Mostly-White Knoxville Elects Indian American Socialist to City Council
November 28, 2017
On November 7, 2017, Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) party member Seema Singh Perez won a seat on the Knoxville, Tennessee City Council, the first Indian-American and DSA member to do so. She ran as an independent and defeated her opponent, James Corcoran, by over 2,000 votes even though he was backed by the local major newspaper, the Knoxville News Sentinel after he won the primary election in August 2017.
Knoxville, which is nearly 80% white, has been cited as one of the most affordable cities in the country to live in, but poverty is still rampant. The average median income for a household in Knoxville is $31,048, more than $22,000 less than the nationwide median income. The city’s poverty rate is 31.2 percent, over twice the national average. The city has struggled with providing resources to those who are homeless, rather than disbanding homeless camps to mask the problem.
Cities in the south typically lean Democratic, while outer and rural areas are predominantly Republican. Knoxville is no exception, though being a city of Democrats in a deeply conservative state complicates the ability for local politicians to push progressive policies. In the south, particularly in areas where Democrats have been weak, Democratic Socialists of America have begun to fill this vacuum of grassroots organizations for individuals to place their energy and efforts into.
“My campaign was successful due to the volunteering energy of residents of Knoxville that have been involved with social justice work of all kinds shifting their focus to electoral politics,” Singh Perez told the Real News Network in an interview. “We made phone calls, we knocked on doors, we had conversations with so many people and actually listened. The ‘trick’ to our success has been that we actually care about the community and are not based on self interests. These are values that the DSA embraces.”
Singh Perez’s parents were both social workers, which inspired her to do the same in her own career. She has worked in women’s reproductive health, with HIV/AIDs patients, the homeless, and currently runs a jail alternative program for domestic violence offenders as the Program coordinator for The Batterers Intervention Program at the Alternative Counseling Center.
A first time candidate, she was inspired to run for political office by Bernie Sanders’ emphasis on social justice issues and getting regular people involved in the political process.
But she was also concerned over the rise of Trump and the racist far-right.
“I started thinking about running for office before Trump actually got elected, more when the country was actually entertaining him as a legitimate candidate,” she said. “That I felt was frightening enough, to see somebody with his moral deficit be considered as a leader. When he got elected, it made me feel that the reality I had lived in was shattered. That was the immediate feeling. I walked around in a daze and felt very betrayed by my country. I think I started feeling like a lot of other progressives. We've hit bottom.”
Shortly after the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in August 2017, a group of white nationalists held a confederate rally in her hometown. But there was some sign of hope. The 40 white nationalists were met with nearly 2,000 anti-racist protesters. The day after the rally, the group that held it, Confederate 28, dissolved.
Two white supremacist rallies rallies held in Tennessee in October, just before the City Council election, suffered similar fates. “It's time to begin to rise up,” she said. ”The DSA is a place I went to for hope and for continued inspiration.”
While Singh Perez noted there were a few conservative bloggers who accused her of being a Russian communist for affiliating with the Democratic Socialists of America, the majority of feedback from her city council district was overwhelmingly positive. “There are always people who give you advice, and they're not running,” she added. “They think they know how to do it and told me that that was not going to be good for me, but it was more important to me to stick by my values and lose if I needed to, but I didn't feel that that would make me lose. I feel like this is the time for leaders who are intelligent with some passion to step up, and the DSA, to me, represents that.”
In December 2017, Singh Perez will be formally sworn in as one of nine members on Knoxville’s City Council. She ran on a platform that highlighted economic inequities that thousands of Knoxville residents struggle with in their daily lives. “The policies that most places, including Knoxville, have followed I think have been very well intentioned, but there's certain things that need to be questioned in order to serve those that are continuously left behind,” said Singh Perez. “I feel my role on the City Council is to look at these policies and decisions and bring different viewpoints to them, from different perspectives. When you see a problem, you stand up and fix it. That's what I will continue to do.”