Election 2020: 6th Senate District
Republican incumbent Becky Duncan Massey faces a challenge from Democratic newcomer Jane George in the county’s largest legislative district.
A political newcomer is challenging an entrenched incumbent in this year’s 6th District state Senate race. Dr. Jane George, a Democrat, is taking on Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, the Republican who has held the seat for the past nine years.
The Republican Party has controlled the 6th District Senate seat for decades.
Knox County doesn’t have a Democratic state senator — there are only five Democrats in the 33-seat upper chamber of the state Legislature — and the district contains some of the county’s most staunchly Republic precincts.
The 6th Senate District is shaped like a scimitar, with the bottom of the hilt at Choto Bend on the Loudon County line and a broadening blade curving around downtown to encompass South Knox County, Mascot, Corryton and Halls.
The district 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.
The GOP has controlled the seat for decades, with the most recent occupants being the late Ben Atchley, who served seven terms beginning in 1976, and Jamie Woodson, who served from 2004 to 2011.
Massey first won the seat in 2011 in a special election to replace Woodson, 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 state Rep. Gloria Johnson in the 2011 special election and former County Commissioner Evelyn Gill in 2012.
George is a political newcomer who made her debut this year with a Democratic primary victory. She blew out her opponent, Sam Brown, with nearly two-thirds of the vote in the Aug. 6 balloting. Massey was unopposed in the GOP primary.
Massey held an overwhelming lead in fundraising at the end of July, when the most recent financial disclosure documents were filed. She had $392,908 in her campaign account, while George had $1,529 after months of pre-primary spending. The next reporting deadline is Oct. 13.
Becky Duncan Massey
Growing up in Knoxville, Massey was served generous helpings of politics at the dinner table. She is the daughter of the late Knoxville Mayor and U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Sr. and the sister of former longtime U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr.
Massey didn’t jump directly into politics after graduating from the University of Tennessee, though. She immersed herself in volunteer and nonprofit work. For 25 years, she was the executive director of the Sertoma Center, which provides services to adults with intellectual disabilities. She said the commitment to service instilled by her family prompted her to run for the seat in the 2011 special election.
Like many politicians in both parties, Massey said creating and retaining high-paying jobs is her top priority, and that education is a key contributor to economic well-being.
As chair of the Transportation and Safety Committee, Massey helps shape legislation to address the state’s infrastructure needs. She pointed to the IMPROVE Act, which raised the state’s gasoline tax, as an effective initiative that chopped a dozen years off the completion timeline for the Alcoa Highway improvements project.
She said the state should be able to keep up with bridge replacement and other key safety projects, but she’s concerned about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the state’s airports. “They’ve been hit hard,” Massey said.
Overall, she said, the state’s response to the pandemic has been good, though hindsight always finds flaws. For example, Massey said, the decision to allow big-box chain stores to stay open while closing locally owned mom-and-pop stores was a mistake.
The best decision the Legislature made, according to Massey, was to set aside some of the federal CARES Act funding to prop up the state’s unemployment fund. “Had we not done that, the unemployment tax businesses pay would have increased a projected 300 percent,” she said.
As a member of the Republican supermajority, Massey takes many positions common within the GOP — opposition to abortion, gun ownership rights and keeping taxes low.
Sometimes, however, she pushes back against the legislative leadership, which also serves to undercut attempts to paint Massey as a conservative extremist. For example, she supported former Gov. Bill Haslam’s failed attempt to expand TennCare, Tennessee’s Medicaid program, as allowed by the federal Affordable Care Act.
She also opposes Gov. Bill Lee’s efforts to establish a school voucher program in Tennessee. “I have not voted for a voucher bill since I’ve been here,” Massey said. “I just fundamentally believe public dollars should not go to private schools.”
While she said the Legislature should take another look at Medicaid expansion, she’s realistic and concedes the votes aren’t there. “I have focused on other health issues,” she said, particularly lifestyle matters like smoking, obesity and inactivity, which she said harm the quality of health for too many Tennesseans.
“I really gravitate toward vulnerable populations,” she said, citing her work at the Sertoma Center and legislative support for seniors, children in foster care and sexual assault victims.
One of her top priorities, if she wins reelection, is a bill put on hold by the pandemic that would make Tennessee state government a model for employing people with disabilities.
People with disabilities “have the highest unemployment of any group in the country,” Massey said. “Only 25 percent are employed.”
She said she’s committed to serve with honor and integrity. “I have the experience, knowledge and leadership to serve the people of Knox County and Tennessee,” Massey said. “I get things done.”
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 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 got married, started a family and earned a degree in biology at UCLA. She completed coursework for a doctorate in biology, but decided she wanted to be a chiropractic physician.
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.
George wants to use her medical and scientific background to improve the lives of Tennesseans. “One of the motivating reasons I’m running is because we need scientists in a position to make decisions about the environment,” she said.
George said that perspective is vitally important in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. “We have to look to the medical professionals,” she said. “They’re the ones who should be giving us guidance.”
She also criticized Gov. Bill Lee for a lack of transparency in the state’s response, particularly regarding the impact of the pandemic on public schools. “Bill Lee has done everything he can do to keep information from the public.”
George’s emphasis on healthcare extends to Medicaid expansion, which she supports. (The future of the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes Medicaid expansion, is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.) Expanding Medicaid could save rural hospitals, she said, saving lives and improving the health outcomes for all Tennesseans.
According to George, climate change is another area where listening to scientists is important. “We need to look for ways to reduce our carbon footprint,” she said.
George said her passion for education drives her insistence on full funding for public schools and her resistance to school vouchers. “We cannot afford to take money out of the public schools and put it into private institutions,” she said. “Private schools need to develop their own scholarship programs.”
She also would back legislation to expand broadband access, especially since the COVID-19 response has forced 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 Floyd 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.
Economic development is another priority for George. “I’m a business owner. I’m pro-business and want to get more industry into Tennessee,” she said.
According to George, a key for economic prosperity is creating jobs that pay a living wage and provide health insurance to employees. “We’re a capitalistic, consumer-driven economy,” she said, adding that the focus should be on people not corporations. “Tennessee is being sold out by the General Assembly as having the cheapest labor and the least regulation.”
“We lift up Tennessee by lifting up each Tennessean one at a time,” she said.