Election 2022: County Commission District 3

Stuart Hohl, Gina Oster

Election 2022: County Commission District 3

A Democratic newcomer and a Republican insider are running for a West Knox seat that’s long been in GOP hands.

by scott barker • July 5, 2022
Stuart Hohl, Gina Oster
County Commission District 3 candidates Stuart Hohl, left, and Gina Oster.

The two candidates vying for the open District 3 seat on Knox County Commission are relying on personal experience in their approaches to the major issues they see facing the community.

Running from Western Avenue west to the Pellissippi Parkway corridor, District 3 leans Republican.

Democratic candidate Stuart Hohl is married to a public school teacher, and emphasizes the importance of adequately funding Knox County Schools.

Gina Oster, the Republican standard bearer, would apply her experience in real estate to the myriad issues springing from rampant residential development in Knox County.

This is Hohl’s first run for public office. Oster has come close twice before, running unsuccessfully for school board and the 18th District state House seat.

The West Knox district they seek to represent contains neighborhoods inside and outside the Knoxville city limits. It stretches from Western Avenue to the Pellissippi Parkway corridor south of Hardin Valley Road, and includes Amherst, Dowell Springs, Cedar Bluff and Ball Camp. 

For the past eight years, the 3rd District has been represented on Commission by Randy Smith, a Republican who was unopposed in the 2014 general election and who took 61.5 percent of the vote in defeating Democrat Cody Biggs in 2018. Smith can’t run for reelection because of term limits.

The district shifted to the west after the 2020 Census, losing precincts inside the city limits to the east that are generally evenly split between the parties and gaining the Republican-leaning Precinct 70W around Ball Camp to the west. The realignment shouldn’t substantially alter the district’s partisan split, which has long been in the GOP’s favor.

Hohl started out way behind on fundraising. He had $5,343 on hand at the end of April, when the last financial disclosure reports were released, but said last week he has since raised about $26,000. That would put him where Oster was in April, when she reported having $28,204 available — but she, too, has been raising more since then.

Here is a look at the two candidates. (Portions of the profile of Oster previously appeared in our coverage of the primary election.)

Gina Oster

Oster, 53, trounced Nick Ciparro in the GOP primary, garnering 72.4 percent of the vote. She said she looks forward to using her real estate experience in tackling growth and development and she sees herself as a mediator between the development community and residents.

“I feel like as a Realtor, I really have a unique skill set to be able to sit on Commission,” she said. “I understand development, and I'm hoping to be able to work with developers and work with the community members and be able to kind of nail together what’s going to be best for Knox County.”

Knox County has begun a comprehensive land use and transportation planning effort called Advance Knox, which aims to address long-term growth issues. Ost​​er said responsible development is needed so Knox County can grow without losing its character.

“We're going to kind of take the bull by the horns at this point, and really kind of deal with it,” she said. “Because we can't kick the can down the road any farther. We're going to be light years farther behind than what we are right now.”

Oster also said she would like to see teachers and law enforcement officers get better pay so they don’t have to take extra jobs to make ends meet, adding that the county needs to continue to increase revenues. She said developm​​ent is need​​ed to expand the tax base without raising property taxes.

“Obviously, being a conservative Republican, raising taxes is definitely not something that is in my wheelhouse and that's not something I feel like is necessary at this point,” she said. 

Oster said she looks forward to solving problems facing 3rd District residents.

“I feel like I can affect my district a lot better on County Commission because I'm in the district every day,” she said. “And so part of it is, I really like to be able to solve somebody's problems, whether they have a road problem or a trash problem or neighborhood problems. It's something that I'm able to jump on and work on for them.”

One of the major district issues for Oster is flooding in the Cedar Bluff area, a longstanding problem. She said she wants to join the county’s ongoing efforts to find a solution.

“When we have really big rains, our homeowners on Dutchtown (Road) are being flooded,” Oster said. “And so it's obviously caused some problems in Cedar Bluff and around Catholic High School and in that area.”

This is Oster’s third bid for public office. In 2012, she lost by 390 votes to Doug Harris in the 3rd District school board race. Her interest in running for school board arose from her active role in the schools — she is a past president of the Cedar Bluff PTA and was active in the Knox County PTAs while her three sons were in school.

After losing to Harris, Oster pursued her career as a Realtor and got more involved in Knox County Republican politics, securing an appointment to the Knox County Sheriff’s Merit Council (more on that later). Two years ago, she ran against businessman Eddie Mannis in the GOP primary for the 18th District House seat.

Oster ran as a conservative and lost to Mannis, a more moderate Republican, by just 99 votes. Mannis survived two challenges to his credentials as a bona fide Republican, one by Oster after the primary.

Oster grew up in Karns and attended Pellissippi State Community College before getting married. Her husband, Stanton Oster, is a vice president with Quality Label & Tag Corp.  

