Primary 2023: City Council At-Large Seat C
Incumbent Amelia Parker faces stiff challenges from Planning Commission Chair Tim Hill and Change Center Executive Director Matthew Best.
In 2019, Amelia Parker barely finished first in a highly competitive primary and pulled off a tight victory in the general election to take the At-Large Seat C on City Council.
Parker has proven to be a staunch progressive voice frequently at odds with Mayor Indya Kincannon and a majority of Council members on numerous matters ranging from budget priorities to the new stadium.
She is facing challenges from two opponents — Tim Hill, a well-funded and well-connected developer with a record of public service, and Matthew Best, the highly regarded executive director of the Change Center.
Hill can be seen as the candidate of the city’s political establishment, with a broad base of support and the means to get his message of pragmatism out to voters across the city.
Best is young and engaging, positioning himself as an alternative choice for progressives who would prefer a more collegial representative who would work effectively with the majority of other Council members.
Parker has a core of passionate supporters, however, who propelled her to victory in her last election and could be the difference in an election that typically sees low voter turnout. And she has the advantage of incumbency.
Parker won in 2019 despite a considerable fundraising deficit. She is even farther behind this election.
Hill has raised an astronomical $211,781 during the course of his campaign, and had $129,722 on hand on July 1, more than all other Council candidates combined. Best has raised $27,635 and had $8,453 left in his account at the same point. Parker’s balance on July 1 was $6,464.
The top two finishers in the Aug. 29 primary will face each other in the November general election.
As the incumbent, Parker is running on her record, which is a mixture of occasional progressive successes and frequent statements of protest against the status quo. She has become a voice for the marginalized, and she is often — though not always — on the losing end of 8-1 or 7-2 votes.
Parker said in an interview at the Public House that she wants to make city government more representative of Knoxville’s diversity and increase voter participation by running a campaign for those who feel underrepresented.
“I'm hoping to be a part of a cultural shift in our city, where we have more active and engaged citizens engaged in their local government, a better understanding of their local government and how to get involved,” she said. “I want to help create a space where more people feel comfortable coming forward to tell their truth.”
Parker points to a resolution she sponsored early in her term, shortly after COVID-19 hit the community, that spurred a faster response to the pandemic from the city.
“The emergency response fund was one of the first victories,” she said. “I had an opportunity to champion where we were committing as a city to dedicate funding towards those in the most need before we identified federal dollars.”
One of Parker’s focal points has been the direction of the Knoxville Police Department. She was a founder of Black Lives Matter Knoxville and called for giving sharper teeth to the Police Advisory and Review Committee before the Legislature curbed cities’ ability to empower police oversight boards.
Parker was a critic of former Chief Eve Thomas and said the lack of public input on the hiring of Chief Paul Noel raised questions about transparency.
“This is a time to be more transparent about where we are, what we're doing and where we're trying to move, and I don't feel like we've done that,” she said. “It is a cultural shift that has to happen. That doesn't happen overnight. I hope that Chief Noel can help lead that process but I still have questions and concerns.”
Parker has advocated for more funding for affordable housing and has been a vocal opponent of clearing encampments set up by people experiencing homelessness.
Parker also has been a critic of the new $114 million multi-purpose stadium being built east of the Old City, calling it a “missed opportunity.” She unsuccessfully argued for a community benefits agreement for the project and plans to introduce legislation if re-elected to increase revenues for the city from stadium operations.
“We could have as a community felt some sense of ownership around this public stadium and gotten excited when we see big acts coming to the stadium,” she said, adding, “But that's not the case.”
For Parker, Knoxville leaders and residents shouldn’t be uncomfortable disagreeing with one another.
“Let's get excited that people are talking,” she said. “I want to be a part of that. I hope that I can take some beatings so that it'll be easier for somebody else in the future.”
Parker, 44, was born in Eastern Kentucky and moved to Knoxville with her family as a child in the 1980s. She graduated from South-Doyle High School. Parker earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative studies of race and ethnicity at the University of Tennessee and law degrees from American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C.
After studying abroad in the Netherlands and working for human rights organizations, she returned to East Tennessee in 2009 to run the grassroots organization Statewide Organization for Community eMpowerment (SOCM). She is the executive director of Peace Brigades International - USA, a human rights organization dedicated to nonviolent conflict resolution and social justice.
