Primary 2022: State Senate District 7

Profile photos of Richard Briggs and Kent Morrell

Primary 2022: State Senate District 7

Seeking a third term, incumbent Richard Briggs faces a Republican primary challenge from newcomer Kent Morrell.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 19, 2022

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Profile photos of Richard Briggs and Kent Morrell

State Sen. richard Briggs, left, is seeking a third term. Business owner Kent Morrell, right, is an advocate for medical cannabis who also thinks Briggs is insufficiently conservative. 

State Sen. Richard Briggs has long portrayed his medical background as an advantage in his legislative career. 

Briggs is a doctor. Morrell is a former chronic pain sufferer unimpressed by the medical system.

Whether it’s leading anti-tobacco efforts in the General Assembly or pushing for the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, Briggs often invokes his experience as a heart surgeon in advocating for health-related issues.

“I bring the medical expertise on dealing with probably a couple of (issues),” he said in a recent interview. “COVID’s not over, I think I add a lot to that discussion. We still have the opioid epidemic, we have an epidemic of suicide that's related to mental illness. And I think we need that expertise in the Legislature.”

But for Kent Morrell, who is challenging Briggs in the Aug. 4 state Republican primary, the incumbent’s medical degree is a reason to vote him out.

“I’ve told him, you check off two of my biggest frustrations: politicians and doctors,” Morrell said in an interview. “I’ve said that to his face.”

Morrell’s skepticism of the medical profession and government mandates comes from long and life-altering experience. After a car accident in 2000, he spent 18 years in chronic pain, seeking treatment from doctors whose efforts sometimes made things worse and who eventually refused to provide pain medication as the state cracked down on opioid prescriptions.

He attacks Briggs, who has sometimes been in the minority of his party on health and education issues, as insufficiently conservative. But most specifically, Morrell is an advocate for the legalization of medical cannabis, which he believes can provide relief to many Tennesseans suffering like he used to.

That dynamic sets up an ideologically and politically complex primary in the state Senate’s 7th District, which runs from Farragut through much of West Knoxville and then curls into downtown and hooks upward through sections of East and North Knoxville.

Briggs has represented the district since 2014, when he ousted conservative firebrand and then-incumbent Sen. Stacey Campfield. He won a second term in 2018 relatively easily, defeating Democratic challenger Jamie Bollinger by a 56-44 percent margin.

The winner of the Republican primary this year will face Democrat Bryan Langan in the November general election. We will write about Langan ahead of that election, but for now, here’s a look at the two GOP contenders.

Richard Briggs

Briggs’ background as a surgeon is not the only distinguishing enty on his résumé. He was a U.S. Army doctor, serving in multiple war zones including Afghanistan. He was elected to Knox County Commission in 2008, serving until his successful run for the state Senate six years later.

In the Legislature, he generally votes with his Republican colleagues in the supermajority, but he has been a consistent minority voice on some issues. He has advocated for increasing access to healthcare in various ways, including a so-far stalled expansion of the state’s TennCare Medicaid program.

He was a leader in pushing for state laws to crack down on “pill mills,” the high-volume opioid dispensers that helped create the current overdose epidemic. He has also pursued restrictions on smoking and vaping, and last year failed in an effort to close the loophole that allows Delta-8 THC products to be sold legally. (The latter effort is among Morrell’s criticisms of his record.)

Briggs serves as chair of the Senate’s State and Local Government Committee, which reviews all legislation affecting governance across the state. He noted that with his colleague Sen. Becky Duncan Massey heading up the Transportation Committee and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally overseeing the entire Senate, Knox County is well represented in the body’s leadership.

“East Tennessee is in a really good, sweet spot to get things done,” Briggs said.

He emphasized that the state is in a strong financial position — it currently has $1.8 billion in its “rainy day fund” and another half-billion in TennCare reserves. 

“There's a lot of talk today about us descending into recession, but a very important point for folks to know is Tennessee now has large enough reserves that if we do have a major economic downturn, we'll be able to cushion that with our reserve fund,” Briggs said. ”Even during the COVID crisis, we did not have to get into the rainy day fund.”

On the State and Local Government Committee, Briggs said he is looking for ways to return some state revenue to local governments. He noted that the state in recent years has cut taxes that also affected city and county revenues, most prominently the Hall income tax on dividends.

“We’ve sort of squeezed them some to where they’re having to raise taxes,” Briggs said. He’s backing legislation to reduce the commission the state charges to process local sales taxes, and to bolster state sales tax revenue-sharing with county governments.

He also touted a bill that he cosponsored last year, requiring all election commissions in the state to use paper ballots starting in 2024. Knox County and many others have already made that change, but Briggs said 55 percent of Tennessee counties have not.

He voted with the Republican majority to pass the state’s so-called “trigger law,” which will take effect next month and impose draconian restrictions on abortion, making it illegal essentially from the moment of fertilization. (It is already illegal starting at six weeks under a different state law.) But he said he wants to revisit it to provide for what he sees as needed exceptions.

"There's some big concerns that I have as a physician," Briggs said. "It does not address ectopic pregnancies until the ectopic pregnancy ruptures and somebody's bleeding to death. And then we also have cases of rape or incest. And I would have to add to it severe congenital anomalies, particularly those that aren't compatible with survival outside the womb."

He said he remains deeply concerned about the state’s surge in drug overdose deaths, being driven by the ongoing spread of addiction and the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl. He supported a bill to make it easier for drug rehabilitation clinics to prescribe Suboxone, which soothes the physical craving for opioids and has been shown to reduce fatal overdoses among users by 50 percent.

