The Rundown: Knoxville's Mayoral and Council Candidates

An interesting cast of characters is lined up for this fall’s city elections

[Editor's Note: Since this story was published on June 22, City Council candidates Hubert Smith and Tierney Bates have both withdrawn from their respective races.]

After a small flurry of petition gathering and filing over the past few weeks, the field of candidates for this fall’s Knoxville city elections has turned out to be more crowded and colorful than expected. With the exception of the 5th District City Council seat, which has just one official candidate, the contests feature an array of personalities and faces that could make for some lively discussion. Now all they have to do is get anyone to listen.

Here’s a quick rundown of the races and the people involved:

The Exec

As we expected a few months ago, we head into the summer with five declared candidates for mayor. But it’s not quite the five we thought. There’s Madeline Rogero, the former county commissioner and city administrator who ran a strong race against Bill Haslam in 2003 before going to work for him a few years later; Mark Padgett, the young buck getting his political feet wet with an ambitious and impressively well-funded run; Ivan Harmon, the veteran office-holder (you name the office, he’s held it) who retired from the city’s Stormwater Division this year; and Bo Bennett, the 24-year-old 911 dispatcher and black-belt martial artist who is filling the requisite long-shot “Who?” niche this year.

The fifth contender was supposed to be City Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy, who entered the race early and was the overall fund-raising leader through the first two rounds of campaign finance disclosures. But then Roddy dropped out, running instead for Jamie Woodson’s vacated state Senate seat. For a little while, there was talk of some big-name mystery candidate who would have the backing of people in the business community and/or West Knoxville who were unsatisfied with the existing field. That never happened. Instead, the last-minute entrant was former City Councilman Joe Hultquist, the South Knoxville growth and planning wonk who said he was concerned that important issues were going undiscussed.

In a phone interview, Hultquist says his surprise run is entirely in earnest. “I just couldn’t get a good comfort level” with the tone of the race so far, he says, “and I feel too passionately about the city and where it’s going.” Particular areas of concern include transportation planning and ongoing city projects like the (stalled) South Waterfront and the redesign of Cumberland Avenue.

Public reaction to Hultquist’s announcement has so far been muted, but several community and neighborhood activists who supported him in his City Council runs are already committed to Rogero. “I think some people who supported me before probably are supporting other candidates,” he says, “and that’s something I don’t take lightly. How that will play out in the election remains to be seen.”

Among other things, Hultquist starts at a financial disadvantage, with both Padgett and Rogero already having raised well over $100,000. “I will certainly need to raise an adequate amount of money to run a credible campaign,” he says.

At-Large Seat A

All three at-large seats on Council are up for grabs this year. Any qualified city resident can run for any of them, but they have to declare which one. Candidates run citywide in the September primary, and then the top two vote-getters for each seat go on to the November general election. (All city races are nonpartisan.)

The first declared candidate for Seat A was John Stancil, whose wife, Cynthia, ran for County Commission in 2008. The Stancils moved to Knoxville from Memphis six years ago and settled in Parkridge after living downtown for a year. They have been active in the local neighborhood association, and John Stancil, 61, says issues like blight, codes, and zoning enforcement top his list of concerns.

Also in the race are Hubert Smith, the radio reporter and commentator who has hosted local-issues talk shows on several Knoxville stations; Michael McBath, who ran an entertaining, no-budget campaign in the Democratic primary for county mayor last year (memorable slogan: “No suit, no tie, no lies”); and George A. Wallace, a West Knoxville Realtor.

The final entrant to declare was Paul Berney, 42, an architectural designer who lives in Mechanicsville and says he was partly inspired by Rogero’s goal to make Knoxville “one of the greenest cities in America.” He says he wants to focus on sustainable growth and environmental awareness.

At-Large Seat B

Seat B has a similar mishmash, with one old, familiar name and one newish but still sort of familiar one. Former state Sen. Bill Owen is a longtime Democratic Party activist, who among other things blogged for the News Sentinel from the 2008 Democratic National Convention. His tagline: “A Hillbilly-at-Large.” Politically greener but maybe nearly as well connected is Marshall Stair, 32, an attorney at one powerful local law firm—Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop—and son of the cofounder of another one. His father, Caesar Stair, is a prominent name in West Knoxville circles and a partner in Bernstein, Stair & McAdams.

