City Council Candidates Answer to the Public

League of Women Voters, City Council Forum, Phyllis Wheatly YWCA, Knoxville, July 2021
League of Women Voters, City Council Forum, Phyllis Wheatly YWCA, Knoxville, July 2021

Maybe to be more accurate, I should say that most of them did. It’s been an interesting political season in Knoxville. City Council races are traditionally non-partisan, meaning that the Democratic and Republican parties have not traditionally offered a slate of candidates. Individuals run, and while many of them are known to belong to one party or the other, the focus is more on the candidates.

It could be argued that the city has, in recent elections, had a party placing forward a slate of candidates, but that would be the City Council Movement, not one of the traditional parties. The same is true this round of elections, with the City Council Movement backing David Hayes in District One, Jen McMahon in District Four, and Deidra Harper in District Six.

Whether in reaction to the left-leaning City Council Movement or to the current make-up of the City Council, the Knox County Republican Committee has made public its backing for five candidates in this round of voting, marking the first time in recent memory, at least, that one of the two parties has publicly backed a slate of candidates. They are backing Elizabeth Murphy in District One, Kim Smith in District Two, Nick Ciparro in District Three, Jim Klonaris in District Four, and Garret Hall in District Six.

As detailed in Georgiana Vines article earlier this week, the five are also backed by the Scruffy Little City political action committee. The group has raised money for the candidates and is supporting the drive to place an initiative on the ballot stating that only a public vote can result in a raise in taxes, removing that power from City Council. Erik Waitr, a local conservative political consultant operates this PAC and Knox Liberty PAC which is focusing on the tax initiative. Restauranteurs Randy Burleson and Mike Chase are the primary financial backers of Scruffy Little City PAC.

Feeding into the interesting mix, the city system involves the primary election on August 31 (early voting August 11-26) in which the top two candidates advance to the general election in November. The primary allows only district residents to vote on their candidates, but in the general election, each of the races are city-wide, though the candidates are elected to district positions. Not all districts are up for election each cycle. It’s a little crazy and, with a scrambled field, could yield some unexpected results.

Last night, the League of Women Voters presented an opportunity in a forum at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA for the candidates to answer questions submitted from the audience at the Phyllis Wheatley Center. It is one of two opportunities the group is presenting to see all the candidates at once. The second will be August 7 from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 pm. Unfortunately, five candidates had conflicts and were unable to attend. The five happened to each be one of the five conservative candidates backed by the Republican party and the Scruffy Little City PAC.

I’m including each of the districts below, with their candidates, and the essence of their comments which were given in response to the questions posed.

League of Women Voters, City Council Forum, Phyllis Wheatly YWCA, Knoxville, July 2021

District One (David Hayes, Elizabeth Murphy (not present), and incumbent Tommy Smith)

David Hayes:

Mr. Hayes presented himself (and the other City Council Movement candidates) as agents of change vs. advocates of the status quo. He listed violence, poverty, and gentrification as issues about which he is passionate. He said he would devote more of the budget to addressing poverty and affordable housing. He also advocated a system in which the public would have input on the budget.

Regarding the recently named African American Restoration Task Force, he said the $100 million included no local funds and the city should add funds to “have skin in the game,” and to confront KUB and developers. Regarding housing, he said 47% of African American households in Knox County have an income below $25,000 annually. He said systemic change is needed and that neighborhoods and residents should come first.

Regarding crime, he said that poverty and lack of opportunity fuel it and the budget to support local organizations doing something about it amounts to “crumbs.” He pointed out that “less than 1% of city contracts go to black owned businesses.” He said that he opposes the new sports stadium, stating that the property was taken from black Knoxvillian’s (late refuted by another candidate) and said we need a community benefits agreement in writing.

Regarding business, he said that we need to remove obstacles from small businesses, using South Press Coffee as a recent example of a business that could not open due to red tape from the city. He said “rich developers don’t have these problems,” and said we need to “empower” local businesses and help them get the capital they need.

Tommy Smith

Tommy Smith said a candidate needs to be able to serve before they can lead, to understand solutions, not just problems and to be able to collaborate to get things done. He said his budget priorities would be housing and combating violence. He cited the need for strong neighborhoods and a sustainable city.

