Are District 1 Dems still feeling the Bern?

Betty BeanInside 640, Knox Scene

The Knox County Commission District 1 overlaps with Knoxville City Council’s District 6, and stretches from Holston Hills to downtown and Ft. Sanders. The district prefers Democrats and is accustomed to lively elections. So as per usual, the commissioner who takes the seat on the far left end of the dais in September will be the winner of the March 3 Democratic Primary (no offense to the candidate who has signed up as an Independent).


This year, incumbent Evelyn Gill, a former special education teacher who ran as an underdog four years ago and faced down a daunting series of challenges during her first term, will be squaring off against another tough opponent – first-time candidate Dasha Lundy.

Lundy is a physical therapist who holds a doctorate, serves as president of the Burlington Residents Association and is secretary of the League of Women Voters, among other positions. Showing considerable fundraising prowess for a first-time candidate, she reported raising $6,519 ($5,848 on hand) in the first reporting period. Gill reported $991 in the campaign kitty.

Lundy, an East Knoxville native, has the support of community leaders like District 6 City Council member Gwen McKenzie, whose husband, Sam, was Gill’s commission predecessor; former school board chair Sam Anderson; and Charles Lomax, a former city council candidate who donated $1,500 to Lundy out of his left-over campaign funds.

Gill, a Mississippi native who has lived in Knoxville since 1994 and has a master’s degree from Rutgers, pulled off an impressive upset victory over the better-known Rick Staples in the 2016 election (Staples, now the District 15 state representative, was appointed to that office in late 2016, was elected in 2018 and is standing for re-election this year).

Gill resigned from her job with Knox County Schools after the parents of a student filed a lawsuit accusing her of mistreating children in her special education class, a charge she strongly denied and which was never substantiated, although Knox County settled the suit for $93,000. In 2019, a move to oust her from the commission/school board’s joint education committee fizzled, and around the same time she got a strongly worded letter from Mayor Madeline Rogero telling her to butt out of city business. Gill remained unflappable during this time and kept showing up no matter what came her way.

The 2016 election was a Super Tuesday contest with local and presidential primaries on the same ballot, same as this year. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were locked in a fierce primary contest. Clinton’s core strength was among older voters and minorities. Young voters loved Sanders, and those patterns held firm in the commission District 1. Turnout was high, relative to other years.

But it wasn’t uniform, and the enthusiasm gap did Staples – and Clinton – in. The easternmost polling places in the district preferred Clinton in the presidential primary and Staples in the local race, with the two sets of numbers tracking very closely. But the numbers in those traditional Black precincts failed to match those being rolled up in the precincts on the west end (downtown, Ft. Sanders, Parkridge), which went overwhelmingly for Sanders. Gill and her husband, Michael, a popular music promoter, had been active in the Sanders campaign. She outperformed Sanders in some precincts and defeated Staples 1,704 to 1,507.

If ever a challenger looked well positioned to win, it’s Lundy. She’s qualified, well-funded and well-liked. But Gill has fought off more slings and arrows than St. Sebastian. And if the voters who put her in office four years ago are still feeling the Bern, she might just pull it off. This race will be uncommonly interesting to watch.

Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. Reach her at bbeanster@aol.com.

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