He also sponsored a successful bill to legalize fentanyl test strips, which had been banned as drug paraphernalia. The strips allow a user to test drugs for the presence of fentanyl.

“This carved them out so they can be purchased, they can be distributed by clinics,” Briggs said.

During COVID’s early  peaks in Tennessee, Briggs often shared informational links on Facebook — or his wife did, he said, because he doesn’t like social media — pointing to reliable studies and data about the spread and response to the disease. He, McNally, Massey and other Republicans in the state Senate were their party’s most outspoken leaders in urging Tennesseans to get vaccinated (although they opposed any moves to mandate it).

He raised concerns about shifting public health authority from medical professionals to elected officials. But over time, he said he has become more sympathetic to Gov. Bill Lee’s efforts to balance health with economic and social needs. 

“In retrospect, and I evolved into this, I'm probably a lot more forgiving of some of the decisions that leaders had to make,” Briggs said. “I'm probably more understanding than I was.” 

Kent Morrell

Morrell grew up in Bristol, Tenn. He is a successful businessman who started a still-thriving company called Indoor Oceans while he was in college, eventually quitting the University of Tennessee in the early ‘90s to focus on it full-time.

“We put custom aquariums in doctors offices and restaurants and do the service work for it,” he said. “Maintenance is what has kept us in business.”

It now maintains aquariums for businesses including Petco and PetSmart, with clients ranging from Nashville into Virginia and western North Carolina.

Morrell and his wife have four children, and all was going well until a catastrophic event upended their lives. In September 2000, he was in a car accident — another driver T-boned his vehicle, at 40 miles per hour. Morrell saw the other car headed into him at the last second and tensed up, gripping the steering wheel. That turned out to be an understandable but damaging reflex reaction.

Although he walked away from the crash, pain that set in soon afterward told him something was very wrong. After reluctantly going to the emergency room, he found out that the force of the impact had ripped the thoracic muscles from both sides of his spine.

That began 18 years of chronic and often excruciating pain. Early efforts at physical therapy ended up contributing to a buildup of scar tissue that then required major surgery to try to remove. By 2002, he said, doctors told him, “It’s time to realize the pain is permanent. Adjust your life accordingly.”

He sold his company to his partner, his wife had to get a job, and they withdrew their children from private schools, anticipating long-term disability that would keep Morrell from working full-time. What followed he describes as a years-long effort to find and maintain effective pain treatment.

Regular but expensive treatments known as radiofrequency ablation provided some relief and enabled him to buy his company back. But those became untenable after the Affordable Care Act passed, which he said led to the loss of the health maintenance organization through which he had insurance.

“I did not get to keep my plan, I did not get to keep my doctor,” he said, referring to former President Barack Obama’s promises about the health care bill. It was not the last time he would find government regulation interfering with needed treatment.

Genetic testing showed that Morrell metabolized medication in a way that requires higher doses than most patients. For a few years, from 2013-15, he saw a specialist who was willing to prescribe high doses of morphine, which allowed him to function with greatly reduced pain.

But then in 2015 the state repealed the Intractable Pain Act, passed in 2001 to increase access to pain medication. It had also allowed the spread of “pill mills,” and legislators were seeking to reduce the wide distribution of opioids.

“They thought by repealing that it would decrease overdose deaths and decrease availability of opioids,” Morrell said. “It hasn’t.” Although deaths from legally prescribed drugs like Oxycodone have dropped dramatically in Tennessee, the gap has been filled by even more deadly illegal fentanyl.

But the change in the law also made it much harder for chronic pain patients like Morrell to obtain relief. He was dropped by his doctor, he said, because his high-dose prescriptions were the kind that would attract possible state sanction.

After years of advocating for his own care, Morrell became a regular presence in Nashville advocating for pain patients across the state. In that work, he ended up crossing paths with advocates for medical marijuana. Although sympathetic to their efforts, he didn’t initially imagine that something as relatively mild as cannabis would offer any help to him.

But, once again in terrible pain and out of obvious options, he found a source — an illegal one, he acknowledges — able to provide him with locally grown cannabis. (The source has since left Tennessee and moved to a state where they can grow it legally.) After some trials, Morrell found that “microdosing” — taking small amounts of THC oil at regular intervals — provided significant relief.

And then, some time after beginning that treatment, Morrell said he woke up on Memorial Day of 2019 with no pain. He waited for it to return but it hasn’t. He doesn’t know what made it go away, but he doesn’t think it was thanks to state regulations or restrictions.

In the immediate aftermath of the remission, he had an idea for how to use his newly pain-free days.

“I thought,’I should run for office,’ because I'd been fighting from the outside for six years at that time, banging my head against the wall,” Morrell said. “I finally decided, you know, the most effective way to do this is from the inside.”

He emphasized that he is seeking the legalization of medical marijuana only, because his concern is for pain patients who he says could benefit from it. He also has a small side business selling legal hemp-derived CBD products.

Beyond that issue, he paints himself as more conservative than Briggs. He created a website — truthaboutbriggs.com — that lists what Morrell says are deviations from conservative principles in Briggs’ legislative record.

On abortion, Morrell said he would be more comfortable with a ban after six weeks of gestation than the immediate ban that will kick in with the trigger law. “I support the heartbeat bill,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake to totally outlaw options for the woman.”