Voters’ Guide: Candidates for Knoxville City Council, 2015

In Cover Stories, elections2015 by Team Effortleave a COMMENT

Early voting for this year’s city elections begins Wednesday, Oct. 14—and your job as a citizen is already half done. A dearth of candidates means that Mayor Madeline Rogero, City Council member George Wallace (At-Large Seat A), and Municipal Judge Joe R. Rosson Jr. have already swept their way to the halls of Knoxville power. (See our Oct. 1 issue for their stories.) That leaves three seats on City Council to be decided. So what do you know about the candidates? What do they think are the most important issues facing Knoxville? And how do they define their roles on Council in steering the city? If you’re curious (and you ought to be, dang it), we’ve compiled this guide to provide some answers. Early voting ends Thursday, Oct. 29 and Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Get cracking.

City Council – District 5

One-term incumbent Mark Campen faces a challenge from community volunteer Jennifer Mirtes

It’s rare in a local race for the most important difference between candidates to be, basically, a philosophical question. Not political philosophy—not conservative or liberal—but diverging opinions over the basic meaning of representative government.

That’s the curious situation in City Council District 5 (Northwest Knoxville), where one-term incumbent Mark Campen faces a challenge from longtime community volunteer and organizer Jennifer Mirtes. (Remember, even though this is a district race, all Knoxville residents will get to vote on it in the general election.)

Mirtes shared her position on a number of issues, but stipulated that those opinions won’t matter if she’s elected. At that point, she says, her vote will be determined by the desires of her constituents—even if she strongly disagrees with them.

As a leader in the Inskip Community Association, Mirtes says, “I sat there and watched (Campen) vote for us or against us, and it’s just not right… You’re not there for yourself anymore. Sorry. Don’t get me wrong, I like Mark. He’s not a bad guy, it’s just: It’s time for someone stronger.”

Campen, of course, disputes that assessment. “I’ve got a strong record of supporting neighborhoods,” he says, pointing to his votes to block rezonings, a Fountain City crematory, and the high-density apartment complex plan for Northshore Town Center. “These are backbone issues that I have stood with the people,” he says.

But Campen also has a different take on the role of an elected representative. “You have to do what’s best for the entire city, not just for the loudest voice,” he says. “I think (Mirtes) is really green. I don’t think she really realizes what all is involved.”

He says a good example is the way he approached a showdown in his district over historic preservation vs. commercial development. Many of his constituents were upset over the likely destruction of the Howard House on North Broadway to make way for the parking lot of a planned Walmart Neighborhood Market. Campen says he met with the developers, neighbors, and the Broadway Corridor Task Force to develop a position on the issue. Although it looks as though developers are now axing their own plans, Campen had been leaning toward opposing it, not only for historic preservation but for the store’s potential traffic and environmental impacts.

Campen began his local public service as a member of the Fountain City Town Hall development watchdog group and the Greenways Coalition, the grassroots group that prompted the founding of the Greenways Commission. He was appointed to fill a seat on the Knox County Commission after the black Wednesday debacle, then ran unopposed for his City Council seat in 2011. That means this is Campen’s first real race.

Mirtes says she thinks she’s ahead, running on her own track record of supporting schools and neighborhoods. She takes credit for working with the police and sheriff’s office to increase law enforcement presence and drive down crime around Inskip Park. “Elderly people come out now and walk and they feel safe,” she says. “I got results. That was me, before I got involved with the homeowners’ association.”

Mirtes says of Campen, “He’s all about compromise. I’ve lived over here for a long time, and when I first moved in, all I saw was drug deals going on in my park. Where do you compromise? You don’t. You get authorities involved, you put your foot down, and you take a stand.”

As president of the Parent Teacher Student Organization at Central High School for four years, Mirtes says she pushed the right people to clear up a permitting roadblock so an elevator could be installed at that school and others in the district, enabling them to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Although City Council races are nonpartisan, Mirtes has made it known that she’s a Republican. Yet she says political affiliation doesn’t matter when it comes to the politics of neighborhoods. She declared her intention to vote for Mayor Madeline Rogero, a Democrat, but adds that she won’t necessarily vote with Rogero.

