Commission District 2: Pepsi vs Coke

Beth KinnaneInside 640

Knox County Commission races have trended Republican of late, with the Democratic Party holding just one of 11 seats. That margin could change a bit if Courtney Roberts Durrett (D) beats Grant Rosenberg (R) for an open seat in District 2. Early voting is already underway.

District 2 has produced Republicans like Michele Carringer and David Collins and Democrats like Amy Broyles and Mark Harmon. It is considered a swing district with 9 of its 10 precincts inside the city.

Durrett, 39, has taught school and now works for the Knoxville Office of Neighborhoods. She and husband Ruf have two children, ages 7 and 5. She’s got two degrees from UT and lives in Fountain City.

Rosenberg, 39, worked for county mayors Ragsdale and Burchett and is currently vice president of Denark Construction. He and wife Allison have two children, ages 6 and 4. He’s got a bachelor’s from UT and an MBA from Lincoln Memorial. He lives in Fountain City.

It’s Pepsi vs Coke with many similarities between these first-time candidates, yet in these seemingly hyper-partisan times, both candidates step back from party-line absolutism.

Rosenberg has taken some online heat from local GOP leadership because of his stated belief that county races should be non-partisan, similar to city elections with the two candidates receiving the most votes in a non-partisan primary facing off in the general election. It’s a position he doesn’t shy away from.

“I stand by what I said. In my 10 years of working in Knox County government, I’ve yet to see a party line vote,” Rosenberg said. “Where local issues are concerned, political ideology goes out the window,” and that he is proud to be supported by Republicans, Independents and Democrats.

On the latter point, several prominent Democrats have endorsed Rosenberg, including former city council member and mayoral candidate Marshall Stair. Former council member Carlene Malone supports Rosenberg as well. This doesn’t raise much of an eyebrow with Durrett.

“People have the right to support and vote for who they want to,” Durrett said. “In local politics, that might be because of developed personal relationships more than strict partisanship.”

Durrett points to her long history as a fourth generation born and raised resident of this parcel of Knox County. “I’m a home-grown second district girl.” Her campaign is focused on attracting and keeping teachers, improving the relationship between neighborhoods and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, managing growth and safety along the Broadway corridor, and improving transparency in government. She would like to see the creation of an informal joint education commission made up of teachers and school administrators.

“The school board creates its budget, then it goes to commission for a thumbs up or thumbs down. I’d like to see greater participation from the boots on the ground in the school system,” Durrett said. She would also like to see neighborhood liaisons from the Sheriff’s Office similar to the program at the Knoxville Police Department. “I believe this serves to improve our relationships with the office and increase safety in our neighborhoods.”

While Rosenberg isn’t from Tennessee originally, he moved here from Michigan in 1998 to attend the University of Tennessee and decided to stay.

“I love it here, I’m raising my family here, and I will die here,” Rosenberg said. He has an ambitious laundry list of ideas for what he’d like to see in Knox County and especially in District 2. Some of those aren’t usually on a Republican wish list.

“I can make the conservative argument for addressing all of these issues,” he said, adding that not tackling tough problems like crime, addiction, poverty and chronic homelessness with thoughtful investment only costs the county more money in the long term. “We can’t have a strong county if we don’t have a strong city. Issues overlap. If we want to attract new business, we’ve got to have a strong workforce. That requires innovative investment in our communities.”

On Rosenberg’s wish list is an expansion of Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. He’d like to see more mountain bike trails in North Knoxville. “Public health is a county responsibility, and encouraging people and providing the means to exercise outdoors improves our overall health. It’s a low-cost investment with a high reward.”

Both candidates acknowledge that big ideas will likely take a temporary back seat to overall budget concerns in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, whoever wins and assumes the seat in September. Both would also like to avoid raising property taxes (which hasn’t happened in Knox County for 21 years), but neither is opposed to it if deemed necessary.

Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent.

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