(Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles about this fall's contested races. Future installments will look at At-Large Seats B and C, and the 6th District state Senate seat.)
Here's a quirky fact about the field of contenders for Knoxville City Council At-Large Seat A: The candidate with the most direct political experience is also the one who has raised the least money for his campaign ("least" in this case means none at all) and has probably the slimmest chance of winning.
But that doesn't bother Michael McBath, an affable 26-year-old technical producer for WVLT-TV. His similarly no-frills run for county mayor last year didn't cost him anything but time, and he says it made an impression on some of the low-income children he volunteers with.
"I teach them musical skills, how to play piano, how to read musical notes," McBath says. "I also teach them computer skills. ... When I work with these kids, we sit back and we talk. A lot of them were inspired by the mayoral race." So he decided to give electoral politics another whirl, as much as anything to show that anybody who wants to can do it.
His three opponents, of course, also cite selfless motivations for seeking office. They are Paul Berney, an architectural designer; John Stancil, a longtime salesman for Stanley Access Technologies; and George Wallace, owner of one of the largest residential real estate companies in East Tennessee. None but McBath has actually run for office before, though Stancil's wife, Cynthia, ran for County Commission a few years back. But they have, between them, an array of experience with local nonprofits and neighborhood groups. To the extent they differ on local issues, it seems to be mostly a matter of degree and emphasis: Stancil has positioned himself as a champion of neighborhood interests, Berney is a proponent of sustainable development and environmental initiatives, and Wallace talks about bringing combined public and private resources together to help build up areas like Downtown North and the Magnolia Corridor.
All four are running for a seat being vacated by Vice Mayor Joe Bailey, who is term-limited after being elected in 2003 and 2007. The top two finishers in the Sept. 27 primary will go on to the general election on Nov. 8.
Who They Are
On paper, Wallace looks like the one to beat—at least if the papers are the most recent campaign finance disclosure forms. Last month Wallace reported he had raised $14,600 in campaign contributions during the second quarter, and spent $17,687, leaving him with $16,112 on hand. That was a lot more money on all counts than any of his opponents. Stancil had about $2,700 on hand, and Berney just $351. McBath reported raising and spending the same amount: nothing.
What's more, Wallace's donor list has some serious political muscle on it: Pilot chief Jimmy Haslam, Denark Construction CEO Raja Jubran, and $2,500 from the Tennessee Association of Realtors. That last contribution, combined with Wallace's business background, prompts a jab from Stancil: "That's for Knoxville voters to decide whether a very narrow special interest should have its own seat on Council."
But Wallace says he's not running to be the councilman of developers or homebuilders. A West Knoxville native who graduated from both West High School and the University of Tennessee and still lives off Westland Drive, he presents himself as a pragmatic conciliator. "I think coming off Haslam's reign as mayor, we've got a lot of momentum built up in the things I really care about," Wallace says. "That's jobs, education, and really building those blocks and going into the future." He adds, "This seems like a real opportunity to bring experience and common sense, which is what I do."
He cites his work with Knox Housing Partnership, which leverages grants and financing programs to create affordable housing for first-time homebuyers. Wallace is currently chairman of the nonprofit organization, which has put houses in neighborhoods like Parkridge, Five Points, and Lonsdale. "What I've seen out of that is we've been able to take a few dollars, and take blighted properties off the rolls," he says. His work with KCDC's Downtown North Advisory Board has also convinced him that doing some small things on the ground—cleaning up neglected properties, providing facade grants—can make a big difference to the life of a neighborhood.
Like a lot of real-estate brokers and developers, Wallace has been a skeptic of the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan. He insists he is in favor of some kind of limits on development on steep ground, which he thinks should be pegged more to elevation than slope. But he says the rancor over it is a sign that there is work left to do. "If we've got people protesting out on the sidewalk for and against," he says, "we need to spend more time on the process, whatever the issue is."
More broadly, he says his background in landscape design (his major at UT) and development give him particular insights into the complexities of urban economies: the relationships between homes and businesses, work and play, between the design of a place and how it fits into the flow of community life. He emphasizes continued development of greenways (he's an avid cyclist), historic preservation, the importance of an active local arts scene.
Wallace also thinks Council members should find ways to get more active in city schools, even though they're under county jurisdiction. "Our most troubled schools are in our worst neighborhoods," he says. "There's a direct correlation, and most of them fall in the city of Knoxville. ... You just can't say that's the county's problem, that's not our problem. It's affecting city neighborhoods."
