Knox County Democratic Party Chair Matt Shears has a reputation for punching above his weight. He took over the local party in June of 2020, and the following year he oversaw the smackdown of a GOP push to take over the non-partisan city council elections. This was a big deal because his boastful Republican counterpart had raised a ton of money and predicted a “sweep.” This year, the Dems exceeded expectations in county elections, as well, and it’s safe to say that the days when members of the majority party snickered when Shears would predict the number of election cycles it will take to turn Knox County blue are over.
Now, he makes them a little nervous, and not a little envious, when they compare their party’s recent trajectory to that of the KCDP (and the bang they get for the dollars they spend). The Democrats’ gains are incremental but undeniable. They do more with less. Way more.
Shears isn’t falsely modest about the recognition, however. He’s quick to tell anybody who’s listening that he’s not out there on his own. He’s got a secret weapon.
Its name is Jack Vaughan, and Shears gives him major props for the party’s local progress. (Vaughan returns the compliment, saying that Shears “fund raising prowess and his enthusiasm for this work has taken the KCDP to the next level.”)
Although really, anybody who follows the nuts and bolts of local politics has heard his name by now. If you know, you know – as the saying goes. Last year, Vaughan, who is a superb number-cruncher, managed the winning city council campaigns of Tommy Smith and Andrew Roberto.
Most recently, Vaughan managed the campaign of Katherine Bike, the school board candidate who pulled off the upset win of the year by defeating Republican Will Edwards, whose Who’s Who list of campaign contributors coughed up three times the money Bike managed to raise.
Vaughan also worked for an even more prohibitive underdog, Debbie Helsley, who opposed County Mayor Glenn Jacobs’ re-election bid. Helsley didn’t win, but she vastly overperformed expectations by finishing with 45 percent of the vote. Vaughan is proud of that race, too, and he ran the campaigns the same way, with lots of shoe leather.
“Face-to-face is best,” he said. “That’s the way Katherine broke through against Edwards and his money. It’s a new way to campaign. Meet people where they are. It’s not like playing dodgeball in the mud the last week before the election” (a reference to an Edwards campaign event). “While they were doing that, Katherine was out every day meeting people. You’ve got to meet people where they are; find out what their concerns are. When you go to a fund-raising event and hobnob with the political class, that’s like the top one percent of people interested in local politics. Nothing’s more valuable than meeting folks where there are, and not taking votes for granted.”
This was the first year that school board elections were partisan, and Vaughan believes that worked against Edwards, too.
“He was running among a slate of some pretty extreme candidates, and in times as partisan as these, people aren’t going to split their tickets.”
He’s not done for the year, either. He and C.J. Butcher are managing Gregory Kaplan’s District 18 state House campaign against MAGA Republican Elaine Davis. He believes that unfolding events at the national level (think the impact of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v Wade) will have an impact on this race, and that Kaplan has a shot, which would mean that the Democrats could pick up an additional House seat.
Vaughan, who recently turned 22, is a UT student majoring in communications and political science and was a 2019 graduate of Hardin Valley Academy. He is the son of two educators – Susie Whitinger and Mark Vaughan – and got interested in politics during the controversies around former schools Superintendent James McIntyre (he was not a McIntyre fan). He lives in Fourth & Gill, and this year was elected to represent Knox County Democrats on the state Executive Committee from state Senate District 5.
He says he doesn’t get discouraged about (mostly) being an underdog.
“It’s fun knowing that you’re able to persist and have these successes locally and at the state level when you’re at rock bottom. Gloria Johnson’s a good example. Win or lose, she keeps fighting. She’s one of the people I really look up to.
“And as Democrats in a red state and a purple county – dare I say– you’ve got to persist. It’s fun knowing that it’s only up from here.”
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.