“I think once you run for office, you need to speak for the people,” Mirtes says. “If they want me to follow the mayor, I’ll do that. But if they don’t want me to, then it’s my responsibility not to.”

Mirtes works part-time in public relations for a company that sells home security systems, although she spends much of her time caring for her elderly father. A former Air Force heavy equipment operator who was deployed during the first Gulf War, Mirtes moved to Knoxville about a decade ago.

“The military taught me how to stand up for myself, be a leader, and make things go the right direction,” Mirtes says.

A role model she met during her childhood in foster care inspired her to become an active volunteer and fundraiser. In 2013, while Mirtes was managing an Applebee’s, the Knox County Commission declared a “Jennifer Mirtes Day” to honor her top fundraising nationwide for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Earlier this year, on behalf of the Inskip Park and Pool Neighborhood Watch, Mirtes successfully argued against a new high-density apartment development that would have likely driven up the student population at the already-overcrowded Inskip Elementary School. (Campen opposed that project, too.) “In North Knoxville, what we’re trying to do is stabilize,” Mirtes says. “Stop with the apartments, stop with the rentals. We want less transitory (residents).”

Campen says he wants to help continue Council’s good momentum on redevelopment, pushing those efforts out from downtown to North and East Knoxville. In his district, Campen supported the down-zoning of 200 properties in the Inskip area to single-family residential, to prevent new apartment complexes from boosting the population density to unmanageable levels. He says that’s been beneficial, and he wants to do the same for Oakwood Lincoln Park.

As a longtime environmental activist who is executive director of the Tennessee Izaak Walton League, Campen wants to push new litter- and pollution-reduction initiatives and continue promoting pedestrian- and bike-friendly street design (which he has championed in office). He’d like to enact Complete Streets plan for Fountain City that he says has been gathering dust for five years. He also wants to see the First Creek Greenway extended all the way to Fountain City Lake via the ridge line behind Lynnhurst Cemetery. (The Tennesseans for Bicycling Political Action Committee donated $250 to Campen’s campaign.)

Mirtes admires the work the current City Council and Rogero have done to encourage redevelopment using tax incentives and similar tools, and she says she loves the recently-passed limits on sign heights. Mirtes says she is an advocate for more sidewalks, a major interest for local neighborhood associations (such as Inskip’s and Norwood’s) whose members she says asked her to run for Council.

She also considers herself a supporter of public transportation. Her father rides the Knoxville Area Transit bus from her driveway to his water aerobics class and back. Mirtes says she’d like to start a community newsletter for her constituents to share more about issues before Council as well as information about city-provided services such as this one, which helps the elderly avoid becoming shut-ins.

Mirtes raised more funds than Campen early in the campaign, but has not filed a financial disclosure report since July 15. During the preceding period she had raised about $2,200. The majority of it ($1,500) is listed as coming from her father, who lives with her and whom she says suffers from dementia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s diseases. Her only other donation over $100 was from Terri Livezey with Knoxville Vapor (where Mirtes’ husband works). Mirtes indicated she had about $630 on hand when her July report was filed.

Campen got off to a slow fundraising start, but by the time he filed his Sept. 25 disclosure, he had received about $8,000 since early July, with a balance of about $6,600 on hand. Among his donors this summer were fellow City Council member (and candidate) Finbarr Saunders, who chipped in $500, and city councilman/vice mayor Nick Pavlis, who gave $150.