Parker is a founding member of the City Council Movement, a local progressive political group that has notched a pair of victories in city races — Councilwoman Seema Singh’s first win in 2017 and Parker’s victory four years ago. The group, which has run multiple candidates in previous elections, is not as active this year.
Parker first ran for office in 2017. In the primary, she finished in a tie with Harry Tindell for second place in the 4th District City Council primary, behind eventual winner Lauren Rider. Council broke the tie in Tindell’s favor, so Parker mounted a surprisingly strong write-in campaign in the general election, setting the stage for her electoral success in 2019.
If elected to a second term, Parker said she would continue pushing for transparency, particularly at KPD. The department is building a “real-time crime center” at the new Public Safety Complex that will monitor a network of cameras throughout the city. She said the city needs an ordinance to ensure transparency, in part by calling for the creation of a dedicated webpage to provide the public with details of the operations.
“A surveillance ordinance would give us a process where there's no guessing game,” Parker said. “We know where our dollars are going, where we're making the investments, how the technology is being used, and how the constitutional rights of our residents are being protected in that process.”
Parker also wants to build on a recent legislative victory — getting the city to explore establishing an alternative response program for responding to emergency calls involving people in mental health crises. She had initially pushed for a task force to come up with a plan, but ended up agreeing with her colleagues to explore the proposal in tandem with Knox County as part of a comprehensive approach to mental health issues.
Parker said her concerns about KPD are part of her overall concerns about transparency in the Kincannon administration. She said she did not come into office as an opponent of Kincanon and had hoped they could work together to accomplish progressive goals.
“I feel like I'm still able to work with the administration,” she said. “I'm still able to bring initiatives forward and get them passed on City Council without the mayor trying to block it. So I don't feel like we have a horribly antagonistic relationship. We just don't always agree, and I think that should be OK.”
Parker said the incumbency gives her an advantage in a low-turnout election, but emphasized that she can’t just sit back and hope to skirt through. Turning out her voters will be vital.
“There's work to be done still,” she said. “I think in your first term you don't have an opportunity to move big initiatives forward as much as you do in a second term. First term is an opportunity to perhaps start conversations that you want to see take place in Knoxville and then a second term gives you time and opportunity to to move forward on those.”
Running for public office is new for Hill, but public service is not. A longtime businessman and developer, he serves on the Knoxville-Knox County Sports Authority, which is tasked with overseeing the construction of the new stadium adjacent to the Old City, and is chair of the Knoxville-Knox County Planning Commission.
“This is about the people of Knoxville,” he said in a recent interview at the new Hatcher-Hill Properties offices on Northshore Drive. “This is not about me. It's up to them to choose who they want to represent them, and to advocate for the needs of the city.”
Hill said he has the life experience — in business, public service and volunteer work — to be effective on City Council. He views himself as a “pragmatic problem solver.”
About a decade ago, Hill recounted, he started going to City Council meetings and saw members pass an ordinance he had been unaware of but thought should have been improved before the vote. He vowed never to be caught “asleep at the wheel” again and started engaging with Council members, the mayor and the mayor’s staff.
“I saw what a real difference one citizen could make,” he said. “And that's what really catapulted my interest toward more civic service.”
Hill said his background as a developer has helped him on Planning Commission, where he frequently advises his fellow developers to work with neighborhoods before meetings to improve their proposals, and will help him on Council. He said his experience enables him to see issues others might not notice.
“If you have a heart problem, you don't go to, let's just say, a chef to ask for advice,” he said. “So you would think that when you are updating your zoning ordinances, that someone like a developer would be an important contributor to those things.”
Land use is especially important now, Hill said, because of the city’s housing crisis, which includes affordable housing and homelessness.
“We didn't get into it overnight, we're not gonna get out of it overnight,” he said. “But we are making progress. And we're doing it by allowing developers to continue to build housing stock … We've introduced residential (developments) into commercial corridors and so we can go more vertical now.”
As would be expected of a member of the Sports Authority, Hill is a proponent of the new stadium. He said he’s traveled to other cities — Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Okla., Greensboro, N.C., and Greenville, S.C. — to look at developments around their minor league baseball stadiums.
Hill said East Knoxville has missed out on the economic growth enjoyed by the rest of the city and has suffered from disinvestment over the decades. The stadium, he predicted, would bring hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to East Knoxville.
“You bet I was a champion,” he said. “I was a champion from day one for the multi-use facility because as a developer, I also know what will come soon after this catalyst project. It's a generational project.”
Hill, 61, grew up in East Knoxville and graduated from Carter High School. Baseball was his ticket to college, first to Walters State Community College and then to Tennessee Tech. After 39 years, Hill still holds the Golden Eagles’ single-season record for stolen bases.
After graduating from Tech, he taught and coached baseball for a couple of years, then went into a management training program with a trucking company. He worked his way up from loading dock supervisor to ownership of a couple of transportation companies before transitioning to real estate under the mentorship of local developer Doug Horne.
In 2003, he joined forces with Mike Hatcher to form Hatcher-Hill Properties. Hll said he developed projects and Hatcher used his accounting background to make the numbers work.
Their commercial real estate firm has been instrumental in downtown’s redevelopment, with projects that include the former JC Penney building, the former S&W Cafeteria, the Tombras Group headquarters in the old Knoxville Utilities Board building, and properties in Market Square and the Old City. They are currently developing a mixed-use project at the corner of South Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive across from Cradle of Country Music Park.
“I'm fortunate that I can be in a profession that creates or recreates things, to take blighted, old, rundown assets of the community, and then regenerate and beautify them,” he said.
Hill and his wife, Deanna, have two adult children and two grandchildren. The travails of one of his daughters inspired him to work on mental health and substance abuse issues.
“I've been personally affected by my daughter suffering from what was initially untreated anxiety, and then (she) experienced severe trauma in a relationship which led to opioid addiction,” he said. (She has been in long-term recovery.) “It made me realize that not everybody has that same access that I had, so I want to be an advocate to broaden access to services for mental health and addiction and homelessness.”
When Knoxville rewrote its zoning code through the Recode Knoxville process, Hill said he lobbied successfully to expand the areas where drug treatment facilities could be located. Such facilities can now be built in more areas with access to bus service so those who have lost their licenses can travel to counseling appointments and other services.
“Having gone through that experience, and understanding the pain, suffering and the need to expand services, I would be effective at the City Council level … to overcome some of the challenges that we're dealing with,” he said.
Hill said he is impressed with Police Chief Paul Noel leadership’s qualities and thinks KPD is on the right track. Community policing is needed to build relationships with residents, he said, and Noel needs time to get his policies and procedures in place. Devaluing KPD is not an option, he said.
“I think we should celebrate and respect our police department,” Hill said. “Over the past few years, we saw other cities around the country that decided to take that negative approach and they got a negative outcome … It's government's number one job — public safety and essential services.”
Hill said he’s grateful for the financial support his campaign has received, but doesn’t think funding naturally translates into vote.
“The money is important so that I can get my message out, because I'm running against an incumbent,” he said. “An incumbent has never been unseated since term limits (took effect) in the city of Knoxville. I realize I've got to get my message out and I want to make sure everyone hears the message.”
Hill believes in his message and hopes it will resonate with voters.
“This seat belongs to the people of Knoxville,” he said. “It doesn't belong to whoever's in it today or who will be in it next year. I ran for this seat because I believe it should reflect the values of Knoxville, the values that I've listened to, heard, understand, and will advocate for.”
Over coffee at a downtown shop, Best recounted the instant he decided Knoxville was the place for him to make a difference. He was talking with high school students at lunch at Emerald Youth Academy several years ago.
“I hear them talking about stuff they can't fix on their own,” he said. “I hear them talking about poverty, I hear them talking about economic issues of their house, I hear them talk about crime, I hear them talk about all kinds of stuff. That’s when I fell in love with Knoxville, because I fell in love with these kids.”
Over the next several years, he said, he realized there were only so many programs and volunteers to help, and that work needed to be done on the front end to keep young people from needing intervention in the first place.
“The more I worked with kids, the more I realized neighborhoods are broken and there are things local governments can do to at least help in some of those spaces,” Best said. “I think that's a unique perspective that I can offer the Council that is not always there.”
He said he’s spent his entire professional career as a youth minister and nonprofit director getting people together who wouldn’t typically sit at the same table.
“Why do I say that? I've worked for large white evangelical organizations and tried to get them to think about social justice,” Best said.
He described himself as “close to the center” on a lot of issues.
“I have the skills to be a bridge builder, to be a peacemaker, to be a problem solver. You need that on Council because you’ve got to build a coalition with your fellow Council people to get anything done,” Best said.
He said his work with young people caused him to look at many social issues through an economic lens.
“Crime and violence are symptoms of economic issues, right?,” he said. “It's always a symptom. Neighborhoods react and respond the way they do in response to larger things. If we increase economic opportunities with people, crime is going to go down anyway. It’s just a natural thing that happens.”
Best, 33, grew up in Memphis and graduated from Houston High School. His mother was a general sessions court judge and as a teenager he worked on former Congressman Harold Ford Jr.’s unsuccessful Senate bid in 2006.
He arrived in Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee with the intention of majoring in journalism and pre-med, but, he joked, chemistry happened so he got his degree in journalism only.
More important for his future, he got involved with InterVarsity Christian Ministries as a student and worked on the organization's staff for seven years after graduation.
Best worked with high schoolers in East Knoxville with the Emerald Youth Foundation, then became director of Johnson University’s Future of Hope Institute, which helps high school students explore the intersection of faith and justice. He was Johnson’s first director of multicultural student affairs and earned a master’s degree in ethics and leadership from the university.
In February 2022, Best was named executive director of the Change Center, a nonprofit in East Knoxville that grew out of the Save Our Sons initiative and provides services and a safe place for high school students and young adults.
“Technically, it’s my first non-ministry job, although for me doing the work we do with school kids — providing jobs, putting money in their pockets, keeping them safe — that's ministry as far as I'm concerned,” he said.
Referring back to his story about falling in love with the city, Best said that as a young Black professional he had no reason to stay in Knoxville until he found his mission working with young people.
“Now I live in Knoxville and it's home. I don't really see me living anywhere else,” he said.
He has sunk roots even deeper in the city. Best posted on Facebook yesterday that his wife, Yona Best, gave birth to a son.
Best serves on the city’s African American Equity Restoration Task Force, which has a mission to obtain grant funding for programs and initiatives to help the city’s minority population. He said the work allows members to talk about issues from “a big picture perspective.”
“I think we've got to find a way to drive economic development in neighborhoods that need them,” he said. “We’ve got to invest in a way that it's equitable, and that's going to spur some development down the line.”
Best got more local political experience last year by running Rev. John Butler’s successful campaign for school board. He said Butler gave him sage advice — run for the office, not against other people.
“For me, public service is not a zero-sum game,” he said. “It’s not about getting exactly what you want and then voting against everything else. It’s about saying, ‘How do we make progress?’”
Best said that in many ways, Knoxville is headed in the right direction. He thinks KPD has the pieces in place to address its cultural issues and lack of diversity among officers. He said he’s excited that the non denominational advocacy group Justice Knox has persuaded the city to agree to hold a summit on homelessness and he sees the potential in a Knoxville Area Transit microtransit pilot program.
Best said the new stadium being built just a few blocks away from his office at the Change Center has the potential to be an economic catalyst, but only if officials are intentional about its development. Minority-owned businesses need to benefit from construction work and retail opportunities in and around the stadium, he said.
“But if you look at other cities that are growing and experiencing some economic upticks, a lot of them have had projects like this,” he said, mentioning Chattanooga and Birmingham, Ala., in particular. “You have people that would rather move to Birmingham, Ala. Black people literally would rather skip Tennessee to get to Alabama. Something's not right.”
Finding ways to keep young Black professionals in Knoxville is a priority for Best. If the city is serious about keeping African-American talent at home, higher salaries is one place to start, he said.
“I’m from Memphis, and I love Memphis, but Knoxville’s not going to be that,” Best said. “But it can be better than what it is, and it can be a place where the average Black UT graduate is not sprinting to get out of town once they get their diploma.
“For me, it literally took an act of God to get me to stay in Knoxville because I was here doing ministry work. It shouldn’t take that. People should want to be here.”
Best called himself “a bit of a pragmatist” who can work with other Council members to get things done.
“I hate overpromising and underdelivering.” he said. “But what I do think I can do is that when good things come along, I'm very good at helping get other people on board and get stuff across the finish line.”