Marshall Stair, who has been active in local organizations, including the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the Central Business Improvement District, says he wants to take the kinds of redevelopment successes that have happened downtown and replicate them elsewhere in the city. “I think there should be places in all parts of the city that are attractive enough and desirable that people are going to want to go and spend an afternoon there,” he says.

Also in the race are Buck Cochran of North Knoxville, who ran for Council in the late ’90s, and Tierney Bates, who works in the development office for UT’s College of Engineering and ran for the District 2 Council seat two years ago. (In 2008, Bates, then 31, was named a young leader to watch in the News Sentinel’s “40 Under 40” list.)

At-Large Seat C

If any race has the potential to turn into a single-issue referendum, it’s this one. Ron Peabody, a West Knoxville neighborhood activist who made a name for himself last year as the leading critic of the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, is making his first bid for office. Although the Ten-Year Plan is now officially stalled, and Peabody until recently cochaired a citizens group called together to study the issue, some of the ill will engendered by the debates over where to locate homeless housing still lingers. Peabody says his experience illustrated to him the importance of people feeling like they have a voice in their own government. “What became clear to me was that a lot of major decisions are made in this town by a very small group of people,” he says.

His most prominent opponent is Finnbarr Saunders, the former county commissioner whose defeat last year by Jeff Ownby was partly (though who knows how accurately) attributed to Saunders’ support for the Ten-Year Plan. Saunders says his experience on Commission convinced him of the necessity to “lower the noise level” and curtail vitriol in local politics. “I’m sick of it on the national level, it’s no fun on the local level, and it doesn’t provide solutions to anything,” he says. He is concerned with economic development and with bolstering the city’s involvement in the school system, which is part of county government but serves city children (and consumes a lot of city sales tax dollars). Both Saunders and Peabody say they want the race to be about more than the Ten-Year Plan.

Also running for the seat are Terry Milligan, a local business owner, and Sharon Welch, a pastor with the demographic distinction in this candidate field of being a politically conservative black woman.

5th District

Then there’s the 5th District, where only local conservationist and Fountain City resident Mark Campen filed a petition to run. Campen, 35, is a graduate of Bearden High School and the University of Tennessee and is the executive director of the Tennessee Chapter of the Izaak Walton League. The national non-profit group is dedicated to protecting soil, air, and water, and Campen says he has been involved in creek clean-ups and other efforts all over Knoxville. He briefly served on County Commission, when he was appointed to complete a term after the Black Wednesday machinations of 2007. (He did not run for reelection, and Amy Broyles was elected to the 2nd District seat.)

Campen says he’s a little disappointed by the lack of opposition in his North Knoxville race—“that there aren’t more people who want to help their community or improve their districts.” But he’s campaigning anyway, going to meetings of neighborhood and civic groups so that when he almost certainly takes office in December, he will already be a familiar face. Among causes he plans to push are the expansion of the greenway system and the continued development of the Downtown North area. His slogan: “Knoxville’s a great city, let’s make it better.”

The candidates, or most of them, are scheduled to gather in the same place next week for their first debate. (See sidebar.) The primary is Sept. 27, with early voting kicking off Sept. 7.

Save the Date:

Candidates’ Forum, June 30

Conventional wisdom says that most Knoxvillians aren’t paying attention yet to this fall’s city elections. Conventional wisdom even suggests that most Knoxvillians don’t know there’s an election coming up at all. Do you hear that, Knoxville? Conventional wisdom thinks you’re kinda dumb and lazy. Well, you can prove conventional wisdom wrong by showing up to a candidates’ forum from 5 to 8:30 p.m. next Thursday, June 30, at the Knoxville Expo Center, 5441 Clinton Highway.

Candidates for the four open City Council seats will debate from 5:30 to 6:30, followed by the candidates for mayor speaking from 6:30 to 7:30. Then, in a special bonus round, candidates for the State Senate seat recently vacated by Jamie Woodson will debate from 7:30 to 8:30. Scheduled moderators are Kristin Farley of WATE Channel 6, and longtime local conservative pundits George Korda and Lloyd Daugherty. So come on out and get a look at our next civic leaders. Or you can stay home and prove the conventional wisdom right.

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