District 6 Candidates on Climate & Energy: Knoxville City Council Elections

In this blog series, we share the Knoxville City Council candidates’ positions on clean energy and climate issues in their own words. This blog post contains the 6th District candidates’ responses to SACE’s candidate questionnaire.

Brady Watson | August 3, 2021 | Elections, Energy Policy, Tennessee, Utilities

In this blog series, we share the Knoxville City Council candidates’ positions on clean energy and climate issues in their own words. This blog post contains the 6th District candidates’ responses to SACE’s candidate questionnaire. View the responses of candidates from other districts here

Note: The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy does not support or oppose candidates or political parties. Links to reports, candidate websites, and outside sources are provided as citizen education tools. Candidates are listed in alphabetical order by district.

City Council is the legislative body of the City of Knoxville. City voters will elect five members to the nine-member Knoxville City Council in 2021. Early voting for the primary election runs from Aug. 11-26 and  Election Day is Tuesday, Aug. 31. The top two vote-getters from each district’s primary election will move on to a citywide vote on Nov. 2. For more information on the election, the candidates, candidate forums, and how you can be a voter, visit the City’s Go Vote! Knoxville webpage or click the links below:

District 6 Candidates

  • Deidra Harper
  • Garrett Holt: Has not returned the questionnaire
  • Gwen McKenzie (incumbent): Has not returned the questionnaire

Deidra Harper

Interest & Experience

Why are you running for this seat?

Growing up the 6th District, I saw a decline in her community while other parts of the city were prioritized with city resources. I was motivated to run to address these inequities and push for real changes in city priorities, policies, and practices. The 42% poverty rate in the Black population and the overall rate of poverty at 26% is unacceptable. Although these rates did not emerge overnight, the time for talk is over – it’s time to take bold action to address these problems through visionary leadership, policies, and initiatives.

As a business owner, entrepreneur, and leader in the 6th, I felt it was time to bring my skills and ability to get things done through real collaboration to public service as your representative on city council. My record shows that I’ve been an active citizen and leader in the 6th district and not an outsider – and I’m ready to be that vision and voice for equitable change our community deserves and needs.

What relevant experience do you have that qualifies you for the position that you’re running for? If you are a current or former public official of any kind, what positions have you held?

I have several experiences in leadership that make me a qualified candidate for city council. I have served on the City of Knoxville Business Advisory Council. As a business owner, I have been a contractor with the City of Knoxville and have seen the way that the city operates with contractors. As a non-profit owner, I understand the value of building relationships and seeking ways to come not to compromise, but consensus. However, most importantly, I am a concerned community member and citizen of the City of Knoxville and that alone qualifies me to position myself to be closer to policy creators and decision makers and become one of those myself. I’m a regular person with passion and vision for my community. My community members across these different silos have encouraged me to run to help make change and expand my impact at the city level, which I believe is one of the more important qualifications that can’t be captured on a resume.

Climate and Energy Priorities

How would you see your role as a member of City Council in mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis and transitioning to clean energy? What would your climate and energy priorities be? 

We need to take bold action now to address climate change’s impacts in our community. Environmental problems hit our most vulnerable community members first and worst and this will only continue into the future. As our summers get hotter and our seasons more unpredictable, we need to be prepared for our future. I believe that elements of my platform address both climate adaptation as well as climate mitigation. For adaptation measures, we need to focus on our infrastructure in our neighborhoods across the city. Weatherization, installation of water-permeable pavements, and improvement to water storage and use in our area are all essential parts of ensuring that we will adapt to the climate crisis. For mitigation measures, we should continue and expand the climate commitments that we have in place as a city, which focus on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in city projects and city-owned infrastructure and supporting efforts of local non-profits and grassroots groups on the frontlines of climate change. I also believe, however, we should be more rigorous in these goals and become a model Appalachian city for climate change mitigation. When elected, I will also explore the support of federal and state grants focused on green infrastructure, expansion of green jobs and sectors, and weatherization programs for our city. I also believe that we can create partnerships with the University of Tennessee, Pellissippi State, and Oak Ridge to bring many of the resources of these institutions directly to the environmental issues right here in our community. Finally, climate change and other environmental issues do not conform to the boundaries of the city – I would like to explore city to county to state to regional partnerships that protect our environment and help us prepare for the changing climate together. Such methods and measures are the core of climate resiliency.

Referencing the question above, what would you do to advance those priorities if elected, and do you have prior experience advancing those priorities? 

Currently, I am learning as much as possible and taking as many opportunities to understand the process of weatherization. I am currently taking courses for my job to understand and address lead (particularly lead abatement) and how this can connect to the weatherization process. Becoming skilled in weatherization components has sparked an interest in me to think about how we can connect many of these infrastructure improvements to sustainable weatherization as well. Learning from the ground up on these issues is the way that I like to learn.

When elected, I would like to continue focusing on the expansion of weatherization programs in our city and ensure that anyone that wants their home weatherized is able to do so. One avenue to do this is to make local businesses aware of the programming and certifications that can be attained in order to provide this service. I have heard that CAC lacks an abundance of businesses needed in order to provide weatherization to more community members. There are enough grants and programs to accomplish this as a city. I also want to focus on the development of non-tourism sectors of Knoxville and attract sectors that are rich in green jobs such as green manufacturing, green infrastructure changes, and the development of a Green Makers initiative. Alongside the focus on this equitable and green development, it is important to also have a strategy in place for educational opportunities as well as retention for those that are educated through these programs. Entrepreneurship is an exciting pathway for us to imagine an equitable and green economy – let’s be a model city in Appalachia on this front!

For other types of mitigation and adaptation measures, while I do not have direct experience advocating for or implementing those measures, I know I have the right relationships with organizations to champion these measures within our city. I’m also excited about the prospect of learning with city leadership, particularly in the engineering departments on implementing bold infrastructure changes. I have the will and I see the way to make this happen.

What is your vision of an energy and transportation system that best serves Knoxvillians?

An energy and transportation system that serves all current and future Knoxvillians must be affordable, accessible, and sustainable. 

How would you work to advance energy efficiency and renewable energy in Knoxville?

I would work with current and future council members in making sure we are having discussions on how to make our city more energy efficient, particularly related to our infrastructure, and voting on such measures. Many of the initiatives I highlight in this application are a part of that potential work. I would also like to look into more incentives that can be given to homeowners if they were to install solar panels and make other types of energy conscious decisions for their homes.

How would you help lead the electrification of our transportation system (both public and private) in Knoxville? 

As a city, we have opportunities to be a leader in the realm of electrification of transportation systems. I’m encouraged to see that KAT buses are on the way to being an all electric fleet, with the announcement this past April that KAT is planning to switch to all electric in 8 years. I will continue to support the City of Knoxville putting budget dollars toward this effort. We can also work in a similar way to switch our city fleet to all electric vehicles as well with a conversion plan with firm deadlines and budgets devoted to such a plan. For private incentives, partnering with community organizations to do educational outreach on electric vehicles has promise to reaching neighbors about the benefits of hybrid and electric vehicles. However, I would hope such a partnership is also coupled with understanding of community concerns about affordability and other pressing environmental issues in our neighborhoods, particularly for our low-income neighborhoods. While electric vehicles are one of the spokes of energy efficiency and climate mitigation efforts, many of the pressing problems in our low-income neighborhoods may need to take priority over the encouragement of electrification of our private transportation use (particularly personal vehicles). This is the issue with advocating for something like more electric vehicle charging stations when there are likely other needs that should be prioritized. ​​If neighbors in low-income neighborhoods have needs for this type of infrastructure, I would support it. However, there are other infrastructure issues, like weatherization, road and sidewalk repair, expansion of greenways and parks, and expansion of public transportation access that are higher on infrastructure lists for these communities from my perspective after talking with my neighbors across the 6th District. I would question what demographic is asking for these particular changes and why this would be seen as a top priority before putting city resources into making these changes in the name of climate justice.

How would you work to advance social and racial equity in the energy system (for example unaffordable energy bills)? What steps would you take to empower and partner with marginalized communities in your district, especially Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color?

I would fight for sustainable and affordable utilities in our community. The fact that KUB bills continue to rise and many of our families are falling behind is something that concerns me and motivates me to run for office. I support the development of a Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) as well as the Arrearage Management Program as outlined by the organization Knoxville Water and Energy for All (KWEA).

To ensure that my poorest neighbors are empowered, I feel that it is my obligation to fulfill my campaign platform, which is focused on reducing the poverty rate overall and particularly the 42% poverty rate in the African American community. My campaign platform focuses on self-determination for my poorest neighbors through equitable and green economic development, expansion of youth opportunities and investment, community-led public safety, and growth of business investment. All of the issues that have inspired this platform are felt first and worst by the poorest communities and people in my district. In addition to fulfilling my platform when elected, I also plan to not only be accessible to my constituents, but set up pathways of communication and strategy sessions that ensure their priorities and ideas are parts of city council agendas. I will ensure that I am passing resolutions and ordinances that come directly from those most marginalized.

We also need to be honest about the way that systemic racism has impacted our communities. Systemic racism has shaped the outcomes for many in the 6th district for too long. From the “urban renewal” or urban displacement policies of the past to the underdevelopment of East Knoxville throughout the past two decades and the current push to rapidly develop downtown through initiatives like the multi-use stadium, we must reconcile with our priorities as a city by changing the way that we shape people’s lives through policy and be honest about the way that systemic racism and racial poverty actually manifest in our city government. Referencing a quote from Guante Tran Myhrea, “white supremacy is not a shark; it is the water.” For me, this means that we have to look at the way that systemic racism operates in ways that we may not notice because it has been a part of the fabric of our policy-making for centuries. Changing the water, changing the ways that policy is decided upon, how resources are distributed, and who sits at the table of decision-making is how we can start to address systemic racism in our communities through our city government.

Addressing this means an entire examination of these processes and strategizing how we can make a bigger table and prioritize the way that we are bringing people, particularly BIPOC communities, into the process. I’m committed in my campaign and will be committed as a council person to:

  • Continuous and timely civics and political education
  • Meeting people where they are and showing up when I’m invited to spaces
  • Creating space for active listening and engagement with constituents across District 6 and the whole city of Knoxville
  • Co-governance strategies with those communities that work to elect me
  • Leadership development in my staff, particularly focused on BIPOC people
  • And many more ideas as the community helps me build these measures throughout the campaign

How would you work to expand clean energy jobs in Knoxville?

Green jobs and green economic development are a promising way to invest in the workforce as well as address environmental problems through climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Although Knoxville is already considered one of the fastest growing green economies in the country (Brookings 2011, 2019), these jobs have been centered in the highly skilled and educated sectors. As a city, we should be focusing on attracting sectors that have an abundance of well-paying green jobs that do not require advanced degrees such as green manufacturing, green infrastructure and building trades, and small businesses that contribute to maintaining a healthy, safe, and clean environment. As an entrepreneur, I’m passionate about providing the tools for individuals in our community to create businesses that feed people’s creativity and drive and also contribute to our local economy. As the Maker City, an initiative that has promise is a Green Makers Initiative that would encourage the growth of green entrepreneurship across the city.

Do you have any particular stances on the following energy sources: nuclear, coal, oil (gasoline, diesel, etc.), and fossil gas?

Typically, when each of the above energy sources is touted by the powerful, they only focus on one aspect of them (i.e.: natural gas or nuclear are clean burning fuels; coal and oil make the world go round and are our cheapest options). I believe that energy sources should be evaluated differently. Each of these sources must be understood through a lifeline lens of extraction, transportation, production/burning, and waste and evaluated by the harms that come along that lifeline and who benefits from keeping these fossil fuels and nuclear options in our energy infrastructure. While energy sources like solar, geothermal, and wind all have social and ecological issues associated with them as well, they are much less than the ones listed above. My stance on fossil fuels is that we need to move away from them as our primary sources of energy. Nuclear energy, because of the long-term effects of radiation exposure and nuclear waste cannot be our only energy push for the future.

How would you engage with KUB and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to advance clean energy, energy efficiency, and clean transportation options in the city?

Engaging with either KUB or TVA as a council member comes with challenges. While my opponents and other council candidates may say that this is not a role for council members, I believe that if my constituents see this as a problem, then it is a problem for me to address. High energy bills, environmental problems that stem from the extraction and the burning of fossil fuels, and the lack of energy democracy in our city are all concerns that I know people in District 6 and across the city want and need support in making their voices heard and changes in their homes and in their workplaces. Energy and environmental decision-making should be in the hands of the people.

For KUB, I support many of the policies that have been put forward by Knoxville Energy and Water for All, particularly around issues of utility justice and environmental racism. The alarming rates of shutoffs, high energy bills, and overall suffering that comes to Black households in particular is unacceptable – and KUB needs to be held accountable and show how they are going to implement change to address these inequities in our community. The effort to push forward a charter amendment ballot initiative to address energy democracy and representation issues on the KUB board is something that I would support in the future. Expansion of energy democracy shouldn’t be viewed as a threat, but as an opportunity for us to bring the best and most diverse voices to tackle our energy problems across the city. The fact that the mayor’s office stepped in to shut down this community-guided issue is unacceptable to me. I’m not afraid to champion the voices of the people in our strong-mayor government and look forward to partnering with organizations and community members to make change through and beyond our council capacity. 

 As a city council, one place that we can put the most pressure on TVA is through the purchasing power of us as a city. Following in the footsteps of Memphis, we put new bids out to contract our power as a city, which can be a way to shake up and put pressure on TVA to deliver more ambitious climate measures. While we see good progress on some goals, it’s clear that as a city, state, and region, we are not moving fast enough. I believe that there are also ways that the board of TVA could become more democratic.

Final Words

Is there anything else you feel we should know, relative to mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis or advancing the clean energy economy?

I appreciated the breadth and depth of the questions provided here and see this as a strength of SACE as an organization. It is an honor to be considered for this endorsement and I look forward to hearing from you.

View the positions of other Knoxville City Council candidates

#KnoxCityCouncilElections2021

Brady Watson
Kansas native Brady Watson attended Kansas State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in History, and then a master’s degree in Documentary Film and History from Syracuse University.  After…
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