Fighting for First in the 2nd

Tim Burchett and Renee Hoyos

Fighting for First in the 2nd

Renee Hoyos and Tim Burchett square off for a congressional seat
that Republicans have held for 151 years.

by jesse fox mayshark • october 3, 2018


The familiar history of Tennessee’s 2nd Congressional District goes like this: East Tennessee was staunchly pro-Union and anti-secession throughout the Civil War, happily embraced the party of Lincoln in the war’s aftermath, and has been reliably Republican since 1867.

New faces vie for a seat
that's been held by one family since 1965.

As the rest of Tennessee and the other former slave states moved away from the Democratic Party in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and into the welcoming arms of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the 2nd Congressional District stayed right where it was, enjoying the benefits of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 takeover of the House of Representatives and the emergence of statewide Republican rule.

If that narrative suggests a certain stability or even stasis, it has been reinforced over the past 53 years by the seat remaining with one family. Former Knoxville Mayor John J. Duncan Sr. held it from his election in 1965 until his death in 1988, and his son, John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., has had it ever since.

Until now. Republican Tim Burchett and Democrat Renee Hoyos don’t have much in common ideologically, but neither of them is named Duncan. Both represent changes in Knox County, in different ways, and both say they will bring independent voices to Washington, D.C.

Renee Hoyos: ‘Congress is broken’

Hoyos, 53, is a California native who came to Knoxville in 2003 for a job as executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network. That makes her one of the estimated 80,000 people – 1 out of 5 current residents -- who have been added to the local population since the 2000 Census.

“People often say to me, ‘Didn’t you have culture shock when you arrived here?’,” Hoyos said in an interview at Wild Love Bakehouse in North Knoxville. “But Knoxville reminds me a lot of Northern California in the ’70s. It was, of course, beautiful – and it was very middle-class. One person could work, one person could stay home. Life was easy in that respect.

“The prices began to rise there, it became very popular, and it became unlivable. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been to the future, and you’re not going to like it! Lots of development, lots of air quality (problems), lots of water quality issues out in California, harsh regulations, the whole 9 yards.”

The daughter of a Mexican father and American mother, she earned master’s degrees in avian science and agriculture from the University of California at Davis. After college, she worked as a special assistant to the commissioner of the California Natural Resources Agency. She was ready for something new when she saw the Tennessee Clean Water Network position advertised.

TCWN is a nonprofit organization formed in 2000 to advocate for the protection of water resources statewide. As its executive director for 14 years, Hoyos built a reputation for toughness in dealing with regulators and developers alike, but she prides herself on being able to negotiate behind the scenes as well as fight in public when necessary. (During the campaign, she is on unpaid leave from the organization.)

“Our job was to make sure the state upheld and enforced their rules, that the Legislature didn’t weaken any rules or laws,” she said. “When the state was unwilling to enforce the Clean Water Act, we were able to do it.”

For all the permit appeals TCWN has filed against developers and industrial dischargers, Hoyos says she’s not anti-development. “I’d like to see smarter development happen,” she said. “I’d like to see more attention paid to water quality protection. One of the things we were always concerned about is there were developers who wanted to do it right, but they were always outbid by developers who didn’t.”

She made a brief previous political foray, submitting her name to fill the remainder of a City Council term after former Councilman Bob Becker moved out of town. In a crowded field, she got zero votes from the sitting Council members. “I walked out thinking, well, politics is not for me,” she said.

“I’m interested in finding out the problems in the 2nd District and finding ways to solve them that are unique to the 2nd District.” – Renee Hoyos, Democrat

But like many people entering politics for the first time this year, she was jolted by the 2016 presidential election. “I was stunned,” she said of Donald Trump’s victory. “But it’s not like the system just broke in that election. When I sat back and thought about it, it was like, I’ve been watching the erosion of these laws, like death by a thousand cuts.”

Hoyos decided that her background in working with state and federal agencies and understanding how government works – and why it sometimes doesn’t – would make her a good candidate for Congress. She easily defeated psychologist Joshua Williams in the August primary, tallying 22,220 votes to his 7,077.

She knows the district’s voting history and demographics, but she said, “Nobody should just get this because they’re the heir apparent. We’re not like that here, we shouldn’t be. Maybe there needs to be somebody to stand up and put some screws to the Republican nominee.”

That said, she’s running a campaign that doesn’t talk much about party politics or the president. Her TV ads don’t mention the word “Democrat,” focusing instead on her core issues: affordable health care, education, the environment and Social Security.

“Congress is broken, and I’m more interested in fixing it than being a partisan Democrat,” Hoyos said. “I’m interested in finding out the problems in the 2nd District and finding ways to solve them that are unique to the 2nd District.”

She supports building on President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act – which she says has “good bones” – to expand access to health insurance and health care. Rather than embracing the “Medicare For All” talking point that has become popular among Democratic candidates in more liberal states, she says it would make sense to first lower Medicare’s eligibility age to 55 – “And if that works, offer it to everybody on a sliding scale.”

Hoyos has sworn not to take any money from political action committees in the campaign, and because the district isn’t on anyone’s list of likely swing seats, she’s not getting help from the national party, either.