Realtors seem to smile on Campen; donors who gave $250 or more included real estate developer Tim Graham, George Wallace of Wallace & Wallace Realty, and the Tennessee Realtors Political Action Committee (which gave $500).
—S. Heather Duncan

Mark Campen

Mark Campen

Mark Campen, incumbent

Age: 40
Family: Married to Emily Campen, the co-owner of the Flower Pot; two kids, ages 2 and 7
Neighborhood: West Adair on border between Inskip and Fountain City
Political Experience: Appointed to fill a term on Knox County Commission, one term representing Dist. 5 on City Council
Education: Graduated from Bearden High; Associates of Science degree from Pellissippi State; Bachelor of Science from UT in wildlife and fisheries science.
Years in Knoxville: All of them
Community/Boards: Fountain City Lions Club, past chair of Knox Greenways Coalition
Last Book Read: Campen says he doesn’t have much time to read, but he’s currently reading Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America by presidential candidate James Webb. (Campen is not Scots-Irish.) “It’s a little dry for my taste. I normally read a lot more biology stuff.”

Jennifer Mirtes

Jennifer Mirtes

Jennifer Mirtes

Age: 43
Family: Married to Chris Mirtes; two children, ages 24 and 17, and one granddaughter
Neighborhood: Across from Inskip Park & Pool
Political Experience: First bid for elected office
Education: Studied public relations at Middle Tennessee State University
Years in Knoxville: 13
Community/Boards: Inskip Community Association, Parent Teacher Student Organization at Central High School (past)
Last Book Read: The Bible (which she reads daily). Lately, Psalm 23.

City Council – At-Large Seat C

Political newcomer Paul Bonovich succeeds in the most contested primary race to take on incumbent Finbarr Saunders

If last week’s primary election results are any indication, political newcomer Paul Bonovich has a tough road ahead in his bid to unseat incumbent Finbarr Saunders from his spot in the City Council’s At-Large Seat C, one of three positions tasked with representing the city as a whole and not an individual neighborhood or district. Bonovich narrowly beat out two other challengers in what has been the most contested local race this season to face Saunders in the November general election, garnering 560 votes compared to David Williams’ 515 and Kelly Absher’s 478. Saunders pulled more support than all other candidates combined with 2,772 votes in his favor, according to results from the Knox County Election Commission.

But Bonovich thinks his chances are good. He says he’s talked with business owners and folks out in the community who, overall, aren’t happy with the tack Saunders has taken over his last four-year term, and he believes his experience and approach makes him a better fit for the job.

“There’s a stark contrast between myself and Finbarr Saunders in terms of what I stand for and the direction I think the city should be going,” Bonovich says. “I think one of the key things right now is to have a fresh perspective that can provide a different point of view, and that’s what I bring to the Council: a fresh small-business perspective, an analytical financial background, and an interest in protecting our neighborhoods and promoting business.”

Saunders, a retired banker and life-long Knoxvillian, stands firm on the work he and fellow Council members have gotten done in recent years. He is one of three current Council members seeking reelection (plus George Wallace, At-Large Seat A, who has no opponent), and if they all hold their seats, the faces on Knoxville’s leadership board will not change for at least another two years. He says the city’s active role in redevelopment efforts has helped spur economic growth in some areas, mostly through the use of tax increment financing, or TIF, a subsidy that defers some property taxes for a certain period of time for new businesses or developments. If he wins reelection, he says he’ll continue to advocate for smart neighborhood development, stronger schools, and business development.

“Our neighborhoods are a vital part of our community, but they can’t exist without good jobs, and to have good jobs you have to have education,” he says. “There’s great overlap, and I try to encourage neighborhoods, developers, and businesses to come together and talk before things go to a development stage. Whatever is developed is going to be there for 40-plus years, so we need to make sure we get it right.”

Saunders served four years on the Knox County Commission before winning a City Council seat in 2011. That experience, he says, gives him a greater understanding of how all the individual issues affecting the city and county tie together, and what areas still need some work. He’d like to see the city appoint an innovation officer like some other major cities, a position that would be charged with continually identifying ways to maintain high levels of services and improve performance within the city’s limited budget.

“I’ve already talked with the mayor about an innovation officer, and we may not be able to get that done this year (because of budget constraints and other factors), but that’s okay. We need to try to find some middle ground,” Saunders says.

