Election 2020: 14th State House District
Incumbent Republican Rep. Jason Zachary meets Democrat Justin Davis in a rematch of the 2018 race.
As Yogi Berra might say, it’s déjà vu all over again in the 14 State House District race.
Zachary won the first contest with Davis in 2018 by a 2-1 margin.
In 2018, Republican incumbent Jason Zachary faced a challenge from Democrat Justin Davis. The same matchup is on tap in this year’s election.
By garnering 66 percent of the vote, Zachary handily defeated Davis two years ago. Davis is hoping for a different outcome in 2020.
The district encompasses all of Farragut and runs along the Tennessee River from Choto Bend to the edge of Lakeshore Park. There is even a beachhead across the water in South Knoxville that reaches Alcoa Highway south of Maloney Road.
The area includes many affluent subdivisions, especially along the waterfront, and some of the staunchest GOP precincts in the county. District 14 is generally considered a safe Republican seat, something that Davis would like to change.
Zachary is a telecommunications executive who first won the 14th District seat in a special election in 2015 and hasn’t relinquished it since. Davis is a warehouse manager who has never held public office.
Zachary holds a huge lead in fundraising. During the quarter ending Sept.30, he reported adding $9,350 to his account and after spending $20,130 still had a balance of $70,401. Davis reported a balance of $6,748 as of Sept. 30 after raising $5,072 for the quarter and spending $287 on advertising.
Early voting begins today and Election Day is Nov. 3.
Among the most socially conservative members of the Legislature, Zachary is a low-tax, limited-government Republican who doesn’t shy away from controversy.
He was a leader in the temporarily successful effort to defund the University of Tennessee’s diversity office in 2016 and dramatically switched his vote last year to ensure passage of Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher pilot program.
More recently he attempted to grant authority to issue public health orders to county mayors instead of public health officials and participated in a video narrated by Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs that included images of the Knox County Board of Health during a passage about threats to freedom.
Zachary did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this article.
He earned an associate’s degree from Pellissippi State Community College and attended UT. He is a principal and executive vice president with Americomm, the telecommunications company founded by his family.
His first foray into politics was an unsuccessful challenge to former U.S. Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan for the 2nd District congressional seat in 2014.
After former state Rep. Ryan Haynes stepped down from his 14th state House District seat to become the chair of the Tennessee Republican Party in 2015, Zachary scored his first political victory with a special election Republican primary win over former School Board Chair Karen Carson. He was unopposed in the general election.
The next year he trounced Democrat Scott Hacker, 73 percent to 27 percent, and defeated Davis in 2018.
Zachary is a fierce culture warrior who touts his Baptist faith, a vocal opponent of abortion who supports the idea that marriage is appropirate only between a man and a woman. He supports low taxes, opposes excessive business regulations and works to trim what he sees as government overreach.
Zachary was one of the legislators outraged over online posts about gender-neutral pronouns and guidelines for office holiday parties from UT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion in 2016. He was one of the sponsors of a bill that defunded the office for the 2016-17 academic year and reallocated the money budgeted for it to minority engineering scholarships.
Zachary took center stage in 2019 when he switched his vote to pass Lee’s school voucher pilot program, which would create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) for eligible students to use toward private school tuition or homeschooling expenses in Shelby and Davidson counties.
An initial opponent of the bill, Zachary broke a 49-49 tie on the House floor after then-Speaker Glen Casada promised him Knox County would be removed from the final version of the bill. The change assured passage of the bill, which was opposed by public school advocates of both parties. The law has been ruled unconstitutional by a Nashville judge; the state is appealing.
Zachary has been vocal about his opposition to restrictions on businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, he sponsored an amendment to a caption bill that would have placed the authority to issue public health orders with county mayors instead of public health officers or boards of health.
Republican state Sen. Richard Briggs, a Knoxville heart surgeon who wants pandemic decisions made by public health professionals, derailed the effort in the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
Davis said in a recent interview he had no plans to make a second run for the 14th District seat until Zacharly flipped his vote on Lee’s voucher plan. “I heard a lot of complaints about the voucher vote,” he said.
A firm opponent of vouchers, Davis has described Zachary’s reversal as the result of a backroom deal: “He sold out our students, our teachers and our future.”
The issues that were central to the 2018 campaign are still on the table, he said, particularly education, and COVID-19 has injected a new complication to all calculations.
“Gov. Lee has failed on all accounts,” he said. Referring to Zachary’s involvement with the video that Jacobs narrated about government overreach, Davis said that his opponent has been “hiding out” since it went public on Facebook (it has since been removed).
“They seem to be attacking the Board of Health,” he said. “We should listen to the doctors and follow their advice to tamp down this virus.”
That’s the only way, he continued, to support local businesses and spur an economic recovery. “It’s not a joke to me. Businesses are really struggling,” Davis said.
Born in Knoxville, Davis grew up in various places in East Tennessee and graduated from Jefferson County High School. He eventually earned a master’s in political science while working and raising his children, and now works as a warehouse manager.
Davis finds humor in being a progressive candidate from a conservative family. “I’m not the black sheep of the family; I’m the blue sheep,” he quipped.
“People are fed up with partisanship. We need to get together and work for the citizens.”
Davis’ background gives him an appreciation for blue-collar and union workers. “We’re a right-to-work state, which is a joke to me,” he said. “The Democratic Party used to be the party of the working class.”
Rebuilding the working class, ensuring that women get equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage are priorities for Davis. “People can’t even pay rent on a one-bedroom apartment on the minimum wage,” he said.”The cost of living has gone up but wages have stagnated. They’re one accident away from financial catastrophe.”
Davis’ education platform consists of more than opposition to vouchers. He supports increased funding for schools and especially better pay for teachers and staff. Davis also wants to improve technical and vocational education.
Expanding Medicaid is essential in light of the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. The state should also legislate paid maternity leave to help families.
Citing climate change, Davis said Tennessee needs to commit to alternative energy sources that will create jobs while protecting the environment.
According to Davis, the biggest problems with government are big money and career politicians. “I don’t accept corporate or PAC money,” he said.
Davis would also like to see term limits expanded as a way to simultaneously limit corruption and allow more citizens to serve the public and bring fresh ideas to government.
Davis acknowledges the difficulty of beating an incumbent Republican in the 14th District. “It’s a very red district,” he said. But he is undaunted. “I’m pretty optimistic,” he said. “I think things are starting to change.”
Correction: This article has been updated with correct district once represented by former U.S. Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan.