Election 2020: 13th House District
Democratic incumbent Rep. Gloria Johnson faces Republican challenger Elaine Davis in Knoxville’s most purple legislative district.
by jesse fox mayshark • september 30, 2020
elaine davis, left, is running against state Rep. Gloria Johnson.
Of the seven state House districts in Knox County, only one has changed party representation even once in the past decade — and it is also the only one that’s changed twice.
Johnson was well ahead in campaign fundraising as of the end of July.
The 13th House seat serves a roughly C-shaped district that takes in most of North Knoxville and a chunk of Fountain City, then curves to the west through Sequoyah Hills and jumps the Tennessee River to cover about half of South Knoxville.
It is currently represented by Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat who first won the seat in 2012. She then lost it to Republican Eddie Smith in 2014, who staved off a repeat challenge by Johnson in 2016. But in 2018, riding strong Democratic turnout in the midterm elections, Johnson took the seat back, winning by a 55-43 percent margin. (Flashback: our coverage of the 2018 race.)
In general, the district’s North Knoxville precincts have trended blue in recent years, as has Sequoyah Hills. Its strongest Republican redoubts are to the south along Alcoa Highway and Martin Mill Pike.
This year, Johnson is running for the seat for a fifth straight time, hoping to log her third win. She faces Republican Elaine Davis, a former county commissioner who has been in and out of local politics over the past two decades.
Through the end of July, the last campaign finance reporting period ahead of the Aug. 6 primary elections, Johnson held a large fundraising advantage over Davis. She had $74,385.28 on hand, to Davis’ $13,008.09.
The next reporting deadline is Oct. 13, for the third-quarter period ending today.
Johnson: ‘I line up with the majority of folks’
Johnson, who lives in North Hills, is a former special education teacher who has made education and healthcare issues the centerpiece of her efforts in Nashville. She is a vocal and often blunt presence on social media, calling out the state’s majority party for what she sees as its failures to address pressing needs.
“I line up with the majority of folks, certainly in my district, but also across the state of Tennessee,” Johnson said in an interview. “The problem is the folks who are radical. The Democrats aren’t radical, we’re with the majority of the people. The Republicans are extreme, and they are the radicals. They’re out of touch with the things that citizens want.”
Those things, Johnson said, include increased access to healthcare, including an expansion of Medicaid. Tennessee is one of 12 states, the majority of them in the South, that have not expanded their Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. She is also a strong proponent of paid family leave for all workers, which she has introduced bills for.
“I brought that legislation twice,” Johnson said. “It’s good, it’s solid, it’s the most conservative — if you want to say that — plan you can have for paid family leave.”
The plan she’s proposing would add a small deduction to each worker’s pay, much like unemployment insurance, and would provide paid time off for a number of personal needs.
“It doesn't cost the state a penny, and it doesn't cost business a penny,” Johnson said. “And it’s about the cost of a cup of coffee a week to the employee, about $3. And then they have 12 weeks paid family leave — if they want to have a baby, if they have to take care of a parent who’s ailing, if they get a long-term illness themselves.”
Of course, Johnson — like her Democratic colleagues — would need Republican support to pass anything. They control just 26 of the House’s 99 seats and are generally shut out of key decision-making.
Johnson said it was eye-opening to return to Nashville in 2018 after four years out of office. During her prior term, she said, former Speaker Beth Harwell ran a fairly open House in which Democrats were at least allowed to participate. But under Harwell’s successor, Speaker Glen Casada, Johnson said she and others in her party were routinely denied the opportunity to even speak.
At more than 6 feet — her long-running campaign slogan is “Standing Tall” — Johnson is hard to miss in a crowd. Photos of her standing with her arm raised at the back of the House chamber while Casada and his deputies ignored her requests to be recognized went viral among Tennessee progressives.
Although she said things have gotten somewhat more collegial under new Speaker Cameron Sexton — after Casada’s self-inflicted flameout last year — there is still a tendency to limit Democrats’ speaking time and even cut off their microphones.