Bonovich coins himself a neighborhood guy, but says it’ll take a healthy business environment for Knoxville to thrive. A self-made entrepreneur, Bonovich relocated his supply company—Consolidated Inventory Supply, Inc., a supplier of wholesale parts for agricultural and earth-moving equipment to companies in more than 50 countries—from the Nashville area to Alcoa in 2003, though he’s had personal ties to the Knoxville area much longer. He says the move to Alcoa made sense because a major business partner is located there, and they now work out of the same industrial complex.

He’s served long stints on industry and trade councils, including the Independent Distributors Associations and TN District Export Council, experiences that he says helped teach him what it takes to create the right climate for businesses, which involves taxes, regulations, and location. A sticking point for him are rising property taxes in Knoxville, which he says Saunders has supported, along with the city’s rising costs for pensions.

“In order to keep Knoxville competitive, we have to keep our property taxes low, and we have a responsibility to find alternative sources of revenue (for the city),” Bonovich says, adding that he has heard the cost of doing business in the city is already “about 25 percent higher” than in other parts of Knox County, according to other busines owners. One option for other revenue sources would be to take a close look at the mayor’s discretionary spending and find areas to cut or shift, he says.

With less than a month to go until Election Day, Saunders’ campaign is still sitting on a hefty war chest with more than $23,200 cash on hand, according to the most recent financial disclosure filed Sept. 25. The same day Bonovich reported just $8.06 in his coffers.

Saunders has received nearly $13,300 in contributions since July, mostly less-than-$1,000 donations from individuals and some small businesses around town. During that same period Bonovich brought in about $12,700, including a $5,500 personal loan he made to his own campaign, records show.
—Clay Duda

Finbarr Saunders

Finbarr Saunders

Finbarr Saunders, incumbent

Age: 71
Family: Married, two children from a previous marriage, one granddaughter
Neighborhood: Westwood
Experience: Knox County commissioner 2007-2011, Knoxville City Council member since 2011
Education: B.A. in history and political science, Transylvania University (1966)
Years in Knoxville: 63
Community/Boards: St. John’s Episcopal Church; East Tennessee Quality Growth; West Knoxville Sertoma Club
Last Book Read: “Dead Wake, about the Lusitania. 2015 was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, and it’s a fascinating book by this fellow Eric Larson. It’s obviously history, but it’s told on a more personal level. It gives kind of the personal history of some of the passengers and some of the experience. You can feel the incredible emotions when the ship is torpedoed.”

COVER_1008_PaulBonovichPaul Bonovich

Age: 52
Family: Married, two children
Neighborhood: Sequoyah Hills
Experience: First bid for elected office
Education: B.A. in Literature, University of the South (1985); Diploma in Politcal Science, Instituts d’études politiques (Institute of Political Studies – Paris, France) (1988)
Years in Knoxville: 17
Community/Boards: John XXIII University Parish Catholic Center; Independent Distributors Association
Last Book Read: “It’s on my iPad. The Flander’s Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. It’s historical fiction. It’s pretty neat to see the world from somebody else’s perspective. I’m really interested in history and literature, and it combines both of those.”

City Council – At-Large Seat B

Veteran politician Pete Drew seeks to unseat incumbent Marshall Stair and rebuild city government on biblical principles

Knoxville natives Pete Drew and Marshall Stair see the city heading in different directions. Drew says the current administration is driving it downhill, and it’s out of line by publicly supporting gay marriage and spending tax dollars on things like walking paths and greenways instead of increasing bus service for people that need it. Stair thinks the city is on the upswing, and he’s hoping to keep building momentum around redevelopment and smart growth in part by incorporating more transportation options, such as greenways, bike lanes, and better bus service.

Both men have divergent views on what it’ll take for this city to continue to grow and prosper, and both are vying for a chance to represent it for the next four years in At-Large Seat B on the Knoxville City Council.

Stair, 37, is defending the post he earned in 2011 against enduring candidate Charles “Pete” Drew, 77, a veteran politician who has not held elected office in many years, but earned stripes as a county commissioner during the 1970s and a state representative in the 1980s. Drew says he puts his name on the ballot just about every election because, when his time finally comes, he wants to be able to testify to God that he stood for what he thought was right.

