Primary 2023: City Council At-Large Seat A

Cameron Brooks and Lynne Fugate photo.

Primary 2023: City Council At-Large Seat A

Three candidates are on the ballot, but only two — incumbent Lynne Fugate and challenger Cameron Brooks — are waging active campaigns.

by scott barker • July 18, 2023
Cameron Brooks and Lynne Fugate photo.
Cameron Brooks (left) and Lynne Fugate.

When voters in this year’s Knoxville city primary look at their ballots, they will see three names listed for City Council At-Large Seat A, but only two are waging active campaigns.

Housing is a key issue for all three Seat A candidates.

Lynne Fugate, the incumbent, is facing challenges from Cameron Brooks, a Realtor and former Democratic Party chair, and political newcomer Darin Worsham.

Fugate and Brooks are mounting vigorous efforts, with both of them speaking to groups across the city and raising enough money from donors to fund citywide campaigns. Worsham almost dropped out of the race and is running a limited campaign because of health issues in his family.

Fugate narrowly defeated Charles Lomax Jr. — the margin was just 79 votes out of 23,109 cast — to win election in 2019. A former banker, she has focused on funding affordable housing and fiscal management during her nearly three years in office.

Brooks has built up a network of supporters from his days as a union organizer and political party leader. While this is his first run for office, he has considerable campaign experience.

Worsham is a territory regional manager for American Welding and Gas who has not run for office before.

Brooks and Fugate both have robust fundraising operations. Brooks, who began raising money more than a year ago, has taken in nearly $58,000 during the course of the campaign, including $11,600 in loans he made to the effort. Fugate, who had $5,211 in leftover funds at the beginning of the year, raised close to $55,000 during the next six months. As of July 1, Fugate had $48,026 on hand and Brooks had $33,371.

In paperwork filed naming himself as his campaign treasurer, Worsham declared he would neither solicit nor accept election funds, and his 2nd quarter financial disclosure report indicates he has not.

The top two finishers in the Aug. 29 primary will move on to the general election. 

Lynne Fugate

Fugate has been involved in Knoxville civic life for more than three decades, a time frame book-ended by housing initiatives.

In the late 1980s, then-Mayor Victor Ashe appointed her to a committee that led to the creation of the Knox Housing Partnership, which develops affordable housing, and the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, now administered by the East Tennessee Foundation.

As a City Council member in 2021, she worked with Mayor Indya Kincannon’s administration and the advocacy group Justice Knox to establish the city’s Affordable Housing Fund, a binding commitment to spend at least $5 million a year over 10 years to help develop affordable housing.

“I'm really proud of that piece of work and legislation, because I don't think much like that's ever been brought forward by a Council person,” Fugate said during an interview at Panera Bread in Bearden.

Being a former banker, she said, enables her to move back and forth among her constituencies.

“I can speak the language of the service providers and the communities that have the need, but also speak the language of the lender and the developer as we're trying to create something that everybody can make work, and everybody could support,” Fugate said.

If she wins a second term, she said she will continue to work on housing. She’s especially interested in what’s come to be known as “missing middle” housing — duplexes, triplexes and small-scale apartment buildings in between single-family homes and large apartment complexes.

“There is a unique tension in that everyone thinks we need more housing and yet no one really knows where to put it,” Fugate said. “The missing middle piece doesn't quite fit in with our zoning codes, but it's the way neighborhoods in cities used to be built. So I think people would like it, it’s just the devil’s in the details.”

The key to making it happen, she said, is working on the front end by talking to residents and neighborhood associations to find solutions. 

A Greenville, S.C., native, Fugate, who turns 62 later this month, earned her finance degree from the University of Tennessee before moving back to her home state with her husband, Scott. They returned to Knoxville when she got a banking job, and she has  served on various nonprofit boards ever since. 

Fugate left banking to lead Nine Counties/One Vision, a regional effort at the turn of the century to produce a vision for development in East Tennessee. She served two terms on the Knox County Board of Education and is now the executive director of the Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians.

Fugate said the city is moving in the right direction in its approach to crime. She likes new Police Chief Paul Noel’s emphasis on community engagement. While she said enforcing the law is needed to keep communities safe, she also supports non-police violence interruption and reduction efforts.

“I think sometimes people want to argue it's one or the other,” she said. “Like we talked about in healthcare, there is a continuum of care, and there’s a continuum to make your community safe. And I think that you can't focus too much on one at the expense of the other.”

Polarization is frustrating to Fugate, who is often characterized as a Republican, though city elections are nonpartisan and she rejects the label. 

“I really think we should be evaluated by the body of our work,” she said. “I have said in Girl Scouts, even, we're not red or blue; we're Girl Scout green. When we label people as shortcuts not to get to know one another, it's the easy way out. It’s the way to make somebody ‘the other,’ and you don't govern a city by making people ‘the other.’”

Fugate said it’s unreasonable to expect to agree with anyone 100 percent of the time, and that it’s more important for Council members to do their homework, resist being an ideologue and listen to all sides of an issue.

“I have a proven track record of working with anybody and everybody in this city who wants to make it better,” she said.

Cameron Brooks

For Brooks, the most important issue facing the city is a combination of low wages and high poverty. The poverty rate is 21.3 percent and the median household income is $44,308. 

“I think there need to be more advocates, champions for working families in the middle class on the City Council,” he said during an interview at Likewise, a coffee shop in East Knoxville. “I think folks are struggling and have been struggling, and we need to do more.”

