza, with the University of Tennessee’s system administration occupying the upper floors. Nashville developers BNA are finally preparing to purchase the A.J. Building and return it to its original use as a hotel.
“It saved us money at the local level,” Jacobs said of the deal during an interview earlier this week. “That was really to me a no-brainer.”
It took longer to persuade him of the benefits of a proposed downtown stadium to house the Tennessee Smokies, the minor league baseball team owned by local businessman and University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd. Jacobs said his philosophical leanings made him skeptical of public financing for the ballpark.
“What’s been lost in the stadium talk is the ginormous role the private sector is playing,” Jacobs said, referring to the $100 million in promised private investment around the site for a mix of residential and commercial uses. Boyd is also donating the property for the stadium and paying nearly $6 million of the construction costs, and the Smokies are signing a lease for $1 million a year.
“It would be one thing if we were talking about building a stadium and handing it over to someone and saying, ‘Here you go, here's a nice new stadium,’ which has happened in a lot of places around the country,” Jacobs said. “And that’s not what happened in this case.”
Construction of the stadium has been delayed for a year because of increased materials costs, but it is still on schedule to open during a second Jacobs term.
Asked to name his own most significant accomplishments, Jacobs focuses on two things: taxes and COVID.
“The thing that I'm most proud of is that I said that I wouldn’t raise taxes, and I didn't raise taxes,” he said. “That's a challenge nowadays, with inflation raging like it is. But I think it’s very important that people keep money in their pockets.”
On the handling of the pandemic, Jacobs said, “Whether you agree with me or not, through the pandemic, I stuck by my guns with stuff. I did my best to make sure that businesses stayed open, that people had the ability to choose how they responded to things.”
As a member of the county’s Board of Health, Jacobs was the only consistent no vote on mandates including mask-wearing and business hours of operation. He was often at odds on policy with his own health director, Dr. Martha Buchanan, who ultimately resigned.
Jacobs famously narrated a video produced by local Bed Store owner Roger Cunningham, which included the Board of Health among assorted “sinister forces” threatening Americans’ rights. (The video was withdrawn from public view after an outcry.) Less than six months later, the Board of Health was dissolved by County Commission and turned into a strictly advisory body.
Under state laws passed during the pandemic, most authority over public health mandates has been shifted to the governor and county mayors.
Knox County has seen its share of COVID casualties — as of last Saturday, 1,414 county residents had died during the pandemic, and 2,772 had been hospitalized. The county has a 59 percent vaccination rate, a bit higher than the overall state rate of 56 percent but well below the national rate of 67 percent. Tennessee has had the fifth-highest per capita deaths from COVID of all the states.
Jacobs has called the COVID vaccines “a miracle” but has also declined to say whether he is vaccinated himself, and has not conducted the kind of public campaigns for vaccination that some other elected officials have. He has urged people only to consult their doctors about the vaccines.
“I don’t have any reservations about anything I did during the pandemic,” he said. “And I would always encourage people to actually talk to the folks that know, instead of a politician.”
The pandemic also led to sometimes visible strains between Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, who took office in 2019. But Jacobs said he has a good working relationship with the more progressive city mayor.
“Actually, we work together very well,” he said. “The stadium project, our teams worked really closely on. There's been economic development projects that we worked really closely on.”
He also cited the new mental health treatment center being developed as a joint city-county project, with state support and management by the McNabb Center. “When we all went over to Nashville, it was Mayor Kincannon, Helen Ross McNabb, the hospital systems and myself, to talk to the governor about that. So that was definitely an all hands on deck effort.”
Jacobs’ term has also included the resignation of his former chief of staff, Bryan Hair, after an internal investigation raised questions about the use of county property. (Hair had a county-owned golf cart at his house, for apparently personal use. A video also surfaced of county employees doing yard work at Hair’s house.) Former Senior Parks and Recreation Director Paul White was fired in the same investigation, and has subsequently sued the county and Jacobs over his dismissal.
