Blue Push in a Red County
Knox County's legislative delegation will almost certainly remain largely Republican, but Democrats are contending for every seat this year. Here’s a look at both parties’ slates.
by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark • october 4, 2018
In the Tennessee state Legislature, different areas of Knox County are represented by a total of seven House members and three state Senators. House members serve two-year terms, so all of those seats are on the ballot this year. Senators serve staggered four-year terms, and two of Knox County’s three are also up in 2018.
Republicans take credit for the state's economy. Democrats promise to bring health care and higher wages.Knox County has been sending mostly Republicans to the Legislature for as long as there have been Republicans, and the current delegation is as lopsided as it’s ever been. With help from sophisticated district-drawing (a.k.a. gerrymandering), the local GOP controls 8 out of the 9 offices. State Rep. Rick Staples is the sole Democrat in the delegation, and Republicans aren’t even bothering to contest his heavily urban 15th District.
But for the first time in more than a decade, Democrats have fielded candidates in every legislative race this year. And most of them are serious contenders -- not necessarily in the sense that they have strong chances of winning, but in the sense that they are well organized and actively campaigning.
It is easy to think of the parties as monolithic, but in reality they both draw from a spectrum of interests and personalities. Within both slates, you can find a range of priorities and policy concerns. So here is a look at the candidates who have clustered under each umbrella this year.
Democrats: The Upstarts
Knox County Democrats are energized for this year’s legislative election. They believe their slate of candidates is solid -- they are even mounting a challenge in the rural 19th House District, which they have conceded outright for the past 12 years -- and they are presenting a unified message. Even Republican Rep. Bill Dunn observes, “They all seem to be singing from the same sheet.”
The three main verses are health care reform, support for public education, and higher wages. Some candidates add other issues, such as the environment and gun control, but the tune is remarkably consistent.
Many of the Democrats are expressing support for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s ill-fated Insure Tennessee proposal to expand the state’s Medicaid program, TennCare. As a general rule, they oppose vouchers and charter schools, while supporting increased funding for schools. Attracting jobs and raising the minimum wage are key issues as well.
Coleen Martinez, who’s running for the 89th District seat, said the consistency of the message is by design and allows the candidates to help out each other. “We’re campaigning for all the (Democratic) candidates on the ballot,” she said.
Staples is assured of a second term representing the 15th House District, which has long been the only reliably Democratic district in Knox County.
One of the most intriguing races is the third battle between Democrat Gloria Johnson and Republican incumbent Eddie Smith in the 13th House District. Smith won the first two contests for the seat Johnson once held, but the margins were razor thin and the district is evenly divided between the two major parties, giving the Democrats perhaps their best shot at gaining a House seat.
“They’re all awesome,” Johnson said of the other Democrats on the ballot. She said she’s been particularly impressed with Senate candidate Jamie Ballinger and House hopeful Kate Trudell for their command of the issues.
Stuart Starr is an exception to the rule among this year’s Democrats. He’s running against Lt. Gov. Randy McNally in the 5th Senate District. Starr has built his campaign around advocacy for legalizing medical marijuana. Part of his pitch to voters is personal: “I’ll need a job after the election if I don’t win,” he says on his website.
More typical of this year’s Democratic roster is Ballinger, who’s running against incumbent Richard Briggs for the 7th Senate District seat. Ballinger is a lawyer for Baker Donelson, one of the most prominent law firms in the state.
In addition to supporting the three main prongs of the Democratic message, Ballinger is focused on equal pay for equal work for women. A women’s advocate, she was given the Spirit of Justice Award by the East Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women. “We need more women (in politics), period. And not just women who agree with me. We need Republican women, Democratic women, Independent women,” she said.
In the House races, the candidates are optimistic, despite the fact that most are running in Republican-leaning districts.
One Democratic candidate with high name recognition entering the race is Greg Mackay, who’s running against incumbent Martin Daniel in the 18th District in West Knoxville and Knox County. Mackay served as Knox County Election Administrator and believes his proven ability to work with people of all political persuasions gives him a good chance at victory.
“We had Democrats, Republicans and Independents working together. I think that’s what we need to do in Nashville -- set aside our partisan differences and get things done,” Mackay said.
Mackay said Republicans who worked with him remember his fairness as election administrator, and that several members of the GOP encouraged him to run.
Justin Davis, who’s running against GOP incumbent Jason Zachary in the 14th District, is similarly optimistic. “I’m just tired of the status quo,” he said. He supports limits on campaign contributions and on the number of terms an elected official can serve.
Davis said he’s spent a lot of time going door to door in the district, listening to voters who are concerned about health care, the opioid crisis and education. He said he’s been well received by the Republicans he’s met while campaigning.
“It’s a pretty red district,” he conceded. “When we were first talking about it, people in the party said there’s no way we could flip this seat. Now we’re hearing otherwise.”
Coleen Martinez is blunt about her reason for seeking the 89th District seat: Fear.
“I was scared that my children would be shot in school and I wanted to be part of the conversation,” Martinez said in an interview.
“I see no other viable option to preventing mass shootings then to regulate the possession and purchase of military-style assault weapons and large capacity magazines in Tennessee,” she says on her website.
She said reaction to her message in the largely Republican district depends on the audience. Some people have advised her to stay away from gun control as an issue, but she’s “It’s from the heart and the real reason and I don’t want to run from that,” she said.
“If you take party affiliation out of it, education and health care is what we have in common.” Unfortunately, she said, “People vote party over people and policies.”
“People are really surprised when they find out a Democrat is running. They’re excited.” – Edward Nelson, Democratic candidate, 19th House District
Trudell, running against longtime incumbent Bill Dunn in the 16th District, is staying on the common message. She says on her website that the state’s economy needs to work for everyone: “I will work to increase the minimum wage and mare sure the tax cuts in our state benefit those that need them the most.”
Edward Nelson is the first Democrat to run for the 19th District seat in 16 years. State Rep. Harry Brooks decided not to run for re-election, so Nelson will be facing Knox County Commissioner Dave Wright. “People are really surprised when they find out a Democrat is running,” Nelson said. “They’re excited.”
A U.S. Navy veteran, Nelson currently attends the University of Tennessee (he took the fall semester off to run for the seat). Asked what prompted him to run, he said he wants to give district residents something positive to vote for. “For me, it was seeing the state of the state when I came back from the Navy,” he said.
In addition to the three core issues Democrats are emphasizing, Nelson wants to increase employment and housing opportunities for veterans, expand the use of renewable energy sources, and reform the prison and cash bail systems.
Democrats are saying their internal polling is promising for a few races, though they didn’t provide specifics. Mackay said he’s optimistic about the numbers in his race. Ballinger said she anticipates winning. “Polling shows the race being very competitive,” she said.
Whether that optimism translates into victories, of course, will be determined in November.
Republicans: The Establishment
The eight Republicans on the ballot for Knox County legislative seats this year have a few obvious things in common: They are all men, all white, and all tout themselves as conservative and Christian. (The sole female member of the Knox County delegation, Republican state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, is not up for re-election this year.)
Six are incumbents seeking another term. The two newcomers, Justin Lafferty in the West Knox 89th District and Dave Wright in the East Knox 19th, are running for seats held by Republicans who did not seek re-election this year. Wright is a well-known figure in his rural district -- he has been on County Commission for the past 10 years -- so only Lafferty really qualifies as a fresh face.
As you’d expect from a party in power, the Republicans as a group emphasize the state’s vibrant economy, low unemployment rate and improving education rankings, attributing all of them to GOP leadership in the Legislature and the executive branch.
“We really have an unprecedented strength in the economy right now,” said state Sen. Richard Briggs. “Ninety-three out of 95 counties are below 5 percent unemployment.”
The most senior member of the local delegation is also its highest-ranking. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge has been in the Legislature for 40 years and has been a state senator since 1987. A fairly low-key presence, he has not made any waves since assuming the lieutenant governor role last year (a title that goes hand in hand with Speaker of the Senate). Assuming he is re-elected, McNally will be a stabilizing presence in a landscape that will include a new governor and new Speaker of the House.
Briggs, the other incumbent senator up this year, is just finishing his first term representing the 7th District, which covers most of West Knox County but also reaches to take in downtown and sections of North Knoxville, Fountain City and Powell. Briggs is a heart and lung surgeon, and a retired Army colonel who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He did a stint on Knox County Commission before running for the Senate in 2014, toppling incumbent Stacey Campfield in the Republican primary that year.
His background has made him a natural champion for health care reform, and it remains his primary focus. He was the Senate sponsor for Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee bill, which would have expanded the state’s Medicaid program to benefit from funding available under the Affordable Care Act. That bill was killed by Briggs’ fellow Republicans, who wanted nothing to do with President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, even in a modified Tennessee form. Briggs still thinks that was shortsighted.
