Election 2020: 18th House District Primary
In the contest to succeed Rep. Martin Daniel, Gina Oster and Eddie Mannis appeal to different wings of the Republican Party.
When state Rep. Martin Daniel announced in March he would not seek a fourth term representing the 18th District, a number of Republican hopefuls scrambled to pick up qualifying petitions. Only two wound up on the ballot for the Aug. 6 primary.
Oster and Mannis are native Knoxvillians with long records of community service.
Businessman Eddie Mannis will face Realtor Gina Oster. Both have been candidates before — Oster lost a bid for the school board in 2012 to Doug Harris and Mannis lost to Indya Kincannon in last year’s Knoxville mayoral race.
The 18th District encompasses most of West Knoxville, stretching from Bearden Hill in the east to Cedar Bluff in the west and from Rocky Hill in the south to Cumberland Estates in the north.
The seat has long been in Republican hands, but Daniel barely won re-election in 2018, edging Democratic former Election Administrator Greg Mackay by 3 percentage points. The winner of this year’s GOP primary will face Democrat Virginia Couch, who is unopposed and able to save her campaign funds (she has $28,101.94 on hand, more than either Republican) for the general election.
Oster is positioning herself as a champion of the conservative wing of the Republican Party and enjoys the support of many party insiders; Mannis is more of a traditional pro-business GOP candidate who is backed by prominent business leaders.
Some in the local GOP leadership have tried to paint Mannis as a RINO — Republican In Name Only — and tried unsuccessfully to get his name taken off the ballot. The support of prominent Republican elected officials convinced the state party to keep him in the race.
There are similarities and differences between the candidates. Both emphasize education and economic growth, but diverge when it comes to healthcare.
Oster and Mannis are native Knox Countians who serve or have served on various boards and commissions, and have been active in the community beyond politics.
Gina Oster: The Importance of Community
Oster entered 2020 with no intention of running for office, but Daniel’s decision not to run created an opportunity.
“I wouldn’t have run against Martin, but when he decided not to run, I felt I had to do it,” Oster said.
Oster got involved with the Cedar Bluff PTA the year before her first child even entered school because she wanted to know what was going on in the classrooms and hallways.
“I thought it was important to be involved in their education,” she said. “My community’s alway been important to me. It’s a passion for me.”
Oster continued her involvement in the Cedar Bluff and Knox County PTAs while her three sons rose through the grades. Her interest in education continues now that they have graduated and would be her top priority if she is elected to the 18th District seat.
Oster said local school districts should be empowered to make crucial educational decisions and that teachers should be paid competitive salaries to recruit and retain quality instructors. A public schools advocate, she’s opposed to school vouchers.
Vocational training should be emphasized, she said, because the county needs plumbers, electricians and other skilled trades workers. “We really got away from that,” she said. “Some kids aren’t made to go to college.”
Economic development is another key issue for Oster. She wants to eliminate unnecessary regulations and create an environment that encourages entrepreneurship and job growth.
“Being a Realtor, I can see how Knoxville’s changing. We’ve got to have a thriving economy,” she said.
Another priority is law enforcement. Oster serves on the Knox County Sheriff’s Office Merit System Council and is the founder of Cookie Crusaders, a group that delivers homemade cookies monthly to local law enforcement officers and ships them to the families of fallen officers elsewhere.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revived talk of expanding TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, which would cover an estimated 300,000 Tennesseans. Oster is opposed to Medicaid expansion and said she prefers market solutions to rising healthcare costs.
Oster grew up in Karns and attended Pellissippi State Community College for a year, got married and moved to Nashville with her husband. When they returned to Knox County, she got involved with the Cedar Bluff PTA and eventually was elected president of the organization.
In addition to her service on the Sheriff’s Merit Council, Oster is a member of the county Board of Equalizations and a former member of the Knox County Ethics Committee.
Though she has run for office before and has been involved in Knoxville and Knox County civic life for years, Oster realizes that Mannis started the race with greater name recognition.