Regarding the African American Restoration Task Force (AARTF), he said black voices need to be heard and that we don’t need new programs, but to better fund existing ones like SEED, the Change Center and Girl Talk. He added that we need to get money to black entrepreneurs. He said taxes should not rise with the value of houses, causing some to have to move. He said we should double the funding for Homemakers, increasing home ownership. He said it should be investment without displacement and touted “1,000 units of affordable housing,” that has been built on Chapman Highway.

Regarding crime, he said it is linked to poverty and said, “blight is not a strategy.” He said we need a mental health facility and said that could only come by working with the county and the state.

Regarding the ballpark, he said we should listen to the people who live near there, but that he is generally supportive of the idea. He said he wants to know more about the costs and what happens if the team leaves the city. Regarding businesses, he said he would like to see more small businesses on Chapman Highway and in Vestal and that bringing businesses into previously derelict buildings is a point of emphasis.

He concluded by saying we should elect someone who has both empathy and solutions. “We share principals, but we need solutions.”

League of Women Voters, City Council Forum, Phyllis Wheatly YWCA, Knoxville, July 2021

District Two (Incumbent Andrew Roberto and Kim Smith (not present))

Andrew Roberto

Andrew Roberto said that experience matters, and he has “learned the job and tried to be an effective member.” He said he will continue to work hard and to be a neighborhood advocate. He said his budget priorities would be to make sure the city is being responsible with its spending and noted that we need to keep our AAA rating. He said he would advocate for spending on connecting greenspaces, walkability, safety, and affordable housing.

Regarding the AARTF, he said he would want to listen to the committee’s priorities. He said he would like to see a focus on providing equal access to jobs and smart growth. He said housing has to be a priority and that mixed-use zoning helps. Regarding crime, he said we must address poverty and expand our mental health and rehab offerings.

He said he supports the stadium but wants to hear more from the community and wants to see the economic impact study. He said downtown was once underdeveloped and now it is our “economic engine,” implying he wants the same for this area. He said our city is perfectly poised for future growth.

District Three (Nick Ciparro (not present) and Incumbent Seema Singh)

Seema Singh

Seema Singh said she has lived in her district most of the last forty years and that it is important to her. She said that most of her district includes the “working poor” and she is honored to speak up for them. Regarding budget priorities, she pointed out that most of the budget goes to salaries and services, like garbage collection and fire and police protection. She said we need to do more to prevent crime, including more funding for the police. She noted we also have to bring money in, so economic development is important.

Regarding the AARTF, she says she wants to see their research and that she will support them. She said that there should be property relief for those with lower incomes, fixed incomes, and the elderly. She pointed out that the question regarding crime mentioned prostitution and addiction and said that no one wants to be in those situations and that they need help, not prosecution. She said that as we meet people’s needs, crime will be reduced.

She said her initial reaction to the stadium had been negative, but that the city needs to make money to spend it and this could be a way to do that. She said she wanted a Community Benefits Agreement. Acknowledging there will be benefits to Randy Boyd, she said she can’t ignore the benefits to everyone else.

Regarding jobs, she said people need housing in order to hold jobs. She pointed out that we don’t simply need jobs, we need good paying jobs referencing, again, the working poor in her district. She said she has requested a corridor study for Western Avenue to determine which businesses could be successful there.

She thanked the audience for the tough questions, saying they were representative of the toughness of doing the job. She said she has learned that it is more difficult to do the job than to demand change from the outside. She said collaboration is required and “we are trying to make change, but it takes time.”

League of Women Voters, City Council Forum, Phyllis Wheatly YWCA, Knoxville, July 2021

District Four (Jen McMahon, Jim Klonaris (not present), and Incumbent Lauren Rider)

Jen McMahon

Jen McMahon said she moved to Knoxville six years ago to work for Americorps and saw many needs. She said she knew this was her place and wanted to make it better. Her budge emphasis would be on support for people exiting incarceration and on homelessness. She said we should “reallocate funds for the people.”

Regarding the AARTF, she noted there is a “42% poverty rate” in the black community and said we should follow the lead of black people regarding their needs. She told a story of a woman who could not afford to repair her home because of the onerous requirements of living in the Old North Historical District. She said her application was rejected (which was later refuted by another candidate).

