Republican incumbent Eddie Smith and Democratic challenger Gloria Johnson have tangled twice before. Will this time end differently?
by scott barker • october 2, 2018
For the third time in as many elections, Republican Eddie Smith is squaring off against Democrat Gloria Johnson for the opportunity to represent Knoxville’s 13th District.
Education, job training and health care are at the top of the campaign agenda.
Smith unseated Johnson, then a one-term incumbent, in 2014. Two years later he fended off Johnson in a rematch. Both contests were close in a district that’s fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Smith won by 182 votes (of 13,278 cast) in 2014 and by 151 votes (of 22,173 cast) in the presidential election year of 2016. For the mathematically inclined, those are margins of 1.4 percent and 0.7 percent.
This year, Libertarian candidate Zachary Houk, a bearded 26-year-old political novice, could siphon off votes to make a difference in the outcome.
In separate interviews last week, Smith and Johnson shared their thoughts on Round Three of their political rivalry. Smith, over coffee and a bagel at Panera Bread in Fountain City, said he doesn’t see much difference this time around (he joked that running against the same opponent allows candidates to re-use campaign materials).
Johnson, on the other hand, said between bites of a sandwich at Wild Love Bakehouse on North Central Street that she’s sensing more energy surrounding this campaign. “We’ve been so close both times,” she said, “and people continually ask me to run.”
Both are engaging in old-fashioned, shoe-leather politics -- attending events and going door-to-door to speak to voters across the sprawling district. The 13th District meanders from the area around Knoxville Center mall, to North Knoxville, including a portion of Fountain City, to Bearden and Sequoyah Hills before crossing the Tennessee River to cover a large swath of South Knox County. “I’ve found it more effective to stand on their doorstep and listen to their concerns,” Smith said.
As expected from an incumbent, Smith is running on his legislative record and said Tennessee is heading in the right direction under a Republican governor and a GOP supermajority in the Legislature. He has served as chair of the Knox County legislative delegation.
Johnson, as befitting a challenger, sees need for improvement. “We’re still not adequately funding education,” said Johnson, who is a retired special education teacher.
Education is one of the central issues of the campaign.
Smith touts a bill he sponsored to create recovery high schools, which will be designed to give teenagers with substance abuse issues a chance to get their lives on track to a better future. “It will benefit the state long-term,” he predicted, “but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Smith also points to a bill on free speech on college campuses he sponsored that gained national attention, and another measure that calls for transparency in tuition estimates for students at state universities and colleges.
Johnson said the state education establishment’s big problem is that teachers are ignored on issues such as testing.
“Special interest groups are forcing out public school advocates,” she said. “We need some strong public school advocates in Nashville.”
Johnson acknowledged that public schools need improvement and emphasized that she’s not opposed to testing (“That’s what teachers do,” she noted), but said testing gives the illusion that public schools are failing. She asserted more kids are graduating than ever before and more are going to college than ever before.
The candidates have different views on jobs as well. The state’s unemployment rate is low, but wages are, too. “We’ve got to talk about raising the (minimum) wage,” Johnson said. Smith said wages are rising in Tennessee, but the key to putting more money in Tennesseans’ pockets is attracting high-wage jobs and keeping taxes low.
For Johnson, health care is another top priority. She is an advocate for Medicaid expansion, and had praise for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s failed Insure Tennessee initiative. “If it’s a good idea and gets people health care, I don’t care whose idea it is,” she said. “Haslam had a good idea.”
Johnson is concerned about the closing of rural hospitals and noted that in states that have expanded their Medicaid programs, people struggling with opioid addiction can get treatment more easily.
Smith said that, if re-elected, his priorities would be education and workforce development. He wants to align the state’s workforce development programs for technical schools with high school curriculums so students can graduate from high school with a technical certificate and go straight into the workforce. He also wants to fully fund the endowment for Tennessee Promise, the state’s financing program for community college and technical school tuition, to ensure its long-term health.
Like Johnson, Smith, who describes himself as an old-fashioned Republican, said he’s more interested in good ideas than in their political source. He praised Knoxville Democratic state Rep. Rick Staples (who is not facing opposition in the 15th District race) as an effective legislator from the opposition party. “Being an advocate for Knox County is as important as passing legislation,” he said.
Civic advocacy groups have pushed for increased voter registration and turnout this year. ThinkTennessee, a nonpartisan think tank, joined with Humanities Tennessee, the Knox County Public Library and the Arts & Culture Alliance for a symposium on election issues last week.
The last day to register for the general election is next Tuesday, Oct. 9. Early voting begins Oct. 17 and Election Day is Nov. 6.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Rep. Rick Staples represents the 15th District, not the 14th.