(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles about this fall’s contested races. Future installments will look at At-Large Seat B, District 5, and the 6th District state Senate seat.)
In a lot of ways, the candidates in the City Council At-Large Seat C race couldn’t stand in starker contrast to each other. There is the retired banker passionate about historic preservation. There is the life-insurance salesman passionate about solving the homelessness problem. And there is the minister passionate about helping people, who also happens to be the only woman in any of the City Council races.
The candidates’ finances also stand in stark contrast to one another. According to the campaign finance documents filed on Monday, Finbarr Saunders has about 193 times as much cash on hand as Ron Peabody and about 51 times as much cash on hand as Sharon Welch.
But if you talk to all of the candidates—well, two of the candidates—you can tell they are united by a genuine love of Knoxville and a desire to make the city a better place. We have no reason to doubt the third candidate feels any differently, but we are basing our assumptions on his website and Facebook pages, as he refused to talk to us, either in person, on the phone, or via e-mail.
Sharon Welch may only have $860.04 on hand with 30 days to go before early voting starts, but the cheery great-grandmother of three couldn’t be more positive about her campaign.
“I believe that I’m gonna bring a new vision in line with the city and with what’s been happening in it,” Welch says, as the faint sounds of gospel tunes dribble out of tinny speakers in the hallway behind her. As somewhat befitting a minister of 22 years at New Living Faith Community Church, Welch’s campaign headquarters are in the North Broadway offices of Rejoice 1580 AM, a Christian radio station.
Welch, 67, was born in Mechanicsville and grew up in East Knoxville, where she attended Austin High School. She studied philosophy at the University of Tennessee and pursued a career in counseling before transitioning into the world of nonprofits. Welch worked as the director of the vocational skills center Knoxville OIC for 10 years and served as the director of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA for three years, among other positions, before deciding to go into the ministry.
Welch says she feels her assorted careers are all different parts of the one whole—helping people. Welch says she’s a “people person” and a “servant” and she goes where she feel like she’s best equipped to do God’s work. She says that’s why she was compelled to enter the church at a time when there were just two other female pastors in all of Knoxville, and she says that’s why she’s now the only woman running for City Council.
But Welch says her sex has little to do with her qualifications for Council. She points to her lifelong community involvement and her bookkeeping experience at nonprofits as two assets she’d bring.
“I’m a decision maker. I know how to make hard decisions. But I also know how to listen and how to work as part of a team,” Welch says. “I believe in knowing when to bring the experts in and sit down at a table and listen to them so you can make sound decisions.”
Welch is in a better position than any of the other Seat C candidates to understand the challenges facing redevelopment along the Magnolia Avenue corridor—she was forced to move away from her beloved East Knoxville when the crime rate shot up in the 1980s. She says she lived next door to her church in Beaumont, directly across the street from the Western Heights projects, and her friends told her she was crazy to move her children there. (Welch has four sons.)
“I was safer over there than I was in East Knoxville!” Welch exclaims. She now lives in Fountain City but retains close ties to the east side of town. “I see life coming back, but I still see businesses moving out,” Welch says. She points out that the proposed Magnolia Avenue Corridor Plan covers only a small section of the neighborhood and questions whether narrowing the street will encourage businesses to return. “What would it really do?” Welch asks.
Welch says the key to a vibrant Knoxville is bringing in new jobs while retaining the ones that are already here, so as to increase opportunities for the city’s young people.
“I think Knoxville is alive, and I love Knoxville, and I want to see us continue this progress,” Welch says.
Finbarr Saunders is the only candidate in the Seat C race with prior experience—a Democrat, he served on the Knox County Commission from 2008 through last fall, when he lost to Republican Jeff Ownby. But Saunders’ civic experience in Knoxville stretches back more than three decades, and that experience and the connections that have resulted from it are likely why Saunders has such a commanding lead in the fund-raising for Seat C, with $44,068.18 on hand as of July 31.
Like Welch, Saunders is a Knoxville native. He grew up in Sequoyah Hills and was a member of the first seventh-grade class at Webb School. He studied history at Transylvania College in Lexington, Ky., but after graduation in 1966, he found himself in the middle of it, serving in the United States Army in Vietnam.
He returned home to Knoxville in 1970 and began a career in finance, quickly moving up the ranks of first Hamilton National Bank and then Park National Bank. And it was through his job, he says, that he became active in the community. Saunders says banks not-so-gently prod their employees to serve on various boards and committees. He started with the United Way and then the Arts Council and found he enjoyed the work.