“It’s so distressing,” Johnson said. “Why can’t we just have differing opinions, but still talk about it, and listen to people's ideas?”
She is critical of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic from the Republican legislative majority and Gov. Bill Lee. Johnson said the state should have developed a more aggressive and coherent strategy during the statewide shutdown in April.
“We knew that we needed to develop a strong testing strategy going forward,” she said. “We needed to have contact tracers, we needed PPE (personal protective equipment), all of those things were going to be critical. So one would think that you would spend the time during the shutdown getting those things ready for reopening. One would also think you'd have a comprehensive strategy with metrics on when to open and when to shut back down. None of that happened.”
If she is re-elected, Johnson said she would continue to work on core issues of education, healthcare and protections for families and workers.
“We have got to do things that benefit average Tennessee families,” she said.
Davis: “We have a choice”
Davis’ path into politics started at home. When her son Andrew was 1, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. As he got older and Davis started thinking about how to prepare him for school, she did research and discovered that not all Knox County Schools have full-time nurses.
“It hadn’t occurred to me, how is he going to be cared for at school?” she said. “What was that going to look like?”
The questions led her on a path of advocacy for her son and other children with diabetes, and she ended up working with state Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge — now the state’s lieutenant governor — on a bill to allow trained volunteers to test blood sugar and administer insulin to students at school if a nurse wasn’t available.
Davis grew up in Farragut — something she shares with Johnson — and now lives in South Knox County off Tipton Station Road. She said her experience with the legislative process led to a growing engagement with politics.
That eventually led to her brief tenure on Knox County Commission in 2008, when she was among those appointed to seats in the aftermath of the Black Wednesday scandal. At the time, Davis identified as a Democrat and had sought the party’s nomination for a 4th District Commission seat. She lost that race (to future Knoxville Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders), but was then appointed to fill the seat on an interim basis until Saunders took office six months later.
She said those six months were action packed, as Commission wrangled with reorganization and reform.
“It was a very contentious time, it was a lot of late-night meetings,” she said. “And it was a very important time. I think that I learned a lot about listening to the community, and also to my fellow legislators.”
A few subsequent electoral efforts were unsuccessful — Commission again in 2010, now as a Republican, and school board in 2012. But she was named in 2009 to the Knox County Ethics Committee, which investigates complaints of impropriety by county officials, and served as its chair.
Davis said she retreated from political and civic involvement in recent years to care for her ailing parents, who have since both passed away. Her first step toward re-engagement was co-hosting a morning show on local conservative talk radio station WETR 92.3 FM.
“When I saw that Miss Johnson was going to go unopposed, I felt like that was not fair to our district, that we need to make sure that we have a choice,” Davis said. “It's important to make sure that issues get talked about.”
She said that as a Republican, she would have a better chance of getting legislation passed.
“We need to make sure that we've got someone there that can work with the legislative body that's there,” Davis said, “that has working relationships and established relationships with our majority, and can get things done for our community.”
In the Legislature, she said she would prioritize funding for education, particularly early childhood literacy. She also wants to encourage innovation in healthcare access, such as expanded telemedicine. As for expanding Medicaid, she said it would depend on the numbers.
“I just want to make sure that whatever dollars we're allocating or spending that they're spent wisely, effectively, efficiently,” Davis said. “If Medicaid is a possibility, absolutely, we want to look at that. But we also want to look at what are the best solutions for folks.”
More specific to the 13th District, she said she wants to see continued improvements to local infrastructure.
“Alcoa Highway, making sure that that interchange at John Sevier (Highway), that we don’t slow that down at all,” she said. “And then specifically Chapman Highway, it’s incredibly dangerous.”
Most importantly, she said, she wants people to show up at the polls.
“This is a critical election for not only our community, but for our country,” Davis said. “It’s important that everyone show up to vote and make their voice heard.”