With his youthful countenance and perfectly pressed white shirt sans sport coat, City Council candidate Ray Abbas comes off with the preternatural earnestness of a high school valedictorian. And it's probably not a coincidence, since his career in public service began at Fulton High School, where he helped found a long-running local charitable organization as part of a senior project.
But don't be fooled by appearances, because Abbas is hardly what you'd call wet behind the ears. At age 33, he's now a 16-year veteran of non-profit service organizations, as well as an intriguing dark-horse candidate for the at-large council seat currently held by entrenched local politico Joe Bailey.
â“It's a non-partisan race, but it's no surprise to people, knowing my background, that I'm a Democrat at heart, and it's no secret my opponent (Bailey) is a strong Republican,â” says Abbas, sipping a glass of ice water at a window seat of the Panera Bread in Fountain City. He's polite when asked about his opponent, offering no other comment other than the fact that the incumbent's political machine is much better funded than Abbas' own grassroots effort.
Bailey, for his part, offers only that he welcomes his opponent's participation in the race, and that his chance of pulling an upset is â“a matter for the voters to decide.â”
â“But I have worked real hard with voters to get elected, and have continued to do so. So I'm confident I will be reelected,â” Bailey says.
But being a clear underdog doesn't bother Abbas; he believes his progressive ideas have the potential to sway would-be voters wearied of the status quo.
The son of Sam Abbas, proprietor of Abbas Food Marketâ"a community grocery that operated at Gill and Broadway for 33 yearsâ"Ray discovered his passion for community service during his last year at Fulton in 1992, when he and some fellow students founded Falcons for Food, a non-profit the aim of which was to raise money for local charities.
â“Fulton was a very diverse high school,â” he explains. â“They put a lot of emphasis on service as part of our extracurricular activities, as a focus of the student body. And I found that I just really enjoyed it; it was extremely worthwhile.â”
Under Abbas' management, the outreach survived nine years, providing a host of direct services to the needy, including emergency food supplies, clothing, and even financial assistance for rent and utilities. His association with Falcons for Food connected him with the Love Kitchen, an organization dedicated to bringing a broad range of services to the disadvantaged in East Knoxville, of which he has served as president for the last two years and as a board member for the last 14.
But up until spring of this year, his full-time job was with the local Community Action Committee (CAC), a public agency that serves senior citizens, the disabled, low-income families and the unemployed in Knox County. Abbas served as coordinator of CAC's career center and manager of its youth program. He stepped down from his position in April to make a run for council, and to avoid any potential conflicts of interest should he win the office. â“I'm a full-time candidate now,â” Abbas chuckles.
Why the move to politics? Having a keen interest in community affairs, Abbas says he had been regularly attending council meetings for the last two years when some of his associates from the non-profit sector approached him about seeking office. â“They felt like maybe some of leadership abilities they observed in me could help me further my work for the under-served,â” Abbas says.
â“I came to agree with them. A lot of my experience has been in direct serviceâ"providing someone with emergency food, or maybe some type of job retraining. Because I went at it from the service route, I feel like I have a good understanding of the policy side, the hands-on, in-the-trenches experience, so to speak. And I feel like I can serve the public best at this point by going at issues from a policy standpoint.â”
Abbas says two issues comprise the heart of his platform: resolving the homelessness crisis in Knoxville, and promoting economic revitalization in areas of the city that have been consistently neglected. He notes the Lonsdale and Beaumont communities as well as the communities along the Magnolia Avenue corridor as â“areas that have been struggling for quite some time.â”
Abbas lauds the city and county's joint 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, but says we may still lack the political will to translate its well-considered precepts into tangible solutions.
â“What we've seen is that even with the plan, there's not a lot of time and resources dedicated to the problem,â” Abbas says. â“The plan is a good one, taking the Housing First model as its template, and stressing the importance of good leadership. But I feel we can do a much better job of putting it into action.â”
As to economic revitalization, Abbas says â“we already have a model we use in other parts of town: you need to get large business interests involved, anchor tenants, then continue to encourage small and minority businesses as well. Then you need safe working and living conditions. And you must have more stringent codes enforcementâ"addressing vacant lots, blighted properties, empty storefronts.
â“The idea is to create a ripple effect, go block by block putting together worthwhile economic development.â”
The recent failure of the IGA grocery storeâ"once heralded as a beacon of new economic development thereâ"in East Knoxville's Five Points community offered a case study of sorts in community revitalization, one with which Abbas is very familiar, given that the Love Kitchen is located across Parham Street from the former grocery.
Abbas' assessment: â“A grocery is a difficult anchor tenant. Getting people to change those shopping patterns is a big undertaking. If it had been me, I probably would have started with something the community has wanted for a long time, maybe a restaurant chain, or a bowling alley, or a clothing store where otherwise they would have had to go to Knoxville Center.â”
However, he adds that the Five Points development, even with the grocery having been scaled back to a convenience store, â“is still a huge asset to that community. I've been working with the Love Kitchen 14 years. I know what it looked like before. That building has great potential.â”
In the meantime, Abbas knows the smart money is against his winning a council seat from the well-established Bailey.
â“It's common knowledge that my opponent has the ability to raise large sums of money,â” he says. â“On the other hand, we're running a grassroots campaign, going door to door, talking to neighborhood associations, having meet-and-greets in the parks, just getting out and talking to as many folks as we can.
â“We're determined that this is not going to be a race about money. It's going to be a race about ideas, solutions, and the residents of Knoxville.â” â" Mike Gibson
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