Election 2020: 18th State House District
Businessman Eddie Mannis and attorney Virginia Couch square off to replace Rep. Martin Daniel in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Republican state Rep. Martin Daniel’s decision to not seek reelection this year opened the door for new representation in the 18th House District.
The 18th State House District is traditionally red, but it nearly flipped to blue in the 2018 election.
Business owner and philanthropist Eddie Mannis is running against business owner and attorney Virginia Couch. Mannis is a Republican, Couch a Democrat.
This is Couch’s first run for political office, while Mannis lost last year’s Knoxville mayoral race to Indya Kincannon.
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 reelection in 2018, edging Democratic former Election Administrator Greg Mackay by 3 percentage points.
Couch enjoys the support of a unified Democratic Party motivated by the prospect of retaking the White House, securing a majority in the U.S. Senate and putting a dent in the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee Legislature.
“I have never seen a more energized group of people,” Couch said. “Democrats want change, and I mean from the top down.”
Mannis, on the other hand, had to fend off two challenges to his status as a bona fide Republican — one from the county GOP leadership and the other from Oster after the primary.
“I’m a free thinker, I’m open-minded, I’m a fiscal conservative,” Mannis said. “I may not be Republican enough for some, but I am a Republican.”
Couch, who was unopposed and didn’t have to spend money to win the Democratic primary, had $31,553 in her campaign account at the end July, according to the most recent campaign finance disclosures. Mannis, who defeated Gina Oster in the GOP primary,had $8,297 on hand at the same point in the campaign but is a capable fundraiser. The next reporting deadline is Tuesday.
Couch said in an interview that she has never been a “political junkie,” but that the elections of 2016 and 2018, plus a Tennessee Bar Association program that encourages attorneys to get active in civic life, convinced her she needed to run for office.
She cited Daniel, Gov. Bill Lee and former state Sen. Stacey Campfield as Republican politicians who have failed the public. “I’ve lived in the district for 18 years, and for 18 years my voice hasn’t been heard,” Couch said.
She grew up on a farm near Corbin, Ky., and wanted to leave as soon as possible. Couch earned an associate’s degree and worked in electronics before enrolling at the University of Tennessee to get an accounting degree.
“I took a business law class and fell in love with it and decided to go to law school,” she said. Now, Couch is legal counsel for The Trust Company, a financial services firm.
She is also the co-owner of Barkside Lodge, a dog boarding, daycare, swimming and grooming center in Lenoir City. Because people aren’t traveling, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated her business, slashing revenues by 70 percent from last year.
Couch said she’s disappointed in Lee’s response to the pandemic. “Initially it was great,” she said. “Then it became a political issue, a red-and-blue issue, and it hasn’t recovered. With something this scary, we need leadership. He’s been following the White House.”
Raising the minimum wage for workers and improving access to financing for women- and minority-owned businesses are needed, she said. The region also needs to leverage UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to spur economic growth.
The pandemic, she said, highlights the need to expand TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, under the Affordable Care Act. The move would help save rural hospitals, address the opioid crisis and provide a way for people who work at small businesses to have access to health insurance. “They’re working, they just can’t afford a $400 a month policy,” she said.
Education is a priority for Couch, especially vocational training. She offered her experience working in electronics before finishing her degrees as an example.
“It gave me a quicker path into the workforce with a good job, with health insurance, dental insurance and a 401k in a manufacturing plant,” she said. “We focus on technology jobs but we’re ignoring skills jobs.”
She also cites the example of her mother, who dropped out of school in 8th grade, but got her GED, an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree, and eventually became a special education teacher.
Couch also supports increasing teacher pay, reducing the reliance on standardized tests and addressing food insecurity for students qualifying for free or reduced meals.
She is opposed to Lee’s school voucher program, which at this point is a pilot effort in Nashville and Memphis, and is tied up in court challenges. She said the plan is marketed as a way to help students from low-income families, but they will won’t be able to afford tuition at private schools.
Besides, Couch said, people would prefer to see improvements to their community public schools. “When you talk to families, they want their schools to be better,” she said. “They don’t want to go to private schools.”
If elected, Couch would be a freshman member of the Legislature’s minority party. She said people need to set partisanship aside and look at how to arrive at solutions.
“Stop thinking Democratic, stop thinking Republican, and look at the issues and see who has a plan to address the issues that are important to you,” she said.
Mannis emerged as the victor in August in the tightest legislative primary in recent memory — he won by 99 votes out of 6,841 cast. If he wins in November, he will join a General Assembly forced to deal with a global pandemic and an economic crisis.
“Post-COVID-19 might be the biggest challenge the Legislature will face,” he said, noting that the long-term impact of the pandemic is unknown. “COVID-19 has really put even more pressure on job growth and economic development,” he said.
Mannis said he can bring a business owner’s perspective to the Legislature as it deals with the pandemic response. Revenues at Prestige Cleaners, the business he started 35 years ago, were down 78 percent, he said. He transformed the business into a mask manufacturing facility so his employees could still receive paychecks.
“I know first-hand the impact,” he said. “I’d like to work on that.”
So far, Mannis gives the state high marks for the pandemic response. “Gov. Lee has done a very good job navigating something we’ve never seen before,” he said.
Mannis, who spent eight years on Covenant Health’s board of directors, said he will make healthcare a priority. He said he would be willing to look at expanding Medicaid, like state Sens. Richard Briggs and Becky Duncan Massey, but said he would have to see the fiscal impact of any proposal.
“It’s something I would certainly entertain,” he said.
Mannis said he’s a proponent of public education and would like to see Tennessee teachers get pay increases, though he also stressed that accountability is a must.
“Rewarding the best and brightest is important, and I would consider any way to make their career path more rewarding,” he said.
Mannis hasn’t publicly stated where he stands on Lee’s voucher program. “The jury’s still out for me on vouchers,” he said. “I’d be interested in seeing the outcomes from Davidson and Shelby counties.”
Any program should not harm public schools, he said. “I don’t want to do anything that has a negative impact on public education,” he said.”I’m a product of Knox County public schools.”
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 with three employees. Prestige Cleaners and Prestige Tuxedo now employ more than 150 people. He 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.
Last year, he ran for mayor of Knoxville, finishing first in the six-way primary but falling 5 percentage points short of Kincannon in the general election. He said this summer that he didn’t plan to run for the 18th District seat until Martin announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. If Mannis wins, he will become Tennessee’s first openly gay legislator.
Mannis believes in the concept of servant leaders and hopes voters respond to his experience in business and with nonprofits, and his service in city government and on oversight boards.
“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.