The row of chairs lined up across the front of the Eastminster Presbyterian Church fellowship hall kept growing, and by the time Town Hall East’s May meeting convened, 19 City Council hopefuls were sitting there.
It’s fruit basket turnover time in city government, as five term-limited council members prepare to say goodbye.
Several candidates have indicated interest in the South Knox seat Nick Pavlis will give up, but only Stephanie Welch (who is back on the job as vice president of operations at the Great Schools Partnership after filling in for president Buzz Thomas while he served as interim school superintendent) showed up. Welch is a major in the Army Reserve and spent 15 years with the Knox County Health Department. This is her first run for elected office.
All five West Knox candidates who want to succeed Duane Grieve were there – Brandon Bruce, Wayne Christensen, Andrew Roberto, William P. Stone and David Williams.
All are first-time candidates except Williams, who has run for council before. He is a fourth-generation Pond Gap resident and a longtime community activist/math tutor who has a lot to say about his family history and his desire to help people.
Bruce is co-founder of Cirrus Insight, a software firm that now employs 35 people. He was named Knoxville’s 2016 Young Entrepreneur of the Year and figures that he’s probably the tallest candidate running for public office, although county mayor candidate Glenn Jacobs might challenge him for that title.
Christensen has always been interested in local politics – his father was a county commissioner in Illinois. The recently-retired executive director of Knox Youth Sports is a Navy veteran who came to Knoxville 35 years ago with Whittle Communications and said he is deeply interested in helping find solutions to the area’s opioid addiction epidemic.
Roberto is a lawyer who stepped down from his position at the election commission when he decided to run. His resume includes volunteer work with the Salvation Army, the Epilepsy Foundation and other organizations and he said he wants to encourage others to get involved with the community.
Stone came to Knoxville to join his late brother, John, who was president of the Ft Sanders Elementary School PTA. William Stone wants to follow in his brother’s footsteps as a community activist.
Lawyer James Corcoran is the most experienced candidate running for the Northwest area seat soon to be vacated by Brenda Palmer. He was a candidate in a wild and wooly Republican Primary for the District 18 state House seat last year (incumbent Martin Daniel won). Corcoran, whose practice is in juvenile court, is concerned about drug abuse and said there are 40 overdoses a week in his zip code. He serves on the county Board of Zoning Appeals and is interested in updating city zoning codes.
Jody Mullins, who works in Oak Ridge, is a longtime Cumberland Estates neighborhood watch block captain who has a long list of community activities, including being an original member city’s Neighborhood Advisory council, which became the Office of Neighborhoods and serving as the Knox County Angel Tree coordinator for ORNL. He’s interested in sustainable business growth, affordable housing, further expansion of the greenway systems and strengthening neighborhoods.
Four candidates from this north area district attended, and incumbent Nick Della Volpe was there to listen to what the people who want to succeed him have to say.
There was Dan Davis, whose father was a city police officer and who grew up watching City Council meetings on TV. He said his work at the E-911 center has turned into “more than just a job,” because he talks people through their worst moments. He’d some like to see tax incentive programs (like TIFs) employed in neighborhoods like Mechanicsville or Five Points and believes that tax money should only be spent where it is needed for the public’s safety and welfare.
Jack Knoxville said he has lived in 14 different cities and loves Knoxville so much he made it his name. A write-in candidate for mayor two years ago, he said he runs two non-profit organizations and is interested in helping young people feel safe and accepted. He is concerned about the recent rash of suicides at Farragut High School, and worries about discrimination against transgendered students.
Lauren Rider, a librarian at Pellissippi State, has lived in Knoxville for 12 years and is a past president of Old North Knoxville Neighborhood Association. She enjoys the support of neighborhood activists like Carlene Malone and Ronnie Collins and has overseen the restoration of four old houses, including her family’s home on East Scott Avenue, plus a commercial building on Broadway. She’s the co-chair of the Broadway Corridor Taskforce and says she’s running because people have been urging her to do so for years, and because she understands the nuts and bolts of getting things done in Knoxville. “I’m known for not taking no for an answer.”
Harry Tindell, who is in the insurance business, served nearly 30 years as a state representative where he became a budget expert who was respected on both sides of the aisle. Before being elected to the General Assembly, Tindell served on the school board and was named Tennessee School Board Member of the Year by the state school board. He is a Knoxville native and a member of a large, politically active family.
While Dan Brown’s east area district turned out the biggest crowd of candidates, fewer than half of those who are talking about running showed up. Financial counselor Joyce Brown has lived in East Knoxville for 45 years and labeled herself an advocate who wants to see her community get a fair shake. She wants her children to be able to play outside without worrying about gunshots and would like to see grocery stores and a new Boys and Girls Clubs on the east side. “It’s just concern,” she said. “Hey, what about us?”
It’s an understatement to say that the Rev. John Butler has a hefty resume. President of the Knoxville branch NAACP, he and his wife, the Rev. Donna Butler, worked for nearly two years on strengthening the district’s schools, and many credit them with saving Vine Middle School from being shuttered. The Butlers were both PTA presidents at Austin-East and have worked on the Save Our Sons Initiative as well as on energy justice issues with TVA and KUB and a host of other issues. “I’m asking you to vote for me because we’ve been getting things done. If you vote for me, I will fight for you,” Butler said.
Michael Covington, an industrial consultant, said he’s a problem solver who wakes up every morning thinking about what he can do for his community. He wants grocery stores and health services in East Knoxville and has been working on filling the gap in health care that will result when the old St. Mary’s (Tennova) moves to West Knoxville. Covington ran unsuccessfully for County Commission last year, and as a Republican in the most Democratic area of Knox County, could benefit from running in a non-partisan city race.
Jennifer Montgomery is a downtown Realtor who has lived in the district for 15 years, and has deep family ties there. She has a master’s degree in urban planning, supports preservation efforts and is concerned about the prospect of federal grant money going away.
Damon Rawls is an entrepreneur and a Magnolia Avenue business owner. “My business is on Magnolia because I want it on Magnolia. I want to hire people in this community – that’s what economic vitality looks like.” He has sponsored a Young Entrepreneurship program and wants to build “a stronger Sixth,” which will ultimately create a stronger Knoxville.
Shawnee Rios has lived in Knoxville for six years, and opposes the Emerald Youth Foundation’s plan to partner with the city to build a recreation center in Lonsdale because she believes it to be an unconstitutional blending of church and state (EYF is faith-based). Rios works as an operations administrator, and has a high-octane campaigning style. She’ll need it, since the sixth district is home to a high percentage of churchgoers.
Brandy Slaybaugh is another high-energy candidate. A U.S. Navy veteran who was born in Hollow Rock, in a tiny town in West Tennessee, she has a biology degree and a law degree from UT and lives in Parkridge. She is an active supporter of community gardens and is dedicated to serving the district, which she loves for its diversity. “People talk about (being on city council) like it’s a trophy. To me, it’s a job – a full-time job with a part-time wage,” Slaybaugh said.