By the end of Thursday evening into Friday morning, State Rep. Rick Staples’ district was too close to call, but the close race didn’t have to do with the incumbent.
Former Knox County and KUB commissioner Sam McKenzie led progressive Democrat Matthew Park by 23 votes, according to unofficial returns. Both garnered roughly 39% of the vote. Staples lagged behind with 21%.
The results do not include provisional votes, which will be counted when the Knox County Election Commission’s provisional ballot board reviews those ballots next week. Knox County Elections Administrator Chris Davis told Knox News there are roughly 226 provisional ballots county-wide.
In the end, Staples couldn’t survive his biggest political challenge. The race was tight and maybe Staples would not have found primary opponents had he not had issues with his campaign finances. He didn’t face a primary two years ago.
McKenzie’s strong night
McKenzie knows the terrain, having served East Knoxville on the Knox County Commission and being involved in politics for years. His wife, Gwen, is currently vice mayor of the Knoxville City Council.
“I strongly feel that the people of the 15th District are informed voters and they know and understand what type of candidate they want,” McKenzie told Knox News. “They clearly said to Representative Staples, who’s a great guy, it was just too many things stacked up against him. It was an issue of trust and accountability. That’s an unfortunate thing, but the other end of it was … we can do better in Nashville.”
Either McKenzie or Park will be heavily favored when they face Independent Troy Jones in November.
Park rode a surge of support from South Knoxville and some, like Knoxville Civil Rights icon Theotis Robinson Jr., criticized Park for being a white candidate running in a largely Black district. No matter.
“I’m honestly really proud of the campaign we ran,” Park told Knox News afterward. “I don’t think it’s a secret that there was an incumbent and a county commissioner in this race and I’m an outsider and I’m really proud of how these votes came out.”
When Knox News spoke to McKenzie, Park had not called to concede. McKenzie said if the roles were reversed he wouldn’t concede either. The Election Commission should have more details Friday.
In June, Staples asked the state Registry of Election Finance for the opportunity to pay back some $11,000 in unallowable campaign expenditures – the committee opted to wait until after the election to make any decision.
Earlier this year, after months of correspondence between his campaign and election officials, Staples sent a letter to auditors saying he intended to repay 63 charges totaling $8,910 he made from his campaign account.
The state responded to his letter asking him to explain an additional $3,656 in campaign spending over the past year-plus, including atypical travel expenses incurred around his wedding and research work that coincided with the University of Tennessee’s bowl game in Jacksonville, Florida.
Email Tyler Whetstone at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @tyler_whetstone. If you enjoy Tyler’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing.