Who Will Fill 6th District Vacancy?

The changing demographics of the 6th District

In addition to all the jockeying for the vice mayor's post, Mark Brown stepping down from City Council to become a judicial commissioner also leaves his colleagues faced with the challenge of appointing a successor to his 6th District seat. Who will that be?

Until relatively recently, Diane Jordan might have seemed a shoo-in, being the ranking available member of the machine that's long dominated East Knoxville politics. Jordan, however, quickly withdrew her name from consideration, upon the belated realization that seeking the appointment appeared a little unseemly after her role in the county's recent term-limits and appointments fiasco.

After Diane Jordan's exit, the safe money is on Bob Booker. A longtime civil-rights activist, former state representative, and walking encyclopedia of Knoxville's African-American history, he's certainly the non-controversial choice. And he's already earned the endorsement of the East Knoxville machine. Both Brown and State Rep. Joe Armstrong were quick to voice their approval of Booker.

Still, the cynic in me immediately wondered what Brown and Armstrong were playing at. Since Jordan had previously hinted at seeking the City Council seat when it comes up for election later this year, were they figuring Booker would keep the seat warm for her until then—and, in the meantime, allow memory of the commission fiasco to fade?

Then came the recent announcement in the Shopper News that Jordan won't throw one of her many fanciful hats into the ring come November. Does her Obama-evoking call for "new leadership" suggest a political machine in disarray, damaged by back-to-back scandals? Beyond Jordan's audacity in getting her own son briefly appointed to her old County Commission seat, there was also the short, controversial tenure of the city's community development director Renee Kesler, a Brown protégé and previous up-and-comer in the machine, which revealed that East Knoxville ranks right up there with County Commission when it comes to cronyism. (The scandal may have also dented Brown's own mayoral ambitions.)

There are other factors affecting the center city's political future, too. Consider the example of Cynthia Stancil, long-shot contender for the 6th District appointment. As both a former downtowner and current Parkridge resident, she represents a rising demographic in the 6th District (and the largely corresponding 1st Commission District) that the east side machine may eventually have to deal with: the emergence of a politically active white upper middle class. Much as Fourth and Gill and Old North have emerged as the power base for North Knoxville's 4th Council District and the 2nd Commission and School Board Districts, could the recent influx of newcomers come to wield similar influence in the 6th?

The suggestion that a few hundred downtown loft dwellers and Parkridge urban pioneers could become power brokers within what have long been African-American-dominated political districts might sound preposterous if it weren't for one thing: the numbers. While not legally bound to do so, council has long strived to maintain an African-American majority within the 6th when the lines are redrawn after every decennial census. But a declining center-city population and, in particular, the flight of upwardly mobile blacks from traditionally black neighborhoods, has led to an ever-expanding district that is, perceptions to the contrary, barely more than 50 percent African-American.

Further complicating the task, Knoxville's black population has historically concentrated in two distinct geographic areas on the east and northwest sides of downtown. That's largely why downtown is in the 6th District to begin with; it serves as a bridge tying the two halves of the district together. It was a simple solution, back when downtown was all but unpopulated. But will several hundred new downtowners, most of them white and well-off, along with a similar, albeit smaller, influx in Parkridge, throw off the delicate balance? Considered in that light, the 2010 census—and the subsequent redistricting—should be interesting.