“Eddie’s run before and he’s been active in the community,” she said. “I think that’s evened out and I’m not behind on that anymore.”
Oster is behind on fundraising, however, by about $5,000. She raised $20,040, loaned $1,120.35 to the campaign, spent $4,229.65, and has $16,930.70 on hand for the final push.
Her donors include developers Scott Davis and Tim Graham, Knox County GOP secretary Gary Loe (who led the drive to get Mannis scrubbed from the ballot), the Tennessee Firearms Association, the Tennessee Association of Realtors, and Daniel, the current occupant of the seat.
“I’m wanting to do this to make a difference in our community,” Oster said. “For me to step in and make a small difference in our district is very important to me.”
Eddie Mannis: The Importance of Service
Shortly before Daniel publicly announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, as word quietly spread in Republican circles that the seat would be up for grabs, people began approaching Mannis about a possible run.
He wasn’t sure he should jump into another race just four months removed from a tough campaign against Kincannon. But, he said, he wanted to serve the community.
“It’s a legislative function, obviously, and I thought I could help Knoxville and Knox County that way,” he said. “As a state representative, you really need to have experience, be thoughtful and know what the people in your district are going through.”
One of the top priorities for Mannis is nurturing business, especially supporting entrepreneurs and providing the necessary infrastructure to encourage economic development. He advocates using a variety of tools — including incentives, grants and tax credits — to attract and retain employers.
“COVID-19 has really put even more pressure on job growth and economic development,” he said. “I’m not a naysayer, but I know how this has affected businesses. The long-term impact will be greater than we think it is.”
Mannis said revenues at Prestige Cleaners, the business he started 35 years ago, were down 78 percent. He transformed the business into a mask manufacturing facility so his employees could still receive paychecks. They have produced more than 100,000 masks.
Mannis, who spent eight years on Covenant Health’s board of directors, said he will make healthcare a priority.
“I do support taking a second look at Insure Tennessee,” he said, referring to former Gov. Bill Haslam’s ill-fated Medicaid expansion proposal. “The working poor need healthcare. We’re all one accident away from bankruptcy without health insurance.”
Mannis grew up in a section of Inskip that locals called Frog Level. After graduating from Central High School, he took classes at Draughon’s Business College and Maryville College. He worked in a dry cleaning store, bought some equipment and opened Prestige Cleaners in Bearden. Mannis also founded the nonprofit HonorAir Knoxville, which provides veterans free trips to Washington, D.C., to visit memorials built to honor them.
Mannis got into on-the-ground politics by supporting former Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero’s first campaign and later working for her as the city’s chief operating officer. He is chair of the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority Board of Commissioners and past chair of the Zoo Knoxville Board of Directors.
Mannis has raised $35,996.52 and, after spending $14,178.82, has $21,817.70 on hand. Many prominent Republican members of the business community are on his list of contributors. Donors include former Gov. Bill Haslam and his wife, Crissy, along with Pete Claussen, Joan Ashe, Kevin Clayton, David Colquitt, Jim and Natalie Haslam, Raja Jubran, Mitch Steenrod and Wes Stowers.
Knox County Republican Party leaders challenged Mannis’ standing as a bona fide Republican and tried to have his name scrubbed from the ballot because he has contributed to Democrats in the past and voted in this year’s Democratic presidential primary on Super Tuesday. Mannis is also gay, though county party leaders insist that is not a factor in their opposition to him.
The state party, which has the final say, ruled Mannis could run as a Republican after U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, state Rep. Richard Briggs and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs vouched for him.
“It’s unfortunate that’s been misrepresented,” he said, explaining that he has donated to qualified, thoughtful candidates he’s known. “Telling half-truths is equal to telling lies.”
Mannis has identified as a Republican and hopes voters will put their faith in his record of service.
“I always want to make a difference in the community and I will take that same attitude to Nashville for the 18th District,” he said.