Four years ago, the leading contenders for the Knox County Commission District 11, at-large, faced off in the Republican Primary. Justin Biggs, a young county employee who pitted his sparse work experience and education against former Commissioner R. Larry Smith, a longtime politico who was campaigning under a cloud of sexual misconduct allegations being investigated by the Sheriff’s Office, where Biggs’ father was chief deputy.
It was ugly. Biggs prevailed and won handily in the general election. (The Smith “investigation” died after the election; no charges were filed.)
This year’s race for the District 11 seat presents a stark contrast to 2018.
- A woman will win.
- She will be smart and experienced. The race will be educational for anyone who pays attention. Real issues will be discussed and real promises will be made; smoke will not be blown and mud will not be flung.
- Democrat Vivian Underwood Shipe and Republican Kim Ingram Frazier are well-known community leaders with long records of public service. The winner of this seat will be a significant upgrade from its current occupant. Perhaps this is what can happen when the other half of the population (women) gets included in the process.
I already wrote a considerable bit about Frazier during primary season, so this column will focus on the Democratic candidate, longtime public citizen Vivian Shipe. It would be tempting to take a shortcut and simply reprint the column I wrote about her good works when I named her my Person of the Year for 2018 or to use this one.
But it’s been a while since we’ve spoken so I asked Shipe what she’s into these days, as well as the standard candidate question: Why are you running?
“I’ve been on the other side of the podium for 50 years, bringing issues to the city council, county commission and the school board. I wanted to run three years ago, but I got caught up by the Hatch Act,” she said.
But now, Shipe has retired from a long career with the U. S. Postal Service, so there’s no legal barrier to her making a run for public office.
“Now it’s time,” she said. “I want to take my years of experience and make a difference. Many of the people on the boards I sit on are unaware of how their votes affect the issues they deal with. I want to get on there and be that voice and try to make things happen from that side of the table.”
Shipe says she understands the demands of serving at-large, which means representing everyone in the county, not just a handful of neighborhoods.
“I’ve been in all different parts of the county, and I’ve seen all those needs. Everything I have done has been at-large, and I’ve been helping people I don’t know for a long time. Need doesn’t see color, doesn’t see party. I see it from a human standpoint. The Lord says put your hand to the plow and don’t look back.”
Shipe chose the color purple to illustrate her campaign literature because purple isn’t a primary color – it’s a hybrid, like America.
“When we sat down to run, and I started picking people for Team Shipe, I told them that we are here to help all the people. You’ve got to mix the red and the blue. And if you’re going to be on Team Shipe, there’ll be no negativity. We don’t do negative.”
She says her favorite campaign events have been backyard conversations with small groups. She’s a good listener. She hears their concerns.
“Those have been the most interesting conversations,” she said. “People ask me, ‘Are you going to forget about us when you get in office?’ But Lord forbid I forget the people who sent me there. I challenge them to hold me accountable, to remind me of those things.”
She says her major concerns can be boiled down into five categories:
- Mental health (she campaigned tirelessly for a “safety center” to vet mentally ill offenders when they come into the system)
- Responsible government
- Education improvements
- Sustainability and
- Affordable housing.
She has created something she calls a “Caring Community Cabinet” – a network of informed Knox Countians who call her attention to problems as they arise.
Shipe has three children, James Shipe Jr., Jacob Shipe and Madonna Murphy, as well as eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren (three of whom were born 10 days apart). She is raising two of her grandchildren, Kaden,14, and Aaliyah, 17. They are both students at West High School, where Kaden is a rising freshman. Aaliyah, a rising senior, will captain West’s largest color guard ever, come next fall. She wants to become a teacher, which makes her grandmother happy:
“I know my mother in heaven is smiling that she’s finally got her a teacher, because she taught kindergarten through 12th grade at a one-room schoolhouse. That’s where I learned that everybody else didn’t learn the same way,” Shipe said.
She will be campaigning hard, going door-to-door and listening. She says people have a lot to say, and she prides herself in being a good listener.
“We have to have the patience of Job. Folks feel like they haven’t been heard
“I deal with the person who’s right there in front of me. I have the ability to phase out, put that zone in and give the speaker my full attention. People are reaching out, hurting. There’s loneliness, frustration, a feeling of inability to control their circumstances. That Covid – you couldn’t make it go away. But the Lord says to put your hand to the plow and don’t look back, so I get up every morning and give it my best for 12-14 hours.
“Here’s what I tell people: ‘I’ve served you for the past 50 years, and I’m ready to take that next step. I will speak for you. And I’m just naive enough to believe in the power of the people.”
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.