Two hundred and forty-two. That’s how many people had voted in the first five days of early voting for this year’s Knoxville City Council races.
Of course, given that three candidates are running uncontested—District 1’s Nick Pavlis, District 2’s Duane Grieve, and District 3’s Brenda Palmer—it’s not a huge surprise that turnout is low. And given that the other races, in District 4 and District 6, only have two candidates on the ballot, and that the top two vote-getters in the primary go on to the November election, it’s understandable that people are having a hard time mustering up the energy to vote.
Still, in an election with such meager turnout, every vote can indeed make a difference—especially when there’s a certified write-in candidate for District 4. Even if you don’t live in District 4 or 6, you’ll still get the opportunity to choose between incumbents and their challengers on Nov. 5. Thus, we bring you a succinct rundown of the challenged races. Early voting ends Sept. 19 and Election Day is Sept. 24. Get out there and vote, whether or not it matters.
District 4 is the race that’s getting the most attention, mainly because it seems like it has the most likely chance of producing a new Council member. Incumbent Nick Della Volpe is running for his second term, but challenger Rick Staples has already racked up high-profile endorsements from the Knoxville Firefighters Association and the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Central Labor Council, as well as unofficial ones from the Fraternal Order of Police (who aren’t allowed to officially endorse a candidate until the general election slate is set).
Della Volpe and Staples are the only two names on the ballot, but Carl H. Lansden has also officially qualified as a write-in candidate. If enough people write him in—which, given the tiny turnout, could plausibly happen—Lansden’s name will appear on the November ballot along with the other top vote-getter.
However, Staples is the political newcomer drawing the most attention. He’s been everywhere this summer, campaigning at event after event. Staples currently lives in North Knoxville near the Whittle Springs Golf Course, but he grew up in Della Volpe’s longtime neighborhood, Holston Hills. Staples says his mother started the first daycare in East Knoxville and his father worked for the school system, but on weekends, Staples was usually sent to his grandparents’ nearby farm, where, he says, he learned the value of hard work.
“I’m from the people, and I want to serve the people,” Staples says.
Staples currently works for the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, where he’s been for eight years, helping organize and run rehabilitative programs like GED classes, law library services, and prison ministries that try to address chronic behavior issues. Staples isn’t married but has a longtime “significant other,” he says. He daughter Britney is 24 and moved to Charlotte, N.C., after graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga last year.
Staples says his top concerns for the district are greening the neighborhood and encouraging job creation. He says Knoxville needs a more comprehensive tree ordinance and should encourage cleaner development. He also thinks the chunks of East and North Knoxville that he would represent are prime locations to land future companies.
“There are a lot of empty buildings that we could fill with jobs,” Staples says.
But Staples has drawn the most attention—and support—for his claims that Knoxville is not facing a future massive pension problem.
“There is over a billion in the pension—it’s not going to break the city,” Staples says. “They’re using the economic downturn to scare people. Those who work in public service deserve to retire with dignity.”
Della Volpe says Staples is dead wrong, and that if something isn’t done to address the pension problem soon, whether it’s increasing taxes or increasing employee contributions or something else, then the city will be facing a massive crisis.
“There’s only $500 million in the pension,” Della Volpe says. “The liabilities are greater than $680 million. ... There is no magic panacea for catching up. We’d all love the stock market to take off, but that’s not realistic.”
(For the record, a city spokesperson says the pension had just under $500 million at the end of June with liabilities of $661 million as of July 2012. Liabilities for this year have not yet been calculated.)
Della Volpe is a retired attorney first elected in 2009. He’s made Knoxville his home since he moved here in 1973 to work for TVA, moving on to Baker Donelson in 1987 and Wagner, Myers & Sanger a decade later. Both on Council and off, Della Volpe has worked with the city and county on beautifying parts of East Knoxville and helped in the creation of Tank Strickland Park, which features the city’s first bocce court.
Della Volpe says his legal experience makes him especially well suited for Council.
“Half the time we’re dealing with zoning battles, stuff like that,” Della Volpe says. “My opponent wants cleaner air, but that’s not within our purview.”
Both candidates are opposed to the closure of the former St. Mary’s Hospital in North Knoxville and do not support Tennova’s plans to build a replacement facility in West Hills. Both men are also noncommittal on Mayor Madeline Rogero’s likely proposal to include same-sex partners in city employee benefit plans.