So it may be no surprise that asked about lessons from his time in office so far, Jacobs said, “It’s reinforced that you have to have good people. That’s the most important thing, you have to put a good team together.”
As to what he wants that team to do in a second term, Jacobs mentioned some specific projects — the completion of the skilled trades academy the county is partnering in with the Associated Builders and Contractors of Greater Knoxville; the further development of the Beaver Creek Water Trail as a recreational amenity; the continuation of his Read City USA program to promote family reading and childhood literacy.
But whether that term might also include a campaign for another office, Jacobs — who is now 55 — would not confirm.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I’m in the middle of a mayor’s race, that’s really what I’m focused on. And if I were to run for governor, I’d better do a good job as mayor anyway.”
Although the county Democratic Party didn’t officially support candidates in the May 3 primary race, Helsley was the de facto establishment party representative. She has long been active in party politics, both through her work with labor organizations and as an officer of the county party. (She has most recently served as secretary.)
Her campaign manager is Jack Vaughan, a field organizer for the Democratic Party who also ran re-election campaigns last year for City Council members Tommy Smith and Andrew Roberto.
Helsley, who is 68, describes herself as “a native South Knoxvillian and a proud product of the public school system.” She lives in the South Woodlawn area, where she was a founder of the neighborhood association and currently serves as vice president.
“I think neighborhoods are just tremendously important,” she said. “And they should be at the table when there are zoning issues.”
Helsley grew up in a union household. Her mother, Trula, dropped out of school before 9th grade and went to work at the old Knoxville Glove Factory on Blount Avenue. She was a member of Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
So it was natural that when Helsley went to work at BellSouth after graduating from South High School, she joined the Communications Workers of America. She became active in the union, and remained so after retiring from AT&T in 2004. She was president of CWA Local 3805 for 15 years, and also served as vice president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO.
“I think workers are important, and I think they get overlooked,” Helsley said. “And I think the pandemic really brought that to light. The pandemic did things that labor unions had a really hard time accomplishing over the years.”
She sits on the City of Knoxville Civil Service Merit Board and has served on the board of the United Way of Greater Knoxville.
She said she decided to run for mayor for a simple reason: “I think Knox County can do better.” She said she would work on encouraging sustainable growth and development and investing in infrastructure.
“Right now, the developers just seem to do whatever they want, and and then the homeowners who have been here forever are going, ‘What’s happening?’” Helsley said.
She cited a controversial proposed development in South Knox County’s Dry Hollow community as an example. County Commission approved a modified version of the project last month.
Helsley also promised to work to bring as much federal infrastructure money as possible to the county. She said funds are available and will go to communities that are ready to put them to work.
“We've got big time, big money coming from the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Jacobs doesn't even want to talk about,” Helsley said. “Well, we need to work with the Biden administration and get it down here.”
Unlike Jacobs, who has made explicit pledges not to raise taxes, Helsley said the county has to honestly assess its needs and consider what options it has to address them. She said taxes should be “a last resort.”
She suggested there were ways to access other state and federal funds, and that the county could prioritize better with the revenue it has. But, she said, “I don't have all the ins and outs of the county budget in front of me.”
On the baseball stadium, Helsley unsurprisingly thinks the city and county should have required an agreement with local labor unions to provide training and contractors for the project. But, she said, now that the deal is in place, the local governments have to make sure its benefits extend widely.
“I just think we need to embrace it and go with it,” she said. “It’ll be a net positive, let’s make it that. It’s not just Randy Boyd’s Smokies stadium. It’s going to be our soccer stadium. And you can use it for student events, farmers’ markets, whatever.”
Helsley appeared along with other local Democratic candidates at a rally for abortion rights last Friday, the day the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling was handed down. In an interview this week, she said, “I think a woman's right to choose, the majority of the people support that. My opinion on that has never changed. I guess, you know, I’m kind of tired of decisions for women being made by old white men.”
She added, “This can’t go anywhere good. Now you’ve got gay people (who) are petrified because they see marriage choice going out the window too.”