Candidates debate at PBPA

Sandra ClarkLet's Talk, Powell

Updated to reflect candidate Rhonda Lee has been a licensed attorney for six years, not 19.

All politics is local, said former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Other than the questionable subject/verb agreement, Tip was right.

The race for president and control of Congress might be more exciting, but your vote in the March 3 Knox County Republican Primary is huge. (Four races will be decided in the GOP Primary since the Democratic Party did not field candidates.) Early voting starts today.

Eight candidates spoke Tuesday at the Powell Business and Professional Association. Each had five minutes. R. Larry Smith was moderator.

Criminal Court Judge (to replace Judge Bob McGee who retired mid-term). Gov. Bill Lee appointed Kyle Hixson to serve until the next election. Hixson stressed his credentials: UT Law grad, deputy district attorney under former DA Randy Nichols, assistant attorney general in Nashville handling criminal appeals, serves as trial practice professor at UT College of Law. Wesley Stone grew up on a 400-acre cattle farm in Claiborne County, practiced law with his father after graduation from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2000 and now practices with the firm Hodges, Doughty & Carson.

Both men live in West Knoxville. According to his campaign literature, Hixson is a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative group which vetted judicial appointments for President Trump. He has fought to enforce the death penalty and for harsher punishment for child pornographers. Stone is a member of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Lawyers. His practice concentration is criminal defense including driving under the influence and other motor vehicle related offenses, misdemeanors, felonies, juvenile delinquency cases and appellate practice.

Public Defender: Veteran Public Defender Mark Stephens also retired mid-term, and Gov. Lee appointed his chief deputy, Eric Lutton, to succeed him. Lutton is totally invested in the office, which has been recognized nationally for innovation. It’s called the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office and practices holistic, client-centered representation. “We look for underlying issues” and have six social workers available to match clients with resources. “Sometimes it’s just as simple as people not knowing what resources are available.”

Lutton said the office spends about $300,000 on the social services component and has saved Knox County about $1.7 million on incarceration alone. He stressed his experience in managing the office – really a giant law firm – with 28 lawyers and 71 total employees.

“My opponent and myself applied (to replace Stephens) and Gov. Lee picked me,” Lutton said. He also received a strong favorable rating from the Knoxville Bar Association.

Rhonda Lee, a Powell resident and attorney for six years, is the proud mother of six and grandmother of nine. After a career in real estate and homebuilding, she returned to college, “a nine-year journey,” to obtain a bachelor’s degree from UT and then a law degree from Nashville School of Law, “a four-year commute, three days a week.”

Lee is a solo practitioner with a passion, she says, for helping people who fall through the cracks. She believes recidivism rates can be lowered by treating underlying mental health conditions and drug addiction, but she also wants to bring “fresh ideas” to the office of public defender.

“I’m about family, faith and freedom,” she said, “with a heavy emphasis on faith.”

Tomorrow: Candidates for property assessor and law director.


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