“We’ll deal with that when it comes up,” Della Volpe says.
“It’s a huge, deep issue,” Staples says. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I’m Baptist. But they deserve to have the same rights as everyone else, I think.”
Staples wouldn’t directly criticize his opponent. “I don’t have anything personal against him,” he says. “I’m just tired of the bickering. I’m not a negative person. ... I think people of the district want a person who’s going to speak less and do a lot more listening.”
Della Volpe admits his sometimes confrontational style could stand to be a bit more diplomatic, but he says that everything he does is in his constituents’ best interests.
“I’m a little bit blunt,” Della Volpe says. “But what I’m willing to do is raise the issues no one else is and talk about them. If they’re not talked about, government just becomes a dumb show.”
Lansden did not return repeated calls (although his voice-mailbox was full, so we also couldn’t leave a message). He told the News Sentinel that he is running as a write-in candidate because he couldn’t get enough signatures on the qualifying position.
Lansden is involved in housing rehab and sales, but he owes $7,857.03 in unpaid taxes on three pieces of property dating back to 2009. (He’s up to date on the two other properties that he owns.) He was also, along with his father, a plaintiff in a 2011 lawsuit over hundreds of thousands of dollars of imported firearms that had been seized by the ATF; the Lansdens were suing to get their money back from the Blount County company, T.G. International, that had been raided. They also accused it of being a Ponzi scheme.
Lansden told the News Sentinel “he seeks the post to be more involved in the community.”
After Bill Haslam was elected as governor, Council members selected District 6’s Daniel T. Brown to serve as interim mayor for the remainder of Haslam’s term. Brown made history as Knoxville’s first African American mayor, but the most eventful thing that probably happened in Brown’s term was his marriage to his longterm girlfriend, Cathy Ann Smith, which included him serenading the bride with the Temptations’ “What Love Has Joined Together.”
Brown can do more than sing, of course. He’s well liked on Council, and he sticks up for his East Knoxville constituents as much as his downtown ones. Brown’s often the only Council member to ask how something will impact the east side, as when, in a recent hearing on the Tennova relocation, he peppered the hospital representatives with tough questions about why, if the hospital had to be moved, it couldn’t be moved east instead of west.
Brown grew up in East Knoxville and attended the then-segregated Austin High School. He studied history at Tennessee State University, served in Vietnam, and returned to Knoxville, where he worked for the U.S. Postal Service until his retirement a few years back. He has been active for decades in the NAACP and his church, First A.M.E. Zion.
“I have enjoyed serving so far. It’s been an honor to serve,” Brown says of his time on Council. “I would like to continue to serve and to work on some projects we’ve started.”
Brown says he’s most interested in following through on the KCDC redevelopment of the Walter P. Taylor homes and the upcoming Magnolia Avenue streetscaping.
“We have done good work with our development downtown, and I would like to see development spread out to some of our neighborhoods, especially in East Knoxville,” Brown says. He also notes he plans a push for increasing the number of city contracts with minority businesses.
Brown says he hasn’t yet made up his mind on how he will vote regarding the Tennova rezoning, but he says he’ll likely support Rogero’s domestic benefit ordinance.
“We voted some time ago not to discriminate against gay people,” Brown says. “I would have to see the wording, but I think I would be inclined to support it. I am not in favor of discrimination.”
Brown’s opponent, Charles E. “Pete” Drew, is also an East Knoxvillian and another graduate of Austin High. Drew served on Knox County Commission from 1976 to 1982, and he was a state representative from 1982 to 1988, losing to Rep. Joe Armstrong, who’s held the seat since, although Drew has occasionally mounted challenges against him.
Drew has unsuccessfully run for Council in the past and ran unsuccessfully for Commission again in 2008. (He also ran unsuccessfully for Hamilton County Commission in the 1990s when he lived in Chattanooga.)
Drew has worked in real estate, construction, and as a lobbyist for Tennessee Right to Life. He also served as the director of the Tennessee Christian Coalition in Nashville. Drew did not return repeated calls for comment.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly called the Fraternal Order of Police the Friends of Police. We apologize for the mistake.