Knoxville’s New Mayor
Since December 2019, Indya Kincannon ’93 has been running Tennessee's third-largest city.
Going into the 2019 primary race for mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., Indya Kincannon ’93 entered a six-way battle as the only transplant to the city and the only woman. She was not considered the front runner, but she prevailed. In the general election, her Republican opponent, a local businessman, was widely seen to have the advantage. But in a tight race, Kincannon emerged victorious, defying the pundits by engaging with citizens of all backgrounds at countless town halls, public forums, and community events in the Volunteer State’s third-largest city.
“She will not give up,” read one of the handmade signs behind the stage where she gave her victory speech, and Kincannon, who was sworn in to office Dec. 21, had this to say about her win: “I think that our campaign showed that I’m a great listener, I work hard, and I’m going to continue that. I did that throughout the campaign, and that’s how I’m going to be as mayor, too.”
That approach— to listen to all voices— was not mere campaign strategy. It’s a core value for Kincannon, one fostered by her father, heightened at Haverford, and emblematic of her two decades in public service. Her father, C. Louis Kincannon, served as director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 2002-08. He was instrumental in diversifying the bureau, recruiting census takers who reflected the communities in which they worked.
“He was ahead of the curve in understanding the importance of how having a diverse group of people working for large organizations helps you make better decisions and reach people of all populations,” she says.
At Haverford, where she was a history and Spanish double major, Kincannon met her husband, Ben Barton ’91, and found her father’s example echoed in the values of the College. “The desire to hear and respect people from all walks of life and income levels are values that Haverford cultivated in me,” she says. (Following in her mom and dad’s footsteps, daughter Dahlia Barton is part of Haverford’s Class of 2023.)
Kincannon earned a master’s in public affairs and urban and regional planning at Princeton, and worked as a budget analyst for the Arizona State Legislature before moving with her family to Knoxville in 2001, when Barton accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Tennessee College of Law. “We fell in love with the city and raised both of our girls here,” she says.
Her involvement in her daughters’ schooling prompted Kincannon’s 2004 run for the Knox County Board of Education, an operation with a $450-million budget, 56,000 students, and 8,000 employees. During her decade on the board— including three years as chairperson—graduation rates and student outcomes improved significantly. “My biggest accomplishment was that we raised expectations for students,” she says. “Kids in Tennessee were just as smart as kids in other places, but we just were not giving them the resources they needed to thrive.”
Later, as special program manager in the administration of Knoxville mayor Madeline Rogero, whom she succeeded, Kincannon oversaw $1.6 million in community agency grants and managed hundreds of appointments to boards and commissions. “I had to make sure they were truly representative of the city, in terms of age, ethnic diversity and geographic representation,” she says.
Now in the city’s top office herself, one of Kincannon’s first actions as mayor was to create a new division of government, called Community Empowerment, that will sharpen the city’s focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She also has plans for reducing Knoxville’s carbon footprint to combat climate change and has promised to create a workforce development liaison position to help create a greener city. She says she’s eager to build on the growth she has seen in her nearly 20 years in Knoxville. “There is a growing confidence in our identity,” she says. “Instead of trying to be like other cities, we are embracing who we are and celebrating and building on those strengths.”