Due to term limits, the Knox County Commission seats currently held by Tony Norman (3rd District) and Larry Smith (7th District) are up for grabs this year. Ed Shouse (11th District) is also giving up his seat to run for Knox County Trustee. So the Republican primary races—there are no Democrats running—are packed with both fresh and familiar faces.
Longtime radio talk show host Ed Brantley is running against Michele Carringer, a former vice-chair of the Knox County Republican Party, for the at-large 11th District seat. Bo Bennett, a one-time Republican candidate for mayor of Knoxville, will face Charles Busler in the 7th District.
Over in the 3rd District, county employee Randy Smith is up against Billy Stephens. And each of the six candidates has his or her own unique ideas on how to address Knox County’s needs.
For the last three years, Smith, a former real estate agent and business owner, has worked in Knox County’s risk management department as an insurance and OSHA specialist. That, he says, has given him the opportunity to work with every department in the county government, and find out how they all operate on a day-to-day basis. He says the current tax base has to grow in order to increase revenue for the county without raising taxes.
“I’m concerned about job growth and economic growth. I don’t think we’ve had enough of that in the last seven to eight years,” Smith says.
If elected, Smith says he’d like to be involved in recruiting business to Knox County.
“I think that’s the key to maintaining low taxes and being able to provide services to Knox County,” Smith says.
Smith says he also brings the ability to listen and respond to the needs people in his district might have.
“In real estate and retail, customer service is everything. … You go broke in real estate if you don’t return calls,” Smith says.
Smith does plan to maintain his full-time job at the county; he says it shouldn’t present any conflicts of interest. But he expects he’ll still be able to devote plenty of time to the needs of his district.
“When an issue comes up, I’ll do my research and get feedback from people in the third district. And I’ll vote how they want me to vote,” Smith says.
Stephens spent 33 years at the Rohm and Haas as a plant worker but he has spent his retirement volunteering for various city and county agencies.
Stephens served as a mediator in the court system for four years; he’s also volunteered his time with the Knox County Sheriff’s Senior Citizens Awareness Network.
The 46-year resident of the 3rd District says voters he’s talked to seem to be most concerned about zoning and taxes. As to the first issue, Stephens says some of his neighbors are concerned about the land on which they live in the wake of the recent landslide in Washington state, which ended in dozens of homes being destroyed and people being killed. His concern is that if development is the path to a greater tax base, then homes and businesses don’t need to be built where landslides are a possibility. Yet Stephens says he’s also a fiscal conservative.
“I don’t see any reason to raise taxes in the near future, although the prediction is that sales tax revenue is going to be flat,” Stephens says.
As a retiree, Stephens says he’ll be able to devote himself full-time to Commission.
“What the people need is someone who’ll listen to them and get back to them,” Stephens says. “I’ll get them an answer. It may not be what they want to hear, but I will report back to them.”
Stephens says he’ll also use his experience as a moderator and advocate to work with people to find solutions to problems.
“I can listen. I don’t have to be right all the time. If you can prove to me that your idea’s better than mine, we’ll work on it,” Stephens says.
A lot has changed for Bennett since he ran for mayor of Knoxville in 2011. He’s had a son. He was hired to be the director of operations of E-Government Solutions, a company that sells management systems to local governments (but not Knox County). He’s also re-focused his attention on his neighborhood.
It’s there that Bennett thinks he can help improve things the most, which is why he’s running for Commission.
“I want to change the world. Starting with the Seventh District,” he says.
Bennett says he’d like to advocate on behalf the senior centers and schools in his district, and says he’d like to see them receive appropriate building maintenance and upkeep.
“I have a child, and I’m going to be old one day. I don’t consider investing in children to be a waste. They’re kind of important,” he says. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t be wise in how we make our investments.”
Bennett says he’s a fiscal conservative, but says he’s open to other ideas on most subjects. He’d like to see the local entertainment tax lowered to attract more film and television projects to the area. He’d also like to see more tax breaks and incentives offered to more companies to make doing business in Knox County more attractive.
Bennett also says the county needs to innovate, become more efficient, and become more transparent.
“It’s not enough to say you want a transparent government one day. I want a transparent government now,” Bennett says. “That’s what transparency really is: It’s actually relaying information to your constituents.”
But the ultimate reason Bennett wants to represent the 7th District is because of his infant son.
