Primary 2023: The Mayoral Challengers

Photo of the 2023 Knoxville Mayoral Challengers.

Primary 2023: The Mayoral Challengers

A trio of candidates looks to buck recent history and unseat incumbent Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon.

by scott barker • August 8, 2023
Photo of the 2023 Knoxville Mayoral Challengers.
Knoxville mayoral challengers (from left) R.C. Lawhorn, Constance Every and Jeff Talman.

(Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles about the candidates for Knoxville mayor. Today, an analysis of the three challengers. Yesterday, we took a look at incumbent Mayor Indya Kincannon.)

In recent history, incumbent Knoxville mayors have secured reelection in the primary.

The challengers in this year’s Knoxville mayoral race are not only running against an incumbent, they are vying with recent history as well. 

In contests for mayor and municipal judge, a candidate wins automatically if he or she can amass more than half the vote in the primary. The last three mayors to run for reelection have done just that.

In 2015, former Mayor Madeline Rogero garnered nearly 99 percent of the vote against a nominal opponent in the primary. Former Mayor Bill Haslam dispatched two opponents with 87 percent of the primary vote in 2007. In 1999, five challengers couldn’t combine for half the vote to force a runoff against former Mayor Victor Ashe, who also won in the primary in his previous two reelection runs. 

This year, three candidates are each hoping they will be the one to defy that history by preventing incumbent Mayor Indya Kincannon from getting more than half the vote in the primary.

Social justice advocate Constance Every, business owner R.C. Lawhorn and mortgage banker Jeff Talman are the challengers. 

Every is a fierce critic of the mayor, Lawhorn is running in part because he lost his city beer permit — and eventually his bar — for violations during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Talman is a relentless optimist who is bullish on Knoxville.

Kincannon has name recognition and a huge fundraising lead — as of June 30, according to the most recent campaign disclosure reports, she had more than 25 times the amount of cash on hand as the three challengers combined. 

Unless one or more of them is enjoying a wave of donations, Lawhorn, Every and Talman will have to rely on inexpensive ways to demonstrate the power of their ideas and the passion of their convictions to enough voters to make modern history.

Jeff Talman

Talman is so excited about Knoxville’s potential and so enthusiastic about getting to know more of its residents that winning the mayoral election sometimes seems secondary to running for the office.

“I'm in a no-lose position,” he said, “because I love my city. I love my neighbors, and you have no idea how fun it is to engage thoughtful, civic-minded people about what they want to see for the city they love. It is the coolest thing I've ever done in my life. I'm loving it.”

Still, Talman believes he has a better vision for Knoxville than Kincannon or any other candidate in the race. 

“We just need a more serious discussion about how we move forward with the progress that we all want to see people enjoy,” he said. 

Though he’s a champion of the city, Talman sees Knoxville not as an island but as a hub for the East Tennessee region. He described himself as an “urban-centric regionalist” and served on the steering committee of the Nine Counties/One Vision initiative at the turn of the century.

For example, he said that many people in the city underestimate Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, but Talman sees him as a potential partner in a variety of endeavors.

“I want to partner with the county, not for any other reason than to see good things happen for our citizens,” he said. “I don't think we have the luxury of doing it any other way.” 

Talman said the city needs to cultivate relationships with Gov. Bill Lee and members of the Legislature — state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, is his campaign co-chair — to get state cooperation on a civil basis. 

“On some level, we need to take the temperature down,” he said. “I'm finding that a lot of this manufactured outrage is basically not good for anybody.”

According to Talman, one possible area of cooperation with the state and the county is on mental health issues.

“It's bigger than the city or county; it's a regional issue,” he said. “I don't think anybody is comfortable with what we've got now.”

Talman, 65, was born in Houston and raised in Asheville, N.C. He first came to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee. After earning his degree, he worked in television and film production in New York City before returning when his then-wife took a job with Whittle Communications.

He has since become a mortgage banker and active in the community, serving two terms as president of the 4th & Gill Neighborhood Association and tours on the Knox County Tourist Commission, the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum Board of Directors, and other organizations.

According to Talman, the city needs to hold conversations in a different manner. He said Knoxvillians need to work together, but the framework for community engagement is coming under attack. One way to change the conversation, he said, is to move beyond racial narratives.

“I think we have to do that,” he said. “I think Indya has a soft spot for racial narratives that are in vogue. The mayor’s appointees to the Police Advisory Review Committee basically look at the world through the prism of a racial narrative. I think that's very harmful.” 

PARC, he said, needs to be neutral — “either you ran the red light, or you didn't” — because it is a unique body. 

“We can have the equity narratives and the like; that's a different discussion,” he said.

Talman said Kincannon has sent mixed messages on violence in the community.