“I felt like I got more back than I ever gave,” Saunders says.
His commitment to community service led him to get involved in fund-raising for the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, where he served on the board for over 20 years, and Knox Heritage, before the foundation even had a staff.
Saunders’ love of history has something to do with his love of historic preservation and smart development—he’s been on the Knoxville Historic Zoning Commission since 1986 and is currently the chair, and served on the Downtown Design Review Board from 2007 to 2009—but he says he understands the needs of businesses and developers too.
“When I hear comments that it’s so much easier to develop outside the city limits than within them, that makes me think that we have a problem,” Saunders says. “It’s like retail—you’ve got to be friendly to your customers.” The customers, in this case, being developers. Saunders says the city needs to streamline its permitting system while at the same time beefing up its codes enforcement and figuring out a citywide approach to dealing with blighted properties.
Saunders also says the homelessness problem facing Knoxville is a costly one. He says he isn’t wedded to the Ten-Year Plan, but he notes the housing-first model has a good record of working in other communities. He says he’d like to see the private sector doing more to help, but, he cautions, “This is a community problem, and we need a community solution.”
Before we get to the things at which Ron Peabody excels, we need to note one area in which he doesn’t: talking to the media.
Peabody hasn’t answered or returned a phone call from anyone at Metro Pulse since June 30, when we asked him who the “MB Mitchell” is that registered the domain for his campaign website. Peabody wouldn’t talk to us when we tried to contact him regarding his Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing earlier this year. And after originally agreeing to an e-mail interview for this story, Peabody last week refused to answer any of the questions we sent, including innocuous questions about where he grew up and went to school. (The full correspondence between us and Peabody is posted on our website.)
Still, Peabody is running for Seat C. So here’s what we can tell you about him:
He is a hulking fellow with a ruddy complexion and a graying goatee. There really is no better word than hulking—Peabody is that tall, and has that imposing of a physical presence. He towers over everyone in all the pictures he has posted on the Facebook page for his campaign, a page on which he also describes himself as a “Fiscal Conservative who loves God and Country!”
(Peabody likes to capitalize words. Sometime he capitalizes them for emphasis, but sometimes one can’t really tell why he thought it need to be capitalized, as in this July 22 status update: “Alrighty then. I will be out in the West Hills, Kingston Hills, Kingston Woods Neighborhoods tomorrow. Door to Door, meeting the People. Hope to see some of you tomorrow.”)
Here’s what else Peabody loves, besides God and country: his wife, Jamie McCann Peabody, a pre-school teacher with Head Start in Knox County, and his son Teddy and daughter Caitlin, both teenagers at Bearden High School. In the few family photos posted on the Facebook page, Peabody looks like a proud, loving husband and father.
We can confirm that Peabody is an agent with New York Life, but his office declined to say how long he has worked there or what exactly he does. Peabody’s campaign website says he is a “Financial Services Representative;” other reporters have described him as a life-insurance salesman.
Here’s what Peabody is passionate about: the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.
Peabody’s website states: “Mr. Peabody championed a more open and inclusive process concerning the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Over the course of a year both the Knoxville and Knox County Mayors agreed that the plan did not have the support of the community and needed to be more open to community input. This was the reason for the suspension of the Ten Year Plan and the creation of Compassion Knoxville.”
Peabody was named the co-chairperson of Compassion Knoxville, which was formed to further study local homeless issues, and will soon release its final report. But he stepped down after two months to run for Seat C. According to his website, “the reason he decided to run for office was to encourage more public participation in local government.” As he told Metro Pulse back when he was still talking to us earlier this summer, “What became clear to me was that a lot of major decisions are made in this town by a very small group of people.”
The other two tenets of Peabody’s campaign are red-light cameras and pension plans. About the former, Peabody says, “I will work by City Ordinance, to require a minimum of a 5 second yellow light at all intersections that use Red Light Cameras in the City. Drivers should not feel that they have to speed up to get through intersections to beat the cameras.” He also says on his website that the city should change the pension plans for all new hires: “Options could include revisions in Vesting schedules, changes in mandatory Employee Contributions, moving new employees to a Defined Contribution Plan or changing the types of employees that could participate in the Defined Benefit Pension.”
As of July 31, Peabody had $228.05 on hand for the primary.
The original version of this story said Ron Peabody filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. As he is a person and not a business, that is impossible.