“My real goal in life is to change America,” Drew says. “To do that, we have to reinstitutionalize biblical institutions in the decision-making process. We have to convince as many people as we can to put God first, and if they’ll do that it’ll take care of a lot of other issues.”

To that end, Drew plans to rally support from what he calls the kingdom-minded Christian community—those who adhere strictly to the Bible and do not support things like gay marriage or abortion—to lead a change in Knoxville politics and, ultimately, across the nation. He figures there are about 80 millions Christians in America, of which 40 million are registered to vote and only 20 million actually cast a ballot at election time. If he can mobilize the other 60 million, he says they’ll have the power to change the country for the better.

Stair, a civil litigation lawyer, talks much more locally. Looking back over the previous four years, he says the City Council tackled some tough issues that will help Knoxville in the long run, such as passing a new sign ordinance and increasing funding for sidewalks and bike infrastructure, but still more needs to be done for the city to continue its forward momentum.

“One of my focuses is going to be working to change zoning regulations to allow more residential developments along our commercial corridors, which will help with a lot of aspects. Places like Bearden, Central Avenue, and the South Waterfront already have mixed-use zoning, but in our commercial zones right now you can’t do residential,” Stair points out. “(Changing that) will put pressure on the city to make sure the corridors are amenable for pedestrians and potentially biking, it will get people closer to our public transportation system, and provide more people close to businesses and retail, which has been a challenge in recent history.”

A retired chemical plant worker, Drew says if he’s elected he’ll push for the city to be more inclusive and to work with property owners before scooping up buildings for redevelopment. He says the existing owners should have a chance to rework a blighted property and possibly be offered tax breaks similar to ones given to new developers. He also plans to press state legislators for lottery money to support historically black colleges, although that likely does not fall under the purvey of his role as a City Council member. Specifically, he says he’d ask for $5 million annually to reopen and run Knoxville College, arguing that poor, black communities spend the most money on the lottery, yet the state spends most of it “to send middle-class people to college.”

Stair pulled 79 percent of the vote during last week’s primary election, although the count didn’t have any weight on this race since he faces only one challenger. Generally, the two candidates with the most votes in a primary go on to face off in the general election.

Stair’s campaign had on hand more than $38,000 leading into the final month before Election Day, according to the most recent campaign disclosures filed Sept. 25. His expenses neared $3,300 since August, including $1,250 spent on direct mailers and a $250 contribution to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, a local African-American history museum. Contributions during the same period totalled $1,330, all but one of which came from individuals. He also received a $500 donation from the TN Realtors PAC (Political Action Committee), his largest single contributor during that period.

Drew, on the other hand, has reported no contributions or expenses for the entirety of his campaign through Sept. 22, his most recent filing.
—Clay Duda

COVER_1008_MarshallStairMarshall Stair, incumbent

Age: 37
Family: Engaged
Neighborhood: Old North Knoxville
Experience: City Council member since 2011
Education: B.A. in history, Tulane University (2000); Juris Doctor, University of Tennessee College of Law (2008)
Years in Knoxville: 32
Community/Boards: Knoxville Symphony Orchestra; East Tennessee Historical Society; Bijou Theatre; Knox County Public Library
Last Book Read: “It probably was What Then Must We Do? by Gar Alperovitz. It’s a book about income inequality, and obviously that’s a big issue nationally. It proposed some creative solutions to try and address it.”

COVER_1008_PeteDrewPete Drew

Age: 77
Family: Married, four stepchildren
Neighborhood: East Knoxville
Experience: three terms as county commissioner, three terms as state representative for District 15, one term as Knoxville-Knox County MPC commissioner
Education: A. A. in Ministry, Ministry International Institute (1961)
Years in Knoxville: 73
Community/Boards: Honey Rock Victorious Church
Last Book Read: “I’m reading a book by James Kennedy. He’s the guy who put in place this method of how you influence the evangelical community and reach out to build a system that will help you eventually be in control of not only your life, but be back in control of America. I think America would be better off if it functioned under biblical principles.”

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