Harold Middlebrook is worried.
Early voting has begun, and he fears that this election will mark the end of Knox County sending an African American from East Knoxville to represent the 15th House District in Nashville, as has been the case since 1966.
The district’s complexion has changed over the years, first because of urban renewal (called “urban removal” by those most affected), and then by the boom in high-end downtown housing, gentrification in East Knoxville and diluting the percentage of minority voters by extending district boundaries into South Knoxville.
Best estimates now peg the district’s black population at 40 percent, or less – still a sizeable chunk of the potential vote, assuming a motivated electorate, but unity is essential, and leaders like Middlebrook are increasingly wary of their community losing its clout. And this may be the year it happens.
“I am extremely concerned,” Middlebrook said. “And I’m upset.”
What’s got him worried is an emerging schism in the black community. Incumbent Rick Staples, appointed to serve as the Democratic candidate for the seat in 2016 after longtime Rep. Joe Armstrong was indicted for income tax fraud, has run into legal difficulties of his own after being accused of converting campaign funds to personal use. He was also accused of sexually harassing a legislative employee, which he denied, although he stepped down from a leadership position after the accusation.
Middlebrook said concerns about Staples’ problems caused community leaders to react:
“A number of people encouraged Sam (McKenzie) to get in the race,” he said. The hope was that Staples would bow out. He didn’t, and Middlebrook and others worry about the schism between supporters of the two black candidates.
McKenzie, who has a master’s degree in physics and is set to retire from his job at Oak Ridge National Lab this summer, is a former county commissioner and husband of city council member and vice mayor Gwen McKenzie.
The schism opened the door for a third candidate, Matthew Park, who is running a vigorous campaign that he launched a year ago. He lives in the South Knoxville end of the district, is white and gay.
And he could take the seat.
To make things more interesting, Park supports a Green New Deal, criminal justice reform, abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights, a community land trust whereby homeowners would own their houses, but not the dirt underneath them.
Staples warns of a move to eliminate black representation and says you can’t understand the black experience just by hanging around with black people.
McKenzie says he will deliver for his community and that his proven track record of service and professional experience sets him apart from his opponents.
Park says it’s time for big, structural changes and plans to introduce something he calls A New Black Agenda.
But first he must beat the black guys.
Betty Bean writes a weekly opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.