By Rick Held
Not so long ago, those postcards that landed in East Knoxville mailboxes, just before Knoxville’s mayoral election, could well have helped bring the election over the inner-city finish line for the candidate who mailed them.
This time around, for Eddie Mannis, not so much.
The Mannis campaign’s targeted mailer listed thirty mostly black, mostly Democratic, community gatekeepers as supporters of Mannis — a well-known Republican businessman.
For candidates who are not from East Knoxville who want East Knoxville voters, i.e. voters of color, the conventional wisdom has been to treat that vote as a monolith. Historically, for candidates running citywide, the tried-and-true strategy for locking in the “Black Vote” has been to obtain endorsements from East Knoxville’s establishment politicos, at the grasstops of their dependable if sparse grassroots voter base.
Whether by grand racist design from back in the day or because of apathy — or both — the “Black Vote” has been a decidedly minor factor in Knoxville’s citywide elections because of its disproportionately low turnout numbers. Though one sixth of Knoxvillians are black, those majority-black precincts would never come close to being one sixth of the overall vote total in citywide elections.
Until more East Knoxville voters started paying attention.
This year, as it turned out, black voters really turned out — more than for any other mayoral election in at least a generation.
Indya Kincannon’s margin of victory in combined majority black and multiracial working-class, inner-city precincts was almost exactly equal to her overall, citywide margin of victory.
It is no stretch to say that those inner-city voters decided the race for Mayor of Knoxville.
In other words, the weedy inner-city lawn got mowed, and the grasstops made way for the grassroots.
So what happened? While no single thing can account for the black and working class voter surge, there were two new grassroots organizing efforts that targeted inner-city residents throughout the 2019 mayoral election. While working independently of each other, Community Voices Coalition and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy each largely bypassed the usual inner-city gatekeepers to tap into key concerns of low-income residents, then successfully turned those concerns into major election issues in the mayoral race (also, the City Council Movement worked hard in the inner city for their city council candidates, but stayed out of the mayoral race).
We’re #1…And That Really Sucks
Early in the year Community Voices Coalition set the stage for its Equity Campaign by releasing its findings about Knoxville poverty and gun violence. The numbers were/are a fairly devastating indictment of the city’s status quo, from the standpoint of black poverty and racial equity. 42 percent of “black or African American” (the U.S. Census category) Knoxvillians live in poverty. Knoxville has the worst black or African American poverty rate of any Southern city, and one of the worst in the U.S. Adding insult to this injury, Knoxville’s black or African American poverty rate is worse today than it was twenty years ago. Meanwhile, with three months left in 2019 (latest available numbers from KPD), there were thirteen black victims of gun homicides, compared to one white and one Latino gun death. With blacks at 1/6 of Knoxville’s population, those numbers tell a pointed tale of economic and racial inequity.
Community Voices began as an informal collaboration of a half dozen inner-city based nonprofit organizations, neighborhood groups, churches, and activists who wanted to document and address local poverty and equity issues from a local, evidence-based standpoint. The partners were clear from the outset that for their purposes evidence means not only data, but also the local human stories behind the data. Beyond documenting their issues, the partners sought broad community input from inner-city residents to propose solutions to the problems they deal with firsthand, every day.
Their initial project was a door-to-door survey of poverty experts — ultimately 699 inner-city residents — to identify Knoxville’s most critical economic justice and racial equity issues. The survey data yielded the raw material for a series of guided community conversations and two mayoral candidate forums. The Community Voices partners centered the community and candidate forums on the top issues identified in the survey: gun violence, lack of youth opportunities, and unaffordable utilities and housing.
About a month before each of the mayoral candidate forums, the Community Conversations forums set the stage for the candidate forums.
All 699 poverty experts who took the survey were invited to the Conversations (almost one hundred showed up each time). People personally affected by these issues told their stories and translated survey results, as well as their experiences, into questions for the candidates.
Putting Faces on the Numbers
At a different inner-city church each time, over one hundred neighbors attended each of the two Community Voices candidate forums, where faces were put on the issues of gun violence, lack of youth opportunities, and unaffordable utilities. People told their stories to the candidates while holding up utility cutoff notices and pictures of sons and daughters lost to gun violence. At least one mayoral candidate was brought to tears at the forum before the primary election.
The hottest election issues were no longer about rezoning and whether to allow scooters to remain downtown. “Neighborhood walkability” became more about gun violence than new sidewalks. And because unaffordable utilities gained such prominence in the candidates’ discourse, the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) found itself in a P.R. pickle.
By coincidence, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) held their own mayoral candidate forum the week after the first Community Voices forum, putting an even finer point on the issue of unaffordable utilities. KUB definitely got the point. Within a few weeks the utility announced a freeze on previously-announced increases in service fees.
The Community Conversations series ultimately led to community members creating the Community Voices Equity Framework — an outline of fourteen program and policy proposals to work on in partnership with the next mayor. With a formal document to hang their hat upon, eight community organizations formalized the Community Voices Coalition (which eventually dropped the “Coalition” part of its name) by endorsing the Equity Framework.
The next task was to get the next mayor to do the same thing, at one last candidate forum.
The Equity Vote
While candidates Mannis and Kincannnon both committed to generally supporting the Equity Framework, the differences in the level of commitment between the two candidates was not lost on too many observers. Emblematic was the Mannis response to a request to advocate for a low-income representative on the Knoxville Utilities Board. Mannis stated he would make sure that whoever he approved for the position “understands the needs and viewpoints of low-income customers.” Kincannnon committed to not only making sure an actual low-income member got appointed, but would also work to create a new, permanent seat on the KUB board, reserved for a low-income representative.
One group of observers paying particular attention to the candidates’ KUB answers was SACE. Their year-long campaign to freeze KUB fees was just the beginning of a long-term strategy to move KUB’s low-income energy efficiency and solar programs out of sideshow status and into the utility’s mainstream energy portfolio. It was not a hard choice for the SACE political action arm to endorse Kincannon, which translated into door-to-door deployment of canvass teams in East Knoxville in the final weeks of the campaign to get out the vote for Indya.
In that last Community Voices forum, Candidate Kincannon stated her commitment to work in partnership with Community Voices to turn the ambitious proposals of the Equity Framework into reality. Some of the more audacious proposals, such as broad-based low-income solar; community-based, non-law enforcement programs to directly address gun violence, and a comprehensive, independent third-party audit of the Police Department, would be historic undertakings for any Tennessee city. With so many competing interests in city government, how soon and how adequately any of these programs actualize on Kincannon’s watch will largely depend on how much attention the community is paying.
It will be up to Community Voices to keep growing the grassroots attention span that has already made a bit of history. It’s one thing to win an election. It’s quite another to win equity.
Rick Held was Director of Community Engagement for SEEED, a founding organizational member of Community Voices.