“I lived in New York City when it was making the transition from lawless to law abiding, where we basically allowed mothers with strollers to get back in the park and enjoy the sidewalks,” he said. “This takes clear signals. You have to be, maybe even sometimes, a little bit of a bastard to let people know that we're not taking it. And I see mixed signals in Knoxville, to tell you the truth.”

Talman cited a survey from 2019 that found people who live in fragile neighborhoods wanted more law enforcement, not less.

“They're the ones who have to put up with chaos in the night, of shootings in the night,” he said. “Nobody should be relegated to a neighborhood where they have to suffer that anxiety. That's a civil right.

“So we want aggressive policing. But you know, my dad also was a defense attorney. And so I know sometimes, you know, law enforcement can be, should we say, less than forthcoming. I don't think that's an issue in Knoxville predominantly, but we need professionalism.” 

Talman said he met Police Chief Paul Noel when the new chief first came to town from New Orleans. 

“I went over, introduced myself and said, ‘Thank God, we hired somebody from a city more violent than ours,’” he recalled.  “I think chief can only be successful if indeed he's allowed to be successful.” 

In the debate over whether to employ the currently used co-response model (a police officer and a mental health professional) or an alternative response model (a medic or EMT and a mental health professional) to answer non-emergency calls involving mental health crises, Talman is firmly in the co-response camp.

“I think that there's a real naivete about the danger that's out there on the street,” he said. “We don't have the luxury of doing anything else except for supporting the team on the field right now. And unfortunately, I don't think the mayor's sent clear signals about that.” 

Talman said the city should be compassionate toward people living in homelessness, but the focus should be to accurately diagnose the problem. He said people in homelessness are not a monolithic group.

“I think what we need to do is offer serious, comprehensive mental health and insist that you have to want it,” he said. “And if you don't want it, there's gonna be consequences. You have to move along. And I think in some ways, that's the bargain we have with ourselves.”

Talman also said the city needs to deal with the criminal element that preys on homeless individuals.

Talman said he was skeptical about public financing for the stadium being built next to the Old City, but is convinced that Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd is the right partner for the $114 million project.

“He's a stakeholder,” Talman said of Boyd. “He's going to guarantee the success of it. And that's no small matter. But success is not guaranteed.”

Talman said the city has to provide parking in the area around the stadium and give business owners a better idea of the timeline so they can plan investments. Again, he said, the administration is failing to get across a clear message.

“My grandfather was part owner of the Asheville Tourists in Asheville, N.C., so I grew up behind home plate, challenging the wisdom and eyesight of authority,” he quipped.

Instead of sitting in the stands complaining about the umpire, Talman said he’s ready to step up to the plate.

“I will bring discipline to the budget,” he said. “I will be mindful in ways the administration is not regarding the ‘gotta do’s’ as compared to the ‘wanna do’s’ in Knoxville. I like a lot of what I see, but I think that there's another level to go to that's good for everybody in this community.”

R.C. Lawhorn

Lawhorn is a commercial and residential general contractor who owns several businesses, but it was a dispute with the city and state over one he no longer controls that led to his becoming a candidate for mayor.

In 2020, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon ordered the enforcement of the curfew imposed by the Knox County Board of Health on bars and restaurants. Lawhorn’s West Knoxville bar, Billiards & Brews, served beyond the curfew in violation of the restriction.

A city hearing officer ultimately revoked his beer permit, and the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission followed suit with his permit to sell spirits. The TABC cited Billiards & Brews in 2022 for selling and storing alcohol without a permit and secured an indictment against him.

Lawhorn sold the business but still must face misdemeanor charges in court. 

“I feel like it violated my constitutional rights and I stood up for what I believed in,” he said during an interview at a West Knoxville restaurant. 

He said he also stood up for his employees, mostly young people who struggled to make ends meet and in some instances lost their apartments or cars. Lawhorn said he has no regrets. 

“If I had it to do over again today, I would,” he said. “It cost me a lot of money, it cost me the bar. I can't go into details because of ongoing lawsuits and indictments, but I am glad they indicted me. That is the best thing that has happened.”

Lawhorn is convinced he’ll prevail in court, but in the meantime he is looking to win the battle at the ballot box for mayor. He is positioning himself as a down-to-earth pragmatist.

“My father told me when I was younger, ‘If you don't like the way something’s going on, and if you ain't willing to fix it, shut up about it,’” he recalled. “So I'm willing to fix it. “

As a contractor, he has a keen interest in resolving the city’s housing crisis. One solution he’s offering to add density is changing the zoning code to permit “zero lot line” construction, which allows homes to be built up to the lot line with minimal or no setbacks. That would enable multiple houses to be built on one lot.

