In 4th District County Commission Race, Party Isn't Everything

With early voting beginning July 16 and leading up to the general election Aug. 5, county races are gearing up for their final stretch. In the County Commission 4th District, which spans west from near downtown out to just beyond Pellissippi Parkway, and from the river north up to Middlebrook Pike, Republican Jeff Ownby is hoping to unseat incumbent Democrat Finbarr Saunders. In the process, he's showing that, at least at the local level, it's not always about red vs. blue.

The 4th District contains many of Knoxville's most monied neighborhoods—Sequoyah Hills, Westmoreland, Riverbend, and Lyons View. It's mostly urban and suburban, and about 60 percent of the district lies in the city. Party affiliation there roughly tracks the city/county breakdown, with an expected tilt towards Republicans, although perhaps not as strong as one might assume. Ed Shouse, a 34-year 4th District resident, a 20-year at-large City Council member, and the other commissioner representing the district, says the 4th is fairly moderate in its politics, and that some precincts go heavily Democratic. For example, the 49th precinct, which includes Forest Heights, Westwood (where Saunders resides), and even Cherokee Country Club, voted about 70 percent in favor of Democrats in the last election, says Shouse, a Republican who is running for one of Commission's new at-large seats. Yet as one moves west, in many precincts that percentage is reversed.

Saunders, 65, is a retired banker and office manager, and a Vietnam veteran. He's currently finishing his first two years on Commission; he was elected in 2008 after friends encouraged him to run.

While the 2008 campaign was his first as a candidate, over the years Saunders had played a part in getting others elected. He credits Black Wednesday, when County Commission outraged many county residents through appointments made in response to term limits, for changing that. "I was irritated, and tried to get others to run, and they turned around and said, Why don't you do it?" In that race, he beat out Republican Ruthie Kuhlman—who Shouse calls a strong candidate who worked hard—by 20 points.

On a campaign mailer, Saunders describes himself as "thoughtful, reasonable, and a reasoned commissioner," and writes "I listen more than I speak, and I do more than I talk about what needs to be done." He calls himself as a "non-partisan Democrat," and he stresses the importance of process in finding pragmatic solutions to the county's problems.

"Locally, in my mind, the party label doesn't mean a whole lot," Saunders says. "We all want the same thing: We want lower taxes, a high level of services—which, by the way, is in conflict with itself, but that's okay—and I think at this level of elected office...we're all trying to make this community better."

Saunders is well-known within the 4th District, and he's received support from prominent local Republicans, such as former Mayor Victor Ashe and real estate developer Bob Talbott. He points to these endorsements, the civility he says he's brought to the Commission, and his 35 years of service in the community as proof of his capacity to work with others.

One issue the next commissioner will confront is the Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. It calls for dispersing homeless housing around Knoxville, and one of the proposed sites was at Lakeshore Park, located in the 4th. Some high-profile district residents have fought that component, and Councilman Duane Grieve has introduced a resolution that would bar housing in city parks. Saunders broadly supports the Ten-Year Plan, emphasizing that it should be considered an evolving strategy and not actions etched in stone. But the Lakeshore site does raise questions for him—such as its lack of access to public transit and its location inside a park—that he says need to be addressed through community meetings and a transparent process. "This has got to be an ongoing conversation, and I'm quite willing to be part of that," he says.

Another important issue the next Commission will deal with is the proposed Midway business park, part of the East Sector Plan. The plan has been fought by residents of the east Knox County area, concerned about the encroachment of development on rural land. Saunders supports the business park, saying the county will need the facility to attract new businesses to the area and provide for population growth expected in the coming decades.

If re-elected, Saunders says this will be his last term, noting he will be just shy of 72 when the special six-year term ends.

More than 20 years his junior, Jeff Ownby, 43, works as a technical supervisor for Comcast, a job he's held for nearly 14 years. He and his wife, Jayme Nelson Ownby, reside in West Hills, and have six children, four of them foster kids. Before working for Comcast, Ownby spent eight years in the Navy, and his close-cropped hair still hints at his service.

Ownby is a political newcomer, and says Black Wednesday also inspired his entry into politics. He's running against Saunders because he says he's better in touch with the working-class people in the district, and he criticizes Saunders for not being more active as a commissioner, calling him a rubber stamp for the county mayor. "We don't need somebody who is just going to sit there and not question anything, and not do anything, which is what Saunders has done for two years," Ownby says. He adds that he thinks Saunders is captive to big business interests that support him.

As might be expected of a Republican running in a Republican district, Ownby's toeing a more partisan line, claiming the conservative mantle and calling for greater fiscal restraint. When asked where specifically he would make cuts, he acknowledges that with 61 percent of the budget going to schools, 12 percent to the sheriff's office, and only around 17 percent at the Commission's discretion, there isn't a great deal of room to maneuver. For someone not currently on Commission, he speaks knowledgeably about the budget and county issues.

Ownby says Saunders is conservative when he speaks but not when he acts. "If he was conservative, he wouldn't have voted against allowing guns in parks," Ownby says. "And he wouldn't have voted to allow the scattered approach in the Ten-Year Plan."

Earlier this year, Ownby attended the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, and shared this update with his Facebook followers: "Another great day in New Orleans. Got to listen to Sarah Palin, Tony Perkins, Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry. Then went to Sean Hannity book signing and to the Hannity live show. I am so pumped and ready to take District 4 back and bring Conservative common sense approach to running our County."

Thus far, though, this hasn't yielded him the kind of support from local Republicans he'd hoped for. While the Knox County Republican Party supports him "100 percent," according to chairman Ray Jenkins, Ownby expressed frustration with the GOP on his Facebook page: "It is time for the Republicans in the Knox County Republican party to support the Republican candidates in the County and not the Democrats that run against our Republicans. It is sad that our former Mayor Victor Ashe is supporting Finbarr Saunders instead of the Republican (me). There are also prominate [sic] business owners... (Republicans) supporting him also. Well when I win I will thank the real Republicans that helped me."

On the Ten-Year Plan, Ownby says he's against the Lakeshore site, too, for similar reasons as Saunders. But he goes further. "The Ten-Year Plan, basically, for lack of a better term, has been shoved down our throats," he says. He supports the petition drive now under way to place a referendum on the November ballot that would halt it. "I think we need to stop the plan. I am in favor of that. I think it needs to be taken to the voters," he says. Later, he softens that position. "I just think we need to look at it a little closer," he says, suggesting that sites should be constructed one at a time so that each can be analyzed and learned from.

Also like Saunders, Ownby supports the Midway business park. "We need to expand our tax base, and the research that I've done on it, this park will attract different businesses than what Forks of the River would," he says.

Ownby is casting himself as the underdog and the outsider. He says he's "not a politician," and that his donations come from "small business owners and regular, everyday citizens." His argument contains an interesting reversal: the Republican fighting for the working class against the Democrat beholden to big business. But he believes it will work. "That's what a lot of the citizens are looking for," Ownby says, "just an honest, everyday person who knows what it feels like to struggle to meet a mortgage or struggle to put food on the table.