Though Oster hasn’t held elected office, she is the chair of the appointed Sheriff’s Merit System Council, which is charged with protecting sheriff’s employees from political pressure or punishment and reviews job applicants for the Sheriff’s Office to ensure their qualifications.

Just last month, County Commission gave initial approval to a reform package that would expand the Merit System Council from three to seven members and severely limit the political activity of its volunteer members. Final consideration of the package is scheduled for later this month.

Oster will have to resign from the panel if she wins the Commission seat, but said she hopes the revamped panel will work well with the Sheriff’s Office. “The most important thing is to help protect the officers,” she said.

Going door to door in the district has revealed a need in the 3rd District, according to Oster.

“There’s a disconnect between our representatives and their constituents,” she said. “I want to forge those two back together.”

Oster said she would be a visible representative for the 3rd District, attending PTA, neighborhood and community meetings so her constituents would be able to bring her their concerns.

“I kind of see it as a team sport, frankly, and I've talked to constituents about it, because if you think about it, you plus me equals a successful district,” she said. “So we're all kind of in this game together, all sharing ideas and working together. And I think that our district can be amazing and strong, and that's the whole goal.”

Stuart Hohl

A political newcomer who had no opposition in the Democratic primary, Hohl, 31, said in a recent interview that he’s a problem-solver who is seeking office to give back to the community.

“The main reason I'm running is because I want to bring politics back to something pragmatic, that works with people, that is about real, local issues,” he said. “And I figured after years of wanting someone to step up and do it, that if I didn't do it, I don't know how I could expect anyone else to, and we figured we'd go for it.” 

Hohl said the biggest, most vexing issue facing Knox County is growth and development. Much of the land in the 3rd District has already been developed, he noted, but growth affects all county residents. He asserted that the county’s quality of life is at stake.

“It's such a complex issue that is compounded by the fact that the county is so far behind on the demand for housing,” Hohl said. “Catching up has a lot of challenges. I think this is a very important decade for the future of this county. If we don't make some decisions when it comes to how we're improving our zoning in the communities we're trying to build right now, our kids are not going to love Knox County the way we love Knox County.” 

Hohl said the Advance Knox planning process is great for community involvement, if a little late to address immediate problems.

“I think we all would agree that if we could have done this earlier, it would have made more sense,” he said. “You know, five, six years ago, we could have been a little ahead of the game. But it's better late than never.”

As the husband of a public school music teacher, Hohl said he’s concerned about education in Knox County on two fronts: competitiveness in academics and in salaries for educators. He lamented the loss of good teachers to other systems and recent attacks on the teaching profession. (His comments came just as news reports circulated that Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn made disparaging remarks about teachers at a joint appearance with Gov. Bill Lee, who did not dispute Arnn’s comments.)

“There's only so much I can do as a county commissioner — I have a lane to stay in,” Hohl conceded. “However, vocal support from local leaders is just as important as trying to make sure we have the budget and the resources to hand off to the school board so they can do the right things.” 

Given the current economic situation, Hohl said smart budgeting is a better way to make sure funding goes to the areas of highest need.

“People are really feeling the effects of all the inflation,” he said. “I don't think it’s responsible to advocate for increased property taxes. What I'd really like to do is take a serious look at a lot of our systems and our programs.” 

Like many Knox County residents, Hohl moved here to attend the University of Tennessee. He spent his early childhood in Rockingham, N.C., before his family moved to Franklin, Tenn. He majored in journalism and electronic media at UT, and since his senior year he’s been employed by Jupiter Entertainment, working his way up to post-production supervisor. Hohl and his wife Hilary have a 13-month-old son.

As he’s gone door to door in the district, Hohl said he’s heard concerns about increased traffic as Hardin Valley, which lies northwest of the 3rd District, continues to grow at a rapid pace. He said a lot of subdivisions in the district aren’t connected in a walkable way, and that more public spaces and greenways are needed. 

“I'd really like to be an advocate for that where it makes sense and make sure that this community has a place to gather,” he said. 

Hohl said residents also want to make sure the Knox County Sheriff’s Office has the resources it needs to keep neighborhoods safe. 

“I'm really looking forward to working with Sheriff (Tom) Spangler.” he said. “It's important to our community that we have a robust Sheriff's Office that is able to respond to crimes.”

Hohl said being accessible to the public is the key to being a strong representative for their interests.

“I tell everybody, ‘I will answer your calls, I will answer your texts, I'll answer your emails,’” he said. “And I want to put their voice into local government. It's not all about me; it's about what my constituents and what my constituents want.”

Partisanship, he said, shouldn’t be part of the equation.

“This campaign isn't about Democrats or Republicans, it's about the people that live here,” Hohl said. “It's not about tribalism; it's about having somebody in office who's not only accessible but also will listen and actually take their opinions into account as best as possible, and then make some decisions about where we need to move forward.”