“My son’s going to grow up there. I’ll probably live there the rest of my life,” Bennett says. “The Seventh District is where my future is.”
Busler has lived in the 7th District since 1969, the year he married his late wife. He raised two daughters there. His grandchildren live there now. That’s why he says he knows what his district needs.
“We’ve got to have jobs, we’ve got to have families stay together,” Busler says.
Busler’s top issues are schools and taxes. He says he’d encourage Knox County Schools to devote more of its budget to teachers, though he realizes commissioners have limited control over the school system’s budget. Busler says he won’t raise taxes if elected—too many people in his district live on a fixed income.
“We’ve got to look at that make sure we’re not putting the burden on the backs of people who can’t afford it,” Busler says.
That’s why the tax base needs to expand, he says. Busler is looking to Chattanooga and Gatlinburg for ideas on how to promote tourism in Knox County.
“When you look at Chattanooga, when you look at Gatlinburg and things like that, they’ve expanded their waterfronts, and made their cities more of a place for tourism. Gatlinburg keeps on growing because they know it’s a tourist place,” Busler says.
Busler say he’s also making sure to speak directly to people and not fixating on social media.
“It’s the responsibility of the government to be fiscally responsible, and make sure they keep more of the money they earned. And the most effective government is closest to the people,” Busler says.
Brantley is a 42-year veteran of the broadcasting business. He worked his way up from a part-time job to the manager of five local radio stations, overseeing a $10 million business. He says that experience is vital to anyone hoping to represent the county at large.
“I think that makes me uniquely qualified to be on Commission because I’m not coming from some political angle, I’m coming from a business angle, knowing how budgets work. And Knox County spends almost $3 million a day, and that’s a lot of our tax dollars we need to watch out for,” Brantley says.
Brantley’s also been an active leader in the community. He started the Coats for the Cold program (now run by Knox Area Rescue Ministries), and he has raised money for needy senior citizens.
If elected, Brantley says he’d like to concentrate on bringing new businesses to Knox County and retaining people who are educated here.
“I think a lot of our people who graduate from high school or college in this area are leaving to go to other places. I think we have fallen behind Nashville and Chattanooga in particular. Even some of the surrounding counties, we’ve fallen behind in drawing new industry to Knox County,” Brantley says.
Drawing new companies to Knox County would expand the tax base and allow tax rates to remain low. Brantley says he won’t vote for a tax increase.
His dedication to serving the community and business experience is why Brantley says he’s the best person to represent Knox County.
“I’m a first time candidate. I am a business person with true business experience, and $10 million in business revenue a year. I bring business experience and people experience, and I know how to work with people,” he says.
Carringer says she’s all about community service.
Carringer is currently on the board of seven organizations (the Free Medical Clinic of America, the Knoxville Academy of Medicine Alliance, the East Tennessee Epilepsy Foundation, the Sertoma Center, the Metropolitan Drug Commission, the Fort Loudon Lake Association, and the Three Rivers Golf Course), will serve on the steering committee of the Congressional Medal of Honor when it comes to Knoxville in September, and is a sustaining member of the Akima Club of Knoxville. That’s not to mention her involvement in the Fountain City Republican Club, the Volunteer Republican Club, and the Knox County Republican Party (which she vice-chaired in 2003).
“Service and volunteering was brought up in me from the time I was a small child,” Carringer says. “That’s what makes us a strong nation and a strong community.”
Carringer was appointed to Commission in 2009 for 20 months after Scott Moore was ousted from the 7th District seat. After her home was redistricted from the 7th, she decided to run for an at-large seat.
“Having the title ‘Commissioner,’ I was able to help even more people. ... Knox County Commission is a servant role, and it’s a serious job. It’s trying to meet the needs of the people,” Carringer says.
Throughout her campaign, Carringer’s main concerns have been schools, neighborhood safety, and taxes. But she says she also knows that each district is different, and each has specific concerns.
Carringer also hopes to make Commission more reflective of the population it represents. If elected, Carringer would be only the second woman on the dais, besides Amy Broyles.
“I do believe that Knox County does need more women to help make these critical decisions. I believe that it takes both sides—it takes men and women—to come together to work on things,” Carringer says. “We’ve got so many strong women leaders in the Knoxville area, and I think our government is lacking, obviously.”