Primary 2023: City Council At-Large Seat B

Photo of Council candidates Debbie Helsley and R. Bentley Marlow

Primary 2023: City Council At-Large Seat B

Housing is the number one issue for both candidates in the only race in this year’s election that doesn’t feature an incumbent.

by scott barker • July 20, 2023
Photo of Council candidates Debbie Helsley and R. Bentley Marlow
Debbie Helsley (left) and R. Bentley Marlow.

When Janet Testerman decided not to seek reelection for City Council At-Large Seat B in March, former union executive Debbie Helsley was left as the only candidate in the race. That held true until May 18, the deadline for filing petitions, when builder R. Bentley Marlow jumped into the fray.

Both candidates are assured of moving on to the general election in November.

The two will square off in the city primary, but since there are no other candidates, both are assured of moving on to the general election.

The contest is the only race in this year’s election without an incumbent. Helsley has run for office before, while Marlow is new to elective politics.

Last year, Helsley was the Democratic candidate challenging incumbent Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. Running as a Democrat in a countywide race is an uphill battle these days, and Helsley lost by a respectable 10.6 percentage points. More significantly, she won handily in precincts inside Knoxville city limits.

Marlow has been active behind the scenes for years, urging city officials to make it easier for developers to get projects approved. 

Helsley had a head start on fundraising, beginning in October of last year shortly after the county election. She has raised nearly $42,000 during the course of the campaign and after expenditures had $21,730 on hand as of June 30.

Marlow, however, gained ground rapidly, thanks to a $6,500 loan he made to the campaign and contributions from others in the real estate industry. Testerman donated to his campaign as well. He raised $14,390 in just six weeks and had $7,924 left at the end of June.

Though the primary will not be definitive, it will give the candidates — and the electorate — a benchmark for where the candidates stand heading into the general election.

Debbie Helsley

For Helsley, running for a seat on City Council is an extension of a lifetime spent in union leadership and neighborhood advocacy.

“I am running because I've always worked in the community,” she said. “I want to keep Knoxville moving in the right direction, and as long as I’ve got time left on this earth, I’ve got time.” 

Helsley said it’s no secret that housing affordability is by far the biggest issue facing the city.

“I use ‘housing affordability’ rather than ‘affordable housing’ because we do need affordable housing, obviously, but we have to get some housing stock to get the prices down to where other people can buy houses, too. It's not necessarily poor people.”

Helsley said “missing middle” housing — developments that are sized between single-family houses and large apartment complexes — will end up being part of the solution. She said the city’s major corridors would make ideal locations for missing middle housing.

“You can build on corridors because a lot of people would like public transportation,” she said, adding that some major roadways could use the development. “Chapman Highway looks almost exactly today like it did when I was a kid.” 

Helsley, 69, grew up in a union household in South Knoxville. After graduating from South High School, she joined the Communications Workers of America and stayed active with the union beyond her retirement 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. She was the founding president of her neighborhood association and has served on the city’s Civil Service Merit Board and the board of directors of the United Way of Greater Knoxville.

Helsley’s campaign manager is Jack Vaughan, who ran her bid for county mayor last year and the successful reelection campaigns of City Council members Tommy Smith and Andrew Roberto in 2021.

She said her race against Jacobs last year was closer than a lot of people thought possible and reinforced what she had learned from working on numerous campaigns for other candidates.

“Meeting people where they are is absolutely the way to go,” Helsley said. “Door knocking and meeting them in their neighborhood and listening to their concerns is the number one most effective way to get to know people.”

Crime is on the minds of many people she talks to when going door to door, and she thinks new Police Chief Paul Noel has the Knoxville Police Department moving in the right direction.

“Public safety is hugely important,” Helsley said. “If you don't feel safe, it's terrible.”

As a former union official, she approves of the new pay scales and raises for city employees, especially police officers, that took effect last year.

“If you're gonna be a policeman, and you're gonna put your life in your hands every single day when you never know if you're gonna come home, they need to be paid pretty dang well,” she said.

Helsley said she wants the new stadium to be successful, though, as would be expected, she would have preferred that the project used local labor unions in the construction. The key now, she said, is to manage it wisely.

“Obviously, it's going to bring people to Knoxville, and Knoxville needs some kind of destination for people to come to,” Helsley said.

She is less enthusiastic about the proposed pedestrian bridge across the Tennessee River between the University of Tennessee campus and the South Waterfront.

“I would really have liked to have seen some input meetings from the people that live there,” Helsley said. “I just think that if you're going to send a bridge over into a neighborhood, it seems to me like the people in that neighborhood should at least have a say.”

