In the nonpartisan race for City Council At-Large Seat B, you have one declared Democrat, one definite Republican, and one avowed independent. See if you can guess which is which: the "artist and writer" who rents an apartment in North Knoxville; the son of a prominent local family who has racked up contributions from Haslams, Claytons, and other mainstays of the West Knoxville establishment; and the one who says proudly, "I'm the only father, homeowner, veteran, and active church member in this race."
Whatever you said, you're probably wrong.
The father/homeowner/churchgoer is the Democrat, Bill Owen, a former state legislator who represented Knox County districts in the state House and Senate from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s. The independent is Marshall Stair, a lawyer 30 years Owen's junior, who is making his first foray into local politics with help from his well-connected family. And the artist and writer is Buck Cochran, a longtime local GOP activist who has raised and spent almost no money, has appeared at only a smattering of campaign events, and has been hailed by local rogue-conservative blogger Brian Hornback as "100% Republican."
The top two finishers in the Sept. 27 primary will go on to the general election in November.
So what to make of it all? That depends on whose narrative appeals more to you.
Who They Are
For Owen, 63, the race represents something of a personal mission.
The University of Tennessee graduate grew up in Nashville but spent summers with his mother's family here in Knoxville. His uncle owned the long-running Glenwood Sandwich Shop in North Knoxville, a favorite neighborhood joint for decades until the reconfiguration of the I-40/Broadway interchange wiped it out a few years back. Owen worked there as a teenager and came to love the city. He was politically active from a young age, too, steeped in his family's Yellow Dog ways. Both of his mother's parents served as postmasters in Greene County, with the original appointment reaching back to the administration of Woodrow Wilson.
As a UT undergrad, Owen says he led the drive to allow students to vote as Knoxville residents, rather than in their home districts. He first ran for the Legislature in 1974, winning a two-year term as a Democrat to represent the 15th House District. Instead of running for reelection, he moved to Nashville for a few years to do government-related work. But he tired of that, he says, and moved back here to run for office again, this time from the 18th District, which he represented from 1980-84. In 1984 he ran for the state Senate 7th District seat and held it until 1990. That seat has since been solidly Republican. Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett held it from 1998-2010, and Stacey Campfield was elected to it last year. Owen tried to win it back from Burchett in 2002 but failed. (Owen is still active in party politics, serving on the state Democratic Executive Committee.)
For the past 20 years, he has run his own lobbying and consulting firm, Asset and Equity Corp. His biggest client is the Powell-based medical equipment manufacturer DeRoyal, and Owen counts company founder Pete DeBusk as a personal friend. Among other things, Owen says he persuaded DeBusk to open the Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law in the old City Hall building on Summit Hill Drive. DeBusk is chairman of the LMU Board of Trustees. Owen now has an office in the building.
The lobbying business has been a little on the cool side lately—tax documents Owen provided to Metro Pulse showed income last year of $39,122, with $11,000 of that coming from pensions—but that's not why Owen says he is running for what might look like a step down from his earlier legislative posts. For that, you need to know a story Owen has trouble telling without tearing up. During a self-improvement seminar some years ago, at a time he was having a lot of self-doubts, Owen was confronted by a speaker who pointedly told him that he had "given up on life."
"I was called to account for myself," Owen says. "It was pointed out to me that I had a lot of knowledge and experience to give."
And that, he says, is what he wants to do on City Council. He thinks his understanding of the levers of government, combined with an ambition to make Knoxville a "21st century community," would make him a valuable Council member. The building blocks of that, as he sees it, are to extend wireless Internet via public hotspots and other means so that it covers the city; emphasize Knoxville's position as an education center—"We educate more students than any other city in the state"—and help build it into a nationally-known research and innovation hub; and build up pedestrian and greenway connections to make the city friendlier to a fully urban lifestyle.
But if Owen sees his campaign as a sort of arc of redemption, a revitalized old hand returning to lend his wisdom to a city he's known for decades, the major obstacle to its completion appears to be Stair. Owen cannot quite hide his disappointment in this; he disparages the younger candidate as a "privileged elitist," and he is quick to display data from the Knox County Election Commission that shows Stair has never voted in a city primary and has voted in only two city general elections.
Stair, 33, says of that issue, "I think it's disappointing my opponent has gone negative so early." Owen replies, "This is not negative. It's a fact. For somebody to ignore and refuse to vote for 14 years in city elections, why should people vote for him?"
Of course, Stair has his own version of events over those 14 years. He wasn't in the state or even the country for many of them. In his telling, his path to would-be public servant really started when he left Knoxville for college.
