Knoxville incumbents defeat Republican challengers

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Newly re-elected District 4 councilperson Lauren Rider (blue scarf) mingles with guests during a post-election celebration at the Hyatt Place Hotel in downtown Knoxville. Photo by Megan Sadler.

Seema Singh may have won re-election to Knoxville City Council on Tuesday night, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she was happy. 

“The Republicans brought some ugliness into city politics that does not belong here. We see each other at the grocery store, we’re friends, we’re neighbors — they were trying to change that,” Singh said after learning that she’d defeated challenger Nicholas Ciparro with 56 percent of the vote. 

“I’m angry about that,” she said. 

“We are all saying that society is getting more difficult. It’s because of things like this,” Singh continued. “The rest of us, we’re all getting along with each other, disagreeing amicably, right? And then they come in with this agenda. The agenda was to disrupt.”

That agenda, however, failed miserably. 

Singh was one of five City Council incumbents who handily won re-election in the face of a strong bid by the Republican Party to seize control of City Council. 

Until this election, both major political parties had respected the longstanding tradition of nonpartisanship in City elections. But the Republican Party — under the direction of Knox County Chairman Daniel Herrera — decided to turn the election into a highly partisan fight, apparently in the belief that Knoxville conservatives could be energized by tapping into outrage over national issues. 

Instead, each of the incumbents ended up winning more than 55 percent of the vote.

Beyond the simple issue of who won and who lost, however, questions remained about how much the election cost and whether City races will henceforth be stained by partisan discord.

“I don’t like money in politics,” Singh said. “Because of what they did, we all had to raise more money. There’s never been half a million dollars raised before and there should never be half a million dollars raised. So those are my feelings.”

The GOP-backed slate of candidates, financed by the Scruffy Little City PAC that was founded by Erik Wiatr, attempted to label the serving Council members as “socialists” and claimed they were undermining law enforcement. They ended up securing the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, but in the end the strategy wasn’t enough to win an election.

Wiatr and other Republican officials couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday night. 

Lauren Rider, who defeated Jim Klomaris for the 4th District seat, echoed some of Singh’s sentiments. 

“These are normally nonpartisan issues, or it’s nonpartisan races, focused on actual City Council issues,” she said. “And what happened was, I’m pretty sure the people that were running this tried to run against us … on issues that the mayor deals with.”

Even if it didn’t end up costing Rider the race, seeing the FOP endorse her opponent clearly bothered her because “we have voted on everything the chief has put before us.”

“One of the things that made me incredibly emotional today, and I’m not gonna say names, is when two different police officers today thanked me and told me they supported me and hoped that I won,” Rider said. “And I felt like things were really negative and really nasty… I literally was crying, like all the police don’t hate us and don’t think that we’re trying to take them down, because we’re not.” 

Rider added: “I want them to be the best police force that they can be and address the public safety issues that we have. I want them to have the support they need. I want them to have the pay that they need. I want them to have the staffing that they need. And we already fully fund those things. It’s just a really challenging time for police. It’s a horrible challenge, it’s impossible to do … And it’s really comical and insane that in this campaign, they tried to pin that on me.”

The incumbents and their supporters gather at the top of the Hyatt Place Hotel on Gay Street to celebrate their wins in the 2021 City Council election. Photo by Megan Sadler.

Tommy Smith, who took nearly 57 percent of the vote against challenger Elizabeth Murphy in the 1st District, said the race showed that Knoxvillians appreciate elected officials who represent their interests. 

“I feel like I’ve delivered on what people asked me to deliver, and it turns out helping people is popular. So that for me is a resounding kind of answer to that is if you help them, they tend to show up to support you,” Smith said. 

“When people look at the national politics and even the state politics, it’s pretty divisive and I don’t think it’s healthy,” he said. “I think people that I talked to on their porch care about the park — it’s a quarter mile away. They care about the sidewalk — that’s 100 yards away. And they care about the water run-off —that’s five feet away.”

He continued, “So to me people showed up tonight and said, ‘I care about my community.’ … I’m not good at politics, I’m good at public service and helping people so, for me, it was just really comforting to know that people want that.”

As for the future, Smith said that Knoxville is “hitting our stride.”

“The city you see in front of you is one that people who live here love,” he said. “People who don’t live here want to be here. So, yeah — that creates its own challenges. But I’d much rather have those challenges than be a place that nobody wants to be.”

According to Smith, balancing Knoxville’s growth rate with the high livability factors that attract people to the City is one of the most important challenges faced by officials in the immediate future. 

“I think people want a thriving little corner that they can go, eat, work in,” he said. “And I have to say, people deserve a place where they can make a living wage and a livable city. And we have that. We’re becoming so attractive that that’s going to be hard soon, but for now we have that. And so I think it’s important that we retain that.”

He added: “If you look back at Knoxville’s history over the past 100 years, we don’t peak really high and we don’t valley really low. Stable growth is what we want. We don’t want booms, because that creates inequities and things that you can’t handle. So we want stable growth, and that’s what we’ve done really well.”

John Aita and Justin Possemato stand outside the polling place at Bearden Middle School. The men were representing the Scruffy Little City PAC and the Republican-backed challengers in each race for City Council. “I just think that, you know, this current City Council is acting like a rubber stamp for the mayor,” Aita said. Photo by Megan Sadler.

J.J. Stambaugh contributed to this report.

Megan Sadler can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on November 3, 2021.