She said she is opposed to the proposed ballpark, saying “taxpayer dollars should not go to the wealthy.” Regarding jobs, she said we need housing first, in addition to workforce development and a living wage. She said, “I’m a nonprofit worker trying to help, not a multi-property owner. I will be a true voice for the people, and I will listen.”

Lauren Rider

Lauren Rider said she is running because “so many urged me to.” She said during her tenure 1,000 units of low-income housing have been added to her district, in addition to jobs, sidewalks, greenways. She said we need more housing. She also pointed out that most city money goes to services like “streetlights and trash collection.” She said money for public safety needs to be spent on addressing root causes. Saying that 75% of the city budget goes to personnel including firemen and policemen, she said the city must work with other levels of government to address the range of problems.

Regarding the AARTF, she said, contrary to what some people believe, no funds have been expended so far. She said efforts should focus on education and infrastructure, “to lift up a community that hasn’t had support.” As for restrictions on developing houses in the Old North Neighborhood, she said much of that is to discourage house flipping, which leads to more rapid gentrification. She said she has helped four seniors to stay in the neighborhood.

Saying we have a drug problem in the U.S., she said much of our crime traces back to that issue. She said the city has joined a class action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies and the money from that would help us address the problem. She also said we need help from the state and that if they had accepted the Medicaid expansion which was offered, there would be more incentive to open rehabilitations facilities, because they could be paid.

She said she supports the baseball stadium and hears a lot of excitement in east Knoxville. She pointed out that the original offer from the developers was for an annual rental payment of $750,000 and it was negotiated to $1,000,000 per year, plus taxes.

She mentioned several now empty buildings in North Knoxville as good candidates for homes for new businesses. She said, in the wake of the loss of a hospital, that the district needs medical providers. She said she is proud of the work city council has done and there is more yet to be accomplished.

League of Women Voters, City Council Forum, Phyllis Wheatly YWCA, Knoxville, July 2021

District Six (Deidra Harper, Garret Holt (not present), and Incumbent Gwen McKenzie)

Deidra Harper

Deidra Harper said that she felt serving on city council would be a good vehicle to continue her work to help others. She noted a 42% poverty rate among African Americans. She said she feels the development of the budget should have more involvement from the council. She said youth enrichment programs and grassroots organizations deserve more funding.

As for the AARTF, she said studies are not needed, and that any African American person in the room could rattle off what is needed, including development, violence interruption, and investment in businesses. She said housing and jobs are important and the Homemaker’s program should be expanded.

She said crime is a result, largely, of other problems including a lack of jobs, development, and resources. She said the community needs a good relationship with the police, while also holding them accountable.

She opposes a new stadium, saying it is hard to support it when you see stadiums in other cities “not being good neighbors.” She said it is hard to see money going to that when there are so many other needs. She also lamented the “lack of transparency.”

She said she sees the Burlington community as “ready for business.” She said the city should work with the Roots Collective and we need incubation spaces for new businesses, as well as partnerships with Pellissippi for job training. She said District Six needs someone who is “willing to push back, someone with the tenacity to fight for jobs.” She said she has the vision and will be a voice for change and for serving people. She said, “What we have seen is not enough.

Gwen McKenzie

Emphasizing that she wants to “finish what we have started,” Gwen McKenzie said she wants to address the wealth gap. She said the budget should support affordable housing, infrastructure, agencies helping children, and public safety. She said the council does have input on the budget before it is presented.

She said the AARTF should focus on disparities. She said the community must play a big role in the efforts. While praising existing programs, she said we should see where the gaps are in the help that is needed. She also advocated developing a city fund that would help with property taxes for those who are unable to pay them.

Regarding crime and public safety, she said she supports community policing, neighborhood watches, and having officers assigned to work with neighborhoods. She said we should “look at how guns are getting into our community.” She said we need more mental health care.

As for the stadium, she said it should help with job growth, but that she would like to see a formal Community Benefits Agreement. She said it is possible the project and everything that goes with it could shift generational poverty into generational wealth for some in the community.

She said she would like to see new businesses in Burlington and Mechanicsville and stronger support from the city for small businesses and for black-owned businesses. She would like to see more job training. She said she grew up in east Knoxville and wants to see more support for those, “making things happen.” Acknowledging the difficulty of the job, she noted that the “view does look different from the other side of the table.”