She’s a big proponent of public meetings to gather opinions of residents. “I don't see how they hurt anything,” she said. “Let people have their say. Even if you don't do what they say, just let them say it. They’re taxpayers — let them talk.”

Helsley supports the city’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and noted that many residents bring up climate change when she’s out campaigning. She said the city should work with residents to plant more carbon-absorbing trees.

Helsley said the city should find the dollars to address homelessness with a greater push for the “housing first” model of care.

“People are homeless for myriad reasons,” she said. “Generally, most of them are some form of addiction or mental illness, but then there's medical bankruptcies, there's people living in their cars. The way to handle that is through permanent supportive housing, which is really expensive.”

Helsley said she’s wary of setting lofty goals for service on Council; constituents should set the agenda.

“I’m a Knoxville native,” she said. “I love Knoxville, and I want to have a Knoxville that works for all people.”

R. Bentley Marlow

Marlow the candidate is difficult to separate from Marlow the builder. He began renovating dilapidated houses in Mechanicsville, the blue-collar historic neighborhood just north of Interstate 40 from downtown, in the early 2000s. He reckons he has invested around $8 million in the neighborhood.

“I’ve got 8 million reasons to want to be concerned about and follow Council, and I've been going to almost every meeting … and sat through budget hearings for the last two years,” he said during an interview at his campaign headquarters in Mechanicsville. “I feel like I'm reasonably well prepared. And I think that I have a unique background.”

His background as a general contractor restoring one house at a time has given him insight into how to improve the processes for development, he said, particularly residential housing. Housing is his top priority, almost to the exclusion of other issues.

Marlow wants to get the city to streamline its plans review procedures and align the meetings of various boards to make going through the approval process easier. 

One of his more recent causes is missing middle housing. A consultant has recommended the city make changes to its zoning code to encourage more missing middle housing, but so far the city has not acted on the report’s recommendations.

Frustrated by what he sees as the slow pace of the Kincannon administration’s response to the report, Marlow has submitted a proposal to the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission — at his own expense — for changing the city zoning code to make it easier to get approval for duplexes, triplexes and cottage court developments. 

Marlow, 42, took a roundabout path to real estate development. He was born in Knoxville but grew up in the Homestead community of Cumberland County. He attended Tennessee Tech University, but later transferred to the University of Tennessee, where he earned a philosophy degree. 

Marlow took a job teaching English in Korea, and then traveled through Asia and Europe. After he returned to the states, he started on a graduate philosophy program before going to Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham.

Instead of practicing law, however, Marlow started buying and renovating houses in Mechanicsville. 

“I was naive and thought that this neighborhood just needed a champion, so I wrote letters and nothing changed,” he said. “And then it's like, well, maybe I'll just buy this crack house. And I bought it and fixed it. And then I bought another one, fixed it. I bought another one, fixed it.” 

For Marlow, who still lives in Mechanicsville, revitalizing the neighborhood is more than a business.

“I sort of straddle the fence of both a neighborhood activist and the developer,” he said. “I see a way for development and neighborhoods to coexist peacefully. They did for many, many years. It's only been in the post-1950 era that we've really got this divide between developers over here, and they're the antithesis of neighborhoods. And really, it takes both.” 

Marlow’s campaign ran headlong into controversy last month when people became aware of past Facebook posts referring to people who are homeless as “vermin” and calling for them to be euthanized. He apologized, though in a news release he said that homeless individuals have assaulted him and stolen thousands of dollars worth of equipment from his worksites.

Asked if he had an actual policy proposal for homelessness, he said it’s a complicated problem.

“At the heart of the issue, it’s a mental health problem,” he said, emphasizing the need to replace Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, which the state closed a decade ago. “The city can't possibly fund a psych hospital. We're going to work with our state representatives. We're gonna need to work with the feds.”

Marlow, who has accompanied city work crews clearing out homeless encampments, also said that people who are homeless need to be held accountable for their actions. 

“The folks living under the bridge, the chronically homeless, are never going to go into the shelter if they're being catered to,” he said. “And I find that that's probably worse than doing nothing, because you're just prolonging this suffering and these unsafe and unsanitary conditions. I don't have the answers, but I think that it's time we have a very serious conversation about it.”

Marlow also believes that the pay increases given city employees last year that were funded through a property tax increase are insufficient to attract new workers, especially for the police and fire departments. 

“We have sort of stopped the bleeding on leaving and retiring, so the retention rates are a little bit better, but it's still not sustainable,” he said.

Marlow said the city needs to reassess its priorities, focusing on expanding the tax base — he’s a strong supporter of the new stadium in the Old City — and essential services. 

“Maybe we slow down a little bit on creating more greenways, maybe we slow down on planting more trees, because I think fire and police are a little bit higher on the list of priorities.” he said.