“We have this uninsured population,” he said in an interview. “That is more than just a human tragedy.” The federal funding that would have been provided under Insure Tennessee would have helped keep struggling rural hospitals open, Briggs said. Instead, “We’ve had 10 rural hospitals go under, and there are another 15 about to go under.” Those closings don’t just mean lack of health care in isolated areas -- they mean the loss of jobs that are often among the best-paying in their communities, and they make it hard to recruit new industries.
Briggs has also focused on the opioid crisis, carrying bills that tightened restrictions on pain clinics and helped shutter “pill mills” across the state.
Among House members and candidates, education is more of a unifying theme. Rep. Eddie Smith, who has been chair of the delegation and is facing Johnson in the 13th District, touts school-related bills he’s sponsored. “A bill protecting free speech on college campuses and protecting freedom of thought for professors” is one.
He also sponsored a measure that will create recovery high schools for students struggling with addiction and points to funding he helped secure that prevented drastic cuts to Knox County’s Project Grad program.
Rep. Bill Dunn, who has represented the North Knox 16th District since 1994, gives part of the credit for improving student performance in Tennessee to changes in teacher tenure that he helped Haslam push through. He said teacher observations and evaluations used to be superficial and ineffective.
“Now it’s a lot more complex and meaningful,” he said. “I’ve seen the difference in the schools. When I go in now, there’s pop and sizzle.”
Dunn has been a longtime proponent of school vouchers, which he thinks might be able to pass in some form next year. He notes that a bill last year failed by just two votes. He thinks concerns about the impact of a voucher system on existing public schools are misplaced. “I just think parents and students can look at the situation and find the school that most meets their needs,” he said.
"If you’ve got good education, you get good jobs moving to the state, you grow, and then you have money to pay for education. That’s an upward spiral.”
– Dave Wright, Republican candidate, 19th District
In the sprawling 19th District, which runs from the Union County line through East Knox County to the Sevier County line, Wright is running to succeed Rep. Harry Brooks, who is retiring after holding the seat for 16 years. He said he aims to continue Brooks’ focus on education, which is crucial in his rural district.
“If you’ve got good education, you get good jobs moving to the state, you grow, and then you have money to pay for education,” said Wright, a retired AT&T technician and supervisor. “That’s an upward spiral.”
Rep. Martin Daniel, who represents the West Knoxville 18th District, said school safety is also a pressing issue. Although he credits Knox County Schools with taking measures to protect their students, he said some smaller districts lack the resources to provide security officers and equipment. “The state really needs to step in and provide them,” he said.
Another focus for Daniel, who owns an outdoor advertising company, is rolling back what he says are unnecessary regulations, particularly on small businesses. “I’ve started four businesses over the past 26 years,” he said. “I’m very familiar with rules and regulations and how bureaucrats tend to treat people.”
He has also waged a legislative campaign to limit law enforcement agencies’ use of asset forfeiture, which he describes as “really an outrageous practice can actually take property,” even from people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. He has run into significant opposition from sheriffs and police chiefs, but he intends to bring the issue back next year if he is re-elected.
The newcomer Lafferty is a bit of an unknown quantity. A stay-at-home dad whose campaign website presents him as conventional conservative, he won just 30 percent of the vote in his primary. But that was enough in a five-man field that also included Campfield -- in a failed comeback bid -- and former Sheriff Tim Hutchison.
A Farragut High School graduate who earned a political science degree at the University of Tennessee, Lafferty promises to focus on keeping taxes and regulations to a minimum and getting government “out of the way” of the private health care marketplace.
In general, the social and religious issues that galvanize some segments of the Republican Party are not major talking points for Knox County GOP candidates. One exception is Rep. Jason Zachary, a religious conservative who is finishing his first full term representing the 14th District, centered in Farragut. (He was elected in 2015 to complete the term of the departed Ryan Haynes.)
When the Knox County Medical Examiner’s office released a report last month showing a big jump in drug-related deaths, Zachary tweeted, “This has moved beyond an issue government can fix. We play an important part but can’t fix. We need to be a people in prayer and petition for our community. I have reached out to pastors across the city asking for their leadership.”
The GOP candidates are anti-abortion and have reliably voted to expand the places and situations where Tennesseans can legally go armed. But there aren’t many fire-breathers among them. As Wright puts it, “The Bible, marriage and guns -- that’s what some people go to Nashville to fix. I don’t really think those are at the top of the list. I go back to education and jobs.”