Stancil lives in one of those neighborhoods, Parkridge, which has seen slow but sustained redevelopment over the past 15 years. Stancil and his wife are among the arrivistes. In a way, they represent an entirely new phenomenon in Knoxville, something downtown boosters of yore only fantasized about: People who came to the city from afar, fell in love with downtown, and settled in one of its peripheral neighborhoods.
Stancil, who was born in Memphis and lived there most of his life, accepted a job transfer in 2005 that brought him to East Tennessee. During his first few weeks here, while he was renting a short-term place in West Knoxville, he saw an ad for a free Steve Winwood concert at some place called Market Square. That was his and his wife's introduction to the redeveloping downtown. After renting in the heart of the city for a year, they decided they wanted a yard—"I have this bug for flower beds," Stancil says—but they wanted to stay close to what had become their favorite haunts. "The joke between us was that instead of a two-minute walk to Market Square, we needed to be a two-minute drive, at most," he says. They landed in Parkridge, in near East Knoxville.
Stancil has been active in the local neighborhood association there, and he is particularly attuned to quality of life issues. He has familiarized himself with the workings of the city, from Council to the Metropolitan Planning Commission to the regular patrol officers he sees on the streets. He thinks codes enforcement is too variable across the city, with some neighborhoods getting more attention than others. He would also like to see more creative use of some of the abandoned industrial sites around the center city. "I love the idea of the Technology Corridor," he says of the long-incubating attempt to spin off high-tech companies from the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge. "But I think we can foster some of those things in the brownfields of Knoxville."
Stancil dismisses the idea that a Council member has to be either pro-neighborhood or pro-business. In considering a proposed project, he says, "It's gotta make a profit for the developer, or the thrill's not there. But it also has to be in keeping with the neighborhood."
Overall, he says, "I see great promise and possibility for the future of Knoxville. And I just think in some way we need to focus and decide as a community, where do we want to go?"
Berney has an answer of sorts to that question. The Knoxville native and UT grad, who has lived in Mechanicsville since 1992, says he was partly inspired to run this year by mayoral candidate Madeline Rogero's ambition to make Knoxville "the greenest city in America." Berney stops short of endorsing Rogero—he says he hears much he likes from Mark Padgett, too—but he's enthusiastic about that particular goal. Much of his work as an architectural designer has been in the realm of "sustainable design": energy efficiency, low-impact materials, reuse and recycling of resources. Citing the familiar tech troika of TVA, UT, and ORNL, he says, "This really could be almost like the next Silicon Valley." The city's role, he says, should be to work as a partner and liaison between those and other entities, leveraging state and federal money for local entrepreneurship.
Berney is also an avid preservationist. He bought and fixed up an older home in Mechanicsville, and he was active in the neighborhood association there and in the Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement during the 1990s when the city was making its Empowerment Zone application.
His personal and professional tracks were both derailed some years ago when he was hit by a car while on his bicycle. The resulting injuries and prolonged recovery led him to withdraw from a master's program in architecture at UT, and medical bills eventually led to a bankruptcy filing. But he is back on his bike, literally and figuratively, and he says he is excited about what he's seen happen in the city in recent years. Like pretty much everybody else running for office this year, he says he would like to see the energy and attention paid to downtown extend out in all directions. "Responsible development looks at what's existing that's working in that area," he says. "I really think we can use that on the Magnolia Corridor, Central, Cumberland Avenue."
He is also a strong advocate of the Hillside and Ridgetop plan. He says that its density-swap provisions would actually help developers by letting them build more on the lower and more easily developed parts of sloping property, in exchange for restrictions on the steeper parts. "I don't understand why people are against it," he says. "It's more expensive to build on a steep slope, and the city is encouraging you to build on flat land."
Then there's McBath. As the youngest candidate by far, and the only black contender for the seat, his primary concern is for Knoxville's young and disadvantaged. He grew up in West Knoxville and now lives in South Knoxville, and he says that too often there's an assumption that those parts of the city don't need the same kind of youth resources that East Knoxville does. "In West Knoxville, we didn't have a Boys and Girls Club," he says. "We didn't have after-school activities, if you didn't play sports. Not every kids wants to be a basketball or football player."
As he did in his county mayor run, McBath has made a point of showing up at forums and events dressed in his usual, casual clothes: jeans, baggy shirts, sneakers. (His motto last year was "No suit, no tie, no lies.") "I think it's funny how they say, ‘Well, you need to put on a suit and tie' and this and this and this," he says. "But if I wasn't running for anything, they wouldn't be telling me that. They'd be happy to just take my tax dollars."