He touts shipping container houses, which, as the name suggests, are shipping container shells that can be stacked or arranged in creative ways on properties. He’s also a fan of “barndominiums,” which are houses built using the same techniques as barns.

Barndominiums, he said, are “about 20 to 30 percent cheaper (to build) than conventional houses. So those are good opportunities for young families, where they can get a little bit more square footage but not be too far in debt.”

Lawhorn, 58, grew up in West Knox County and graduated from Farragut High School. An electrical engineer by training, he owns a commercial construction company, a speaker company and a home theater construction firm.

Lawhorn is a fan of nonpartisan elections, lamenting that the nation has become the “Divided States of America” and vowed to work with people of all political persuasions.

“Instead of arguing about things, we need to start working to resolve issues,” he said. “There's answers, and we can find them if we work together.” 

Lawhorn said the city’s approach to homelessness is not working and that homeless camps have spread throughout Knoxville’s neighborhoods. He proposed building a single campus for the homeless population where they can get shelter and the services they need in one location.

“I don't want to enable a homeless person, I want to empower them and encourage them,” he said. “I want to do that by putting them in one single place.”

The city restructured employee pay scales last year and gave raises to virtually every position in municipal government. Officers in the chronically understaffed Knoxville Police Department got raises as part of the effort, but Lawhorn believes they are still underpaid in light of the raises recently given to sworn officers in the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.

“We need to get it competitive,” he said. “It needs to be compatible with anywhere in the surrounding area.”

Lawhorn said he likes Police Chief Paul Noel, but would replace him with a person who has come up through the ranks at KPD.

“Paul Noel seems like a wonderful guy,” he said. “I talked to him for about an hour one day, and while I like him and think he's a good guy, I think we need a local chief of police, and if I'm elected mayor I will appoint a local chief of police.” 

He said Noel has faced a steep learning curve coming to Knoxville from the New Orleans Police Department.

“I don't doubt he did a good job in New Orleans, but we’re not New Orleans; we’re Knoxville,” Lawhorn said. “We’ve got a lot of strong men and women that work in our police department that are perfectly qualified.”

One area where the city should take a more active role is in school security, he said. Currently, KPD provides school resource officers to middle and high schools inside the city limits. That’s in addition to Knox County Schools’ own security officers.

The biggest change Lawhorn would make in city government would be re-establishing the city school system. He said Knox County Schools has neglected schools in East Knoxville.

“I'll be 59 on Sept. 2,” he said. “I can't tell you the last time I remember them building a brand new school on the east side. I could probably name 10 off top my head off the head on the west side. You're never gonna get people out of poverty without education. We need to get those skills up to par.”

Knoxville closed its public school system in 1987. Restoring the system would be complicated and expensive, and would certainly require a large property tax increase to accomplish.

“Whether or not I can get that done or not, I’ve got no idea,” he conceded.

One point he won’t concede is a need for vocational training as a means of economic advancement. 

“There is a big demand for electricians, plumbers, mechanical,” Lawhorn said. “If you are a good electrician, you can start out making more money than most of these people can with a four-year degree coming out of college.”

Vocational training opens a pathway out of poverty to business ownership, he said, particularly with the high demand for minority-, veteran- and woman-owned companies.  

Lawhorn would also like to see the city more involved in revitalizing Knoxville College. As a contractor, he said, he knows it would be expensive but he asserted that donors from across the country would contribute to the effort. He also said one of the buildings on campus should be converted to a museum celebrating the history of the historically Black college.

Lawhorn said the new stadium adjacent to the Old City will generate significant tax revenue if it’s marketed the right way.

“The main thing is, we need to promote it. Personally, I'd like to see us get a (major league) baseball team,” he said.

He cautioned, however, that development shouldn’t come at the expense of low-income residents.

“We can't take away from the poor people every time we grow unless we put things back,” he said. “But when you look at the money that it's gonna generate, then by taking the old buildings and say, ‘I'm gonna build a new stadium and build new facilities for the homeless’ and stuff, it's a win-win for everybody.”

Constance Every

Every is a familiar face — and voice — to anyone who has stayed to the end of just about any City Council meeting during the past couple of years. She is a regular at public forum at the end of the meetings, when she marches to the podium and hurls criticisms and accusations of racism and white supremacy at officials in general and Kincannon in particular.

In person, Every can be friendly and approachable, but the podium in the Main Assembly Room brings out indignation and fury about the injustices she sees in the city.

At the May 2 meeting of City Council, for example, she railed against Black leaders and officials who support the multi-use stadium and adjoining private development adjacent to the Old City, and also, without providing evidence, accused Kincannon of committing crimes.

“I cannot say it enough, vote for Constance Every,” she said. “That is the solution, unless you want to keep putting up with the nonsense and the Black face of white supremacy who is destroying and literally killing us all.”