“I want to provide options to people,” she said, “to say that we can have a different kind of voice in this community.”

Tim Burchett: ‘I’m still idealistic’

Burchett is a more conventional East Tennessee politician than Hoyos: a conservative white male Republican who has spent the past 24 years running for and winning one office after another, the son of a former Knoxville school board chairman who also served as a University of Tennessee dean. But it would be a mistake to overlook how unconventional he is in other ways.

From his early days in the state Legislature, to which he was first elected in 1994, Burchett has distinguished himself through parallel streaks of quirkiness and stubbornness, which combine for a potent brand of retail politics that is all his own.

The quirkiness is what most casual observers notice. The “Roadkill Bill” he championed in the Legislature (if you hit it, you can eat it), the goofy selfies on his Twitter feed, the apparently sincere enthusiasm for Bigfoot lore, the metal detecting hobby. During his eight years as Knox County mayor, it was not uncommon to find him in the hallways of the City County Building showing off Civil War-era bullets he had excavated over the weekend.

But if he was just quirky, Burchett probably wouldn’t have rubbed so many people wrong over the years. He can also be prickly in both private and public settings, particularly if he senses disrespect for regular folks, of which he very much considers himself one. Maybe the most East Tennessean thing about him is a determined and sometimes defensive anti-elitism.

“I’ve never, ever had the establishment support,” he said in a phone interview squeezed into a busy campaign day.

It’s a fair point. Although Burchett has at various points had financial backing from most of Knox County’s big-money Republicans, he has rarely been their first choice. When he was running for county mayor in 2010, the local GOP’s business wing tried hard to recruit someone else for the job. When those same business leaders tried to build support a few years later for a property tax increase to boost the Knox County Schools budget, Burchett refused to get on board and the idea died.

He made no friends in the Duncan family with his muscular pursuit of the 2nd District seat, which he gave every indication he was considering running for even before Jimmy Duncan announced his retirement. Duncan signaled early on that he would not support Burchett and instead endorsed state Rep. Jimmy Matlock as his successor in the Republican primary.

That primary turned into an ugly series of allegations about Burchett’s finances and ethics, ranging from the hiring of his stepson into a Knox County job (Burchett said he wasn’t involved in the decision) to a $10,000 payment from an electronics company in 2008 that Burchett didn’t report on his legislative Disclosure of Interests while he was in the state Senate (Burchett said it was a “finder’s fee” for connecting the company with an investor, and he amended the filing). The Nashville Tennessean and Knoxville News Sentinel ran articles saying FBI agents were interviewing people about Burchett’s taxes and “potential bribery.”

But nothing came of any of that, and Burchett was helped by the public perception that much of the dust was being kicked up by his ex-wife, Allison, from whom he had a difficult divorce in 2012. She was the only named source in the articles about the FBI questioning, and she and Burchett had sparred publicly after their separation about campaign funds that had been transferred to their personal checking account.

Burchett, who is now remarried, weathered the primary and beat Matlock by more than 12,000 votes. Since exiting the county mayor’s office at the end of August, he has been campaigning full-time.

“I’m still idealistic. But I’m a realist. The difference between me and a lot of them is that I’ve been in office, and I know the legislative process.” – Tim Burchett, Republican

Asked to name his top priorities, he cites energy independence – a maybe surprising answer, given trends that have already put the U.S. on track to be a net exporter of energy within the next three years. But Burchett sees the protection of foreign oil interests as a major cause of needless military engagement and wasteful spending.

“We’re probably in 100 countries right now, our military,” he said. “And I daresay that most people in the 2nd Congressional District, me included, couldn’t list 100 countries. And the reality is, we’re over there to keep the price of oil low. That’s the bottom line.” (If anything, Burchett’s number is conservative -- various sources put the number of countries where the U.S. has troops deployed at between 150 and 180.)

He is similarly skeptical of the very institution he is seeking to join. As a former member of the state Legislature, he is realistic to the point of cynicism about what he’ll find as a freshman member of Congress if he’s elected.

“There’s 435 freakin’ congressmen,” Burchett said. “If you’re fortunate enough to get elected, you’re going to be number 436, basically. You don’t even get to pick your own office. And you sure as heck don’t get to pick your own committees. That system’s corrupt, both parties.”

So, why do it?

“I’m still idealistic,” he said. “But I’m a realist. The difference between me and a lot of them is that I’ve been in office, and I know the legislative process.”

In the Republican primary, Burchett ran TV ads proclaiming himself “Pro-Trump, Pro-Life, Pro-America,” including a photo of him giving Trump one of his patented fist bumps. In the general election, he’s a little more circumspect.

“I didn’t like some of the statements he’d made about women,” Burchett said of the president. “I have a wife and a daughter. But I didn’t like Bill Clinton having sex with an intern on his desk, either. So, it’s just the world we live in, it’s what we’ve got. But the economy is booming, there are more minorities at work now, there are more jobs available. There’s a lot I like about what’s going on.”

The last day to register to vote for the Nov. 6 election is Oct. 9. Early voting starts Oct. 17.

CORRECTION: Updated to reflect that the seat has been in the Duncan family for 53 years, not 52.