A few weeks ago, I got hammered by Facebook messages, emails and face-to-face questions from friends of Knoxville City Council candidate David Hayes – at least a dozen of them, maybe more. Why, they wanted to know, did my news-writing colleague Sandra Clark tell him to get a haircut?
They considered her remark racist and demanded an apology, at the very least. A progressive blogger (whom we had featured earlier this year) denounced her to his statewide audience.
I’m guessing the ones who addressed me personally did so because they didn’t want to tangle with Clark, who can be irascible when irked – not that I’m any sweetheart; we’re just irked by different things. I pretty much don’t give a damn if candidates wear a pile of dreadlocks, a sleeve of tattoos or a nose ring as long they are talking about issues that matter in a way that makes sense to me.
And things that make sense to me (like labor unions and universal healthcare) generally land considerably to the left of Clark, who is crazy busy and is a Republican who was twice elected to the state legislature and has run dozens of political campaigns. She considers campaigns months-long job interviews and likes her candidates buttoned down and serious.
The hairdo/racism controversy died down after awhile but kicked up again recently when a self-professed “Back the Blue”-type labeled Hayes (who was an organizer of the local Black Lives Matter movement and has worked with United Campus Workers) a “thug” in a Facebook entry that disappeared a few hours after she posted it.
But thanks to screen grabs and word of mouth, it lives on.
So, I decided it was time to have a conversation with David Hayes, candidate for Knoxville City Council, at-large Seat B. This is how it went.
He says he is running a strategic campaign (the other candidate for Seat B is Janet Testerman) and plans on winning it, although he has less than $3,000 in his campaign account.
That’s quite enough, he says, because his City Council Movement team is a force multiplier that is reaching out to as many voters as they can talk to this summer.
“What ‘winning’ is, to me, is winning the election, of course,” he says. “The City Council Movement has three races … and the general goal of organizing our community. That’s also a win. If we don’t have that kind of organization in the community, we won’t be able to accomplish our goal anyway.”
And the goal is nothing less than transformation.
“#Knoxvilleforall. That’s a hashtag, a saying, a platform, a goal. Good jobs, living wages, affordable housing, safe healthy communities, real democracy – for all.”
If elected, Hayes, who will turn 27 in October, would be the youngest city council member ever elected. He and his partner, Lisa East, a sociology lecturer at UT, have a toddler son, Kumi, and live in South Knoxville.
He says he draws inspiration from another young African-American member of city council, the late Danny Mayfield, who was elected in 1997 and died of bone cancer after serving a little more than three years in office. Hayes was born in Charleston, S.C., on the naval base there, and was raised in a deeply religious family. (His father studied for the ministry at the Southeast Institute of Biblical Studies, overseen by the Karns Church of Christ in Knoxville.)
“My parents became very involved in pushing back against racism within the Church of Christ, and nowadays, they’re not tied to it (the church) anymore,” he says.
He went to high school in Murfreesboro, where he excelled in athletics, and toyed with the notion of going to a smaller college where he could play sports and get noticed. He gave up that dream in favor of studying business at UT-Knoxville, where he majored in supply chain and sustainability. While in school, he interned at Unilever, which has built one of the largest supply-chain operations in the world. And he found that he was not impressed.
“Once you’ve worked in a corporate environment, you’re really disconnected from the real world, and you realize its goals are very shallow,” he says. “My responsibility isn’t just to work in a business that makes things a little less bad. … My responsibility isn’t to accrue a lot of wealth for my family, personally. My job is to go into the office and transform the institution so it can work for all people.”
So, he dropped out of college to become a full-time organizer for causes he cares about.
He says his goal isn’t just to be elected but to help get a majority of like-minded people on city council – a voting bloc that will be engaged with the community, particularly those black and brown citizens who have been left out.
He is incensed that the city doesn’t do a better job of awarding contracts to black contractors and that 47 percent of Knoxville’s black population lives below the poverty line.
And don’t expect to see him go all GQ with his hair. He likes it natural.
“I’m really proud of my African heritage,” he says. “And nobody should have to conform in order to run for office and be involved in the political process in general. All sorts of things are indigenous and natural to the culture. … Everybody regardless of how they look and what they can afford should be part of the political process.”