Every declined to be interviewed for this story. The information was pieced together from various sources, including her Facebook page, campaign website and court documents, and the quotes come from recordings of her public appearances.

During a visit with a homeowner’s group in Norwood last month that was recorded and posted on Facebook, Every outlined her vision for the city: “My vision of Knoxville is transparency. It is truthfulness, it is honesty, it is true public engagement to the issues of concern.”

Every said she wants to bring more people and community organizations to the table, and develop a budgeting process that includes more public input. She would push for a Charter amendment requiring monthly town hall meetings in each City Council district.

According to her campaign website and Facebook bios, she was born in Knoxville and is a disabled U.S. Army combat veteran, serving 15 years and in Operation Enduring Freedom. 

Every, 38, is now a social justice warrior who runs two nonprofit community organizations, Sleeves4Needs and Black Coffee Justice, with missions to empower marginalized individuals.

Every was on the ballot for governor last year. She finished a distant fourth, with 0.6 percent of the statewide vote. In Knox County, she got 910 votes (0.71 percent).

Every was a vocal leader in the local Black Lives Matter movement and has been a persistent critic of the Knoxville Police Department. She once referred to former Police Chief Eve Thomas as “Evil Thomas” at a City Council meeting. 

Every has said publicly that she would fire new Police Chief Paul Noel upon taking office if she is elected mayor. During a recent debate among mayoral candidates, she said the city’s hiring of Noel was “unethical” and a violation of the state’s open records law because the city kept the names of the job candidates confidential during the search process.

“At the end of the day, by law, the public had a right to know how Paul Noel got here from one of the most corrupted police departments in America,” she said, referring to the New Orleans Police Department, where the chief spent his previous 25 years in law enforcement. 

Every has a history of causing disruptions at public events when speaking out against gun violence. At an early 2021 community gathering in Paul Hogue Park in response to a series of fatal shootings of Austin-East Magnet High School students, Every shouted profanity-laced invective at city officials through a bullhorn during a prayer and stood defiantly in front of the podium as Kincannon tried to speak.

“We’re not having Indya Kincannon speak on behalf of our city,” Every yelled at one point. “She don’t give a damn about Black people.”

Her public anger boiled over after a Knoxville Police Department officer shot and killed 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. in a restroom at Austin-East Magnet High School during an arrest attempt in March 2021.

After a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation review, Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen declined to prosecute the four officers involved in the incident. That decision triggered outrage and protests, especially within the Black community. Every accused the officers of murder and Allen of covering up the crime. 

Every broke out her bullhorn again on April 19, 2021, during a Knox County Commission meeting. She shouted through the bullhorn and led others in drowning out commissioners’ discussions. She and seven others were arrested and charged with interference with a public meeting. 

Less than a month later, on May 4, 2021, Every was arrested for interfering with a City Council meeting. Records show she is scheduled to appear in Knox County Criminal Court on both cases on Oct. 2.

Five months after the latter incident, Every was arrested for assault and disorderly conduct following an incident at Nama on Gay Street. Records show that a jury found her guilty on both charges, and sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 6.

Another issue Every is passionate about is homelessness. On her website, she said she was homeless for four years after receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. She has said the city should immediately create more emergency shelters and take steps to make sure more people can stay in their homes.

Every said at the recent candidate forum that a lack of affordable housing, not drugs or mental health issues, is the primary cause of homelessness. Revising the city’s zoning code would help address housing affordability, she said, but she asserted that establishing a community land trust would be the most effective strategy.

Community land trusts are nonprofit organizations that build affordable housing and provide home ownership opportunities for low-income residents. They have been used in many communities to create and maintain affordable housing units.

“This gives the neighborhoods the say-so on the land and therefore you all decide if there’s going to be a civic engagement building there, affordable housing built there, a grocery store built there, a park built there,” she said. “You are in charge of that piece of land.”

Every told the Norwood group that the stadium project should have been put before the public in a referendum. She has said she would pull the plug on the project and divert funding elsewhere, though the city is already financially and contractually committed to it. 

Every calls the area around the stadium site “stolen land” because it was once a predominantly African-American neighborhood called the Bottom that was razed during urban renewal.

During the recent forum, Every also said the city needs to fulfill the promise of the African American Restoration Task Force, which aims to secure $100 million in grant funding over a decade to support programs that create wealth in the African-American community.

“Where is the $100 million?” she asked. “That is a concern. We need to put a commitment, a real streamline of income to the project of the African American task force.”

Every told the audience in Norwood that they have a responsibility and the opportunity to select the city’s next leaders. “This is when you do the hiring and firing,” she said. “You have always been the boss.”