Brooks said city government has a role to play in attracting high-paying jobs but that officials aren’t talking about it. He said the mayor, leaders at the Knoxville Chamber and other leaders need to work together to hammer out solutions.

“I live in East Knoxville,” he said. “I think it's particularly acute in this community because I don't think there are many good job opportunities for folks that live over here. “

Related to jobs and income is another priority issue for Brooks — home ownership. A Realtor by profession, he noted that 53 percent of city residents are renters and that it takes an income of around $90,000 to afford the median-priced house in Knox County. 

“Clearly, a lot of people are getting priced out of the market,” Brooks said. “For us to have a healthy middle-class economy, government at least needs to be talking about how do we get our homeownership rate going in the other direction.”

Brooks would like to see the city be more active in acquiring dilapidated properties, renovating them, and selling them at affordable prices to families.

Originally from Bristol, Brooks moved to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee. He became active in the living wage campaign at UT and became an organizer with the United Campus Workers, which he continued after graduation.

“We started out with 18 members back in 2003, and when I left we had over 1,2oo or 1,300 people that were part of the United Campus Workers. I've always been about organizing and building things,” he said.

Brooks, 45, served on the Knox County Election Commission, and is a former chair of the Knox County Democratic Party and a former member of the Democratic State Executive Committee.

“I make no bones about it, I'm a Democrat,” he said. “But I really do believe in bipartisanship. Over the years I've had personal relationships with Republicans in office that I'm friends with. I don't agree with them on politics … you’ve got to work to make things happen and you can't be too overly partisan.”

Brooks and his husband, Wes Knott, live in East Knoxville, and he said it’s important to note that Knoxville voters have never elected an openly gay man to City Council. 

“I first came out of the closet in 2000, and I've seen how things have gotten so much better than it was when I was growing up,” he said. “I think having representation from groups that in the past have not been part of it is important.”

Brooks isn’t overly critical of the Kincannon administration or the current City Council, but said last year’s property tax increase was too high and increased housing costs. He also has few criticisms of the Police Department, saying that his neighbors in East Knoxville want to feel safe from crime.

“There's a real need to do more community policing where officers build trust with the communities and the people living there feel they can trust their officers to keep them safe,” he said. “I think that the Police Department and the new chief’s working to do that, but I think more can always be done.”

Brooks said that people he’s meeting on the campaign trail are concerned about homelessness, especially about encampments in and around their specific neighborhoods. 

“Everyone says they want to address homelessness, but the one thing that I think is desperately needed is a mental health facility that's funded by the state here,” he said. ‘I don't think that would solve all of it. That would make a huge difference.”

For Brooks, serving on City Council would be an extension of his advocacy work. “As an organizer,” he said, ‘I want to take some of that advocacy and bring it to the Council.” 

Darin Worsham

Worsham got into the race at the urging of a friend and the encouragement of his wife. He intended to withdraw when his father, who is battling cancer, took a turn for the worse, but missed the deadline. In a phone interview, he said he’d run a limited campaign.

Darin Worsham photo

Darin Worsham

A plainspoken man with a blue-collar background, Worsham said his decision to skip fundraising, which was made before he decided to step back from campaigning, was a matter of common sense.

“I don’t want to buy votes, and I don’t think I should spend money on a cardboard sign I’ll throw away in 60 days,” he said.

Worsham said city government often has its priorities mixed up. As an example, he pointed to the Kincannon administration pushing the proposed pedestrian bridge instead of doing more about homelessness.

“The city puts the wants ahead of the needs,” he said.

According to Worsham, homelessness has been getting worse, despite the resources put into the issue. “Homelessness is out of control,” he said. “Affordable housing goes hand in hand with part of it.”

The city should do a better job of identifying the subgroups of the homeless population — veterans, those with mental illness and what he calls “professional homeless people” — and get them the appropriate care they need.

Worsham was born 50 years ago at St. Mary’s Hospital, grew up in Northwest Knoxville and graduated from West High School. He became a master mason, then switched to driving trucks after an injury that required surgery. 

He began working at American Welding and Gas in November 2018, and said he’s helped turn the company’s Knoxville office around. He and his wife, Samantha, have five children and live in the Amherst community.

Worsham’s top issues are homelessness and crime. He blames the Kincannon administration for many of the city’s ills, but hasn’t offered any prescriptions to address them.

“You can’t make promises you can’t keep,” he said. “I’m not that kind of guy.”

Worsham said he hasn’t met Knoxville Police Chief Paul Noel, but questioned the wisdom of bringing him from New Orleans to lead the Knoxville Police Department.

“I wish they would have hired a police chief from within instead of out of state,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talented people in KPD.”

Worsham said the recent raises approved for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office would entice KPD officers to “jump ship.”

Low pay is a problem in both government and the private sector, according to Worsham. He said he visits 10-15 businesses a day during his rounds at work and all of them are having trouble filling open positions, even when offering good wages.

Worsham makes no pretense of mastering all the intricacies of city government or the problems that need to be solved. But he said that City Council should focus on big-picture priorities — homelessness, affordable housing and wages.

“Fix those,” he said, “and the others will fix themselves.”

Worsham joked that he is the “none of the above” option on the ballot for Seat A, but said his experience managing businesses would be one reason to vote for him.

“I’m good at turning businesses around,” he said. “I don’t like to fail and I don’t want the city to fail.”