District 6 council race heats up

Betty BeanEast Knox

It’s Garrett Holt vs. Gwen McKenzie for District 6 Knoxville City Council. Registered voters citywide can vote Nov. 3 for each district’s representative. (Only District 5 is not on the ballot.) Learn about Holt here and McKenzie here.

So, it’s another city election season, and I’m cranking out yet another column saying the city’s District 6 needs to stay Black. Just because I’ve done this for the past three or four election cycles doesn’t mean I’m tired of saying it. But every cycle gets a little more complicated.

Garrett Holt (from his public Facebook page)

Here’s the beginning of what I wrote in 2011:

“Will the shifting demographics of District 6 brew up a big enough change to strip the city council of minority representation come next fall’s city elections?  That unspoken possibility was the elephant in the room last week when Bob Booker was chosen to serve out the unexpired term of Mark Brown, who gave up his council seat to take an appointment as a judicial magistrate.

“Nobody’s going to criticize the selection of Bob Booker – not even me. Civil rights pioneer, state legislator, city administrator, Beck Cultural Center director, historian, author, DJ, musicologist, raconteur, gentleman. What’s not to like?

“He was one of seven applicants for the position, six of whom are African Americans. The other, Cynthia Stancil, lives in Parkridge, one of the old neighborhoods ringing the downtown area that have been revitalized by growing populations of mostly young, mostly White professionals who can’t all live downtown. Meanwhile, the traditional Black neighborhoods on the east and west ends of District 6 are losing population. The 2010 Census numbers will be an informative read, and the redistricting that follows will be a job of work.”

This is better than what I was about to write, so I’ll just keep running with this 10-year-old analysis:

Gwen McKenzie (from her campaign website)

“Booker made it clear that he will not stand for election this fall. Stancil said she intends to run. Based on her presentation last week, she will be a good candidate. A relative newcomer to Knoxville, she probably doesn’t know that there were no Blacks on the city council from 1912-1969, when District 6 was carved out, in Booker’s words, “So that a Black would stand a chance of winning.” From the day Dr. Henry Morgan Green left office in 1912 until the day Booker’s old friend Theotis Robinson was sworn in and took a seat on the dais next to Cas Walker, Black citizens were excluded from city government.

“Ironically, perhaps, Robinson and his wife, Jonida, are now part of the burgeoning population of downtown dwellers that threatens to change the complexion of District 6. The Robinsons live in the Pembroke and enjoy the urban amenities within walking distance of their condo. Like Booker, he is part of the warp and woof of Knoxville history and has lived to tell the tale. He served during the days when the city still had separate (but not equal) school systems and few minorities working at the police or fire departments.

“When I came on the city council, Austin-East played football at Evans Collins Field or at Bill Meyer. They (the old city school system) were building stadiums at high schools all around town, and I told them ‘Don’t come back wanting to build a stadium anywhere until you build one at A-E. Don’t tell me about wasteful spending when you’ve wasted it everywhere except A-E,’” Robinson said. “And I’d cut deals where I’d say I’d vote for something, ‘But I want five promotions in the police and fire departments.’”

Then came some historical background on why city elections are structured the way they are – the only thing that has changed is that it’s now nearly 50 years since Baker v Carr, not 40.

“The present-day District 6 and the two-tier structure of city elections came about as a result of Baker v Carr, a 1962 US Supreme Court decision that cemented the principle of “one man, one vote” into the law and instilled the fear of civil rights litigation into the hearts and minds of municipal lawyers everywhere. Now, nearly 40 years later, people like Booker and Robinson have done their share. There’s never a dearth of candidates willing to run, but a new wind is blowing, and if the finalists who emerge from a District 6 primary race are ebony and ivory, which way will it blow?”

Bob, Theotis and I are all happy to see that we’ve gotten through a decade with District 6 minority representation intact. But now, incumbent Gwen McKenzie, who is also vice mayor, is facing a challenge from Garrett Holt, a 20-something White guy who moved into the western-most sliver of the district last year, barely in time to meet the residency requirement. He registered to vote in Tennessee last October and the 2021 August primary marked the first time he voted in a city election. City races are non-partisan, but Holt is part of a slate of right-wing Republican candidates who mean to take the city “back” from the “socialists” who currently sit on the dais. He is running hard, knocking on doors and putting out yard signs (sometimes without permission).

His primary victory over Deidra Harper, who is Black and from a well-known East Knoxville family, surprised a lot of people.

The primaries were somewhat complicated, with incumbents being hammered as tax and spend, soft on crime, cop-hating socialists from the right by Holt and his fellow Republicans, and from the left as greedy, heartless gentrifiers by their City Council Movement opponents. Incumbent Amelia Parker, the first Black candidate to be elected to an at-large seat, won with CCM help two years ago, and wasn’t shy about trying to help oust three of her colleagues (McKenzie, Tommy Smith and Lauren Rider). Parker’s candidates failed to advance past the primary, which puts her in a precarious position if she stands for re-election in two years.

2020 US Census Bureau numbers tell us that 16 percent of Knoxville’s 190,740 citizens are Black – that’s 30,477 people – and that 13,198 of them, or 46 percent, live in the city council District 6, which includes downtown and a sliver of close-in West Knoxville. Meanwhile, the White population in the Sixth District has continued to grow, and now stands at 42.7 percent (12,940 total). See ethnic breakdown of city population from 2020 census data: City Council Districts.

As Bette Davis used to say, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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