Stair was born and grew up in Bearden, in a historic home on Lyons View Pike. His parents, Caesar and Dorothy Stair, have been prominent in civic circles for decades. Caesar is a partner in the law firm Bernstein, Stair & McAdams, and is among other things known as one of the top divorce lawyers in town. (The "privileged" part of Owen's jibe, at least, seems fair.)
But Stair says it was living in New Orleans during his student years at Tulane University, from 1996-2000, that opened his eyes to what a city could be. "That experience kind of changed my life," he says. "Before that I'd sort of thought that there's the suburban U.S., West Knoxville, and then there's Manhattan. I hadn't experienced living in an urban area." He loved the walkable neighborhoods, the public transportation, and the clusters of local commercial districts.
After graduation, he did the rootless-young-American thing and spent a year traveling the world, hitting 26 countries across South America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. He landed back in Knoxville, then New Orleans again—he worked for a while as a hotel clerk in the French Quarter—and then took a job in Texas with a nonprofit, the Public Interest Research Group (an outgrowth of Ralph Nader's consumer advocacy work). That was followed by a stint in Mexico City to learn Spanish, before returning to Knoxville in 2005 to attend the UT College of Law. Stair lived in Fort Sanders while he was in school, and then after landing a job with the Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop firm, he bought a condo in the Cunningham building downtown, on Market Street. "I've lived here since 2005 and I've always been able to walk to work and school," he says, adding with a laugh, "I'm living the urban dream right here in Knoxville, Tennessee."
He is currently president of City People, the downtown neighborhood organization, and is on the board of the Central Business Improvement District. He is also still involved in his old neighborhood, through the nonprofit Fort Sanders Community Development Corporation. But if all of that makes him sound awfully Center-City-centric, Stair says he wants to see the same mix of residential and commercial revitalization spread to other parts of the city: North Central, Magnolia, the South waterfront. "Getting these under-utilized areas redeveloped in a way that brings a sense of pride like we have downtown is probably Knoxville's greatest challenge and greatest opportunity," he says.
He says those efforts are the city's best bet for long-term economic development, in attracting new employers and retaining the ones we have—and in encouraging local high school and college graduates to stay here, too. "This is where Knoxville can be competitive with other counties and areas outside the city," he says. "What do we offer? It's going to be neighborhoods with transportation options. It's going to be arts and culture. Diversity plays a huge role in this."
Needless to say, Stair sees himself as a logical force for that kind of change. He sees his youth and even his lack of political experience as positives, a way to bring a new generation into civic leadership. Of Owen's long resumé, he says, "He has a lot partisan political experience. I think that's not what we need in city government."
Then there's Cochran. Asked about the "writer and artist" description, he says, "I wrote a book about my college days and a road trip. I'm trying to get it published." He is also a collage artist. Other than that, he says, "I mostly just dabble in politics, help people who are campaigning." He ran for City Council once before, unsuccessfully, in 1999. But he is more optimistic about this year: He thinks Republican turnout for the 6th District state Senate race will help him, and he says he's well known among local GOP loyalists.
As for issues, he is most concerned with the city's red-light cameras, which he calls "anathema to any motorists in the area." (He has not actually been ticketed himself.) He also thinks his degree in business administration from UT would be a valuable credential for a Council member. But he allows that so far, he has not been doing a lot of campaigning, other than some handshaking on Market Square.
There is not much more campaigning evidence on the fund-raising front. His June disclosure form showed only $44 on hand, and he missed last week's deadline to file his July report. But Stair and Owen both turned in theirs, showing the most competitive of all the Council races, at least on paper. Stair reported a lucrative July, raising $49,735 from a roster with a lot of establishment names on it but also a good deal of support from downtown and North and South Knoxville. He seems to be putting together a coalition of the traditional West Knox Republican base and whatever you might call the emerging urbanist/preservationist crowd.
Owen, for his part, reported $32,825 raised in the same period. The catch is that only $7,825 of that is in actual contributions. The other $25,000 is a loan Owen made to himself. But Owen also downplays the significance of Stair's obvious edge in fund-raising, saying, "He has to spend two or three times as much money as I do just to raise his name recognition."
Stair, for his part, is unapologetic about the leg up his deep-pocketed connections give him. "One thing I've learned really quickly is that politics is a team sport," he says. "You need your family, your friends, your co-workers, anyone you know on your side, helping you."
Cochran, meanwhile, dismisses Stair as "kind of a greenhorn." He adds, "I've been paying my dues to my party for over 20 years, and I've got my supporters. We're just waiting for the moment to strike."