Election 2020: State Senate District 6 Primary
A chiropractor and a minister are first-time Democratic candidates who want to take on an entrenched GOP incumbent in the general election.
Jane George and Sam Brown, the two Democrats in the Aug. 6 Democratic primary, are first-time candidates vying for the opportunity to take on incumbent Republican Becky Massey, who is seeking a third full term.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican incumbent Becky Duncan Massey in the general election.
The 6th Senate District touches just about every sector of Knox County, stretching from Halls in North Knox County through East Knox County and East Knoxville to South Knox County and west to Choto Bend on the Loudon County line.
The district also contains communities with residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds — some of Knoxville’s poorest neighborhoods, vast amounts of farmland, middle-class subdivisions and affluent waterfront developments.
Brown, a minister, and George, a chiropractor, are Knoxville natives who will have to appeal to an array of residents throughout the district to prevail, though Democratic voters are concentrated in the East and South Knoxville precincts of the district.
The winner will face a formidable challenge in the general election. Massey, the sister of former longtime U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., first won the seat in 2011 in a special election to replace Jamie Woodson, a Republican who stepped down to take the reins of State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), an education research and advocacy nonprofit.
Massey has been re-elected twice. When she has faced opposition (she was unopposed in 2016), she has won handily against opponents who later succeeded at the ballot box — current officeholders state Rep. Gloria Johnson in the 2011 special election and County Commissioner Evelyn Gill in 2010.
George grew up in a politically divided family in West Knoxville where passionate debates about community problems were commonplace. She credits her upbringing with teaching her to listen to both sides and draw her own conclusions.
“We need level heads at the state level. This is a critical time for state government to pass good legislation,” she said.
George said the General Assembly doesn’t value people and that Massey is out of touch with her constituents. “We’ve got to learn to value everyone across the spectrum,” she said.
George said paying people a living wage, providing health care and protecting the environment would work in harmony to make Tennessee a better place to live.
“It’s all interconnected,” she said. “I tend to look at things in a web-like or mesh-like perspective.”
To George, one of the keys to that mesh is Medicaid expansion. She said expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, TennCare, would be a good fiscal decision, while raising the minimum wage would help working families and attract higher-paying jobs.
“I’m a business owner. I’m pro-business and want to get more industry into Tennessee,” she said.
George said her passion for education drives her insistence on full funding for public schools and her resistance to school vouchers. She would back legislation to expand broadband access, especially since the COVID-19 response will result in many students attending school remotely.
George also supports legalizing marijuana, which she said would benefit farmers and increase tax revenues, and social justice reform.
According to George, reforming the criminal justice system, which has become a major issue since the death of George Lloyd while in Minneapolis police custody, should involve requiring new officers to have earned an associate’s degree, and using social workers, addiction specialists and other professionals to deal with issues that policing isn’t designed to solve.
George graduated from Bearden High School and attended the University of Tennessee on a Grace Moore Scholarship in music before heading out to Los Angeles, where she hoped to become an actress. She got married, started a family — she’s the mother of two grown children — and earned a degree in biology at UCLA. She completed coursework for a doctorate in biology, but decided she wanted to be a chiropractor.
After completing studies at Cleveland Chiropractic College in Los Angeles, she went into practice and later moved back to Knoxville. Her practice is Body Mind Realign, with locations in the Old City and on Northshore Drive.
“I love academia,” she said. “One of the motivating reasons I’m running is because we need scientists in a position to make decisions about the environment.”
George said the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to do more for janitors, bus drivers, and others in relatively low-paying jobs that are essential employees. Higher pay and access to child care are vital.
“You can’t put your kid in a backpack and go to work at Target,” George said.
The mesh of interconnected issues that she speaks of is designed to improve the lot of the state’s residents, she said, especially those who are struggling.
“For every Tennessean we lift up, we lift up Tennessee,” she said.
Brown is a first-time candidate, but he’s been active in politics since serving as an intern during college. He said he’s running for the Senate because the Legislature isn’t meeting the needs of Tennesseans.
“A lot of policies coming out of Nashville weren’t serving the people I deal with every day,” Brown said. “It was time for someone to step up.”
An example he gave is expanding TennCare, Tennessee’s Medicaid program, which he framed as a necessity.
“We can’t have hope for the future if a significant part of the population doesn’t have access to healthcare,” Brown said. “Expanding Medicaid would bring an enormous amount of money to Tennessee.
Another priority for him would be education. Brown opposes school vouchers and supports higher pay for teachers.
“We need to look at how we’re funding our public schools,” he said. “We have to model Tennessee as an attractive place for teachers.”
Access to the ballot is another issue that has Brown’s attention. He pointed to Knox County’s typically low voter turnout as a problem.
“That’s directly related to voter suppression. We need to make sure people can take part in the process,” he said.
Brown was born in Maryville but grew up on Jefferson Avenue in Parkridge. He was a member of the first Project GRAD class to graduate from Austin-East High School, where he was class president. He earned a degree in political science and religion at Livingstone College, a historically Black school in Salisbury, N.C.
While in college, Brown interned for state chair of the Delaware Democratic Party and worked as a staff member at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. He has served on the staffs of members in each house of Congress, working primarily in transportation and media relations.
He became associate editor of The Star of Zion, the official publication of the AME Zion church, and moved back to East Tennessee in 2013. Brown also is deputy communications director for the denomination. In 2018, he was named pastor at Logan Temple AME Zion Church in East Knoxville.
“It was awesome to see all the ways Knoxville had changed since I’d been gone,” he said.
Brown gained local political experience working as campaign manager on Rev. John Butler’s bid for City Council 2017 and Evetty Satterfield’s successful school board race in 2018.
If elected, Brown would still be in the minority party in the Legislature — only five of the Senate’s 33 seats are currently occupied by Democrats. The key to being effective, he said, would be to find out what the opposition wants for their constituents and find common ground with the people he represents.
“Compromise is something any legislator has to be open to, especially if you are in the minority party,” he said. “There are some things you just have to fight out, but I’m also a pragmatist.
Brown said he has the right combination of attributes to be an effective senator.
“I am someone who has a collection of experiences to represent the 6th District,” he said. “This is a time when we need diversity in representation.”