Election 2022: State House District 90

Portrait photos of David Poczobut and Gloria Johnson

Election 2022: State House District 90

Democrat Gloria Johnson tries to hold onto her seat in a newly drawn district against Republican challenger David ‘Pozy’ Poczobut.

by jesse fox mayshark • October 11, 2022

Portrait photos of David Poczobut and Gloria Johnson

David "Pozy" Poczobut, a real estate broker and auctioneer, is running against state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a retired teacher.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson is seeking re-election this year, but she’s not quite an incumbent.

The county Republican Party has made the Democratic-leaning district a priority.

Johnson, one of just two Democrats in Knox County’s legislative delegation, had her old District 13 redrawn out of existence this year by the Republican supermajority in the state Legislature. Instead, lawmakers created a new District 90 that includes a large chunk of Johnson’s old district but chops off its southern half and extends out into West Knoxville.

Johnson’s former home address was left out of the new district, pushing her into fellow Democratic Rep. Sam McKenzie’s District 15. She was obliged to move into District 90 in order to seek a fourth term in the state House. 

She is facing Republican David “Pozy” Poczobut, a real estate agent and auctioneer with no prior political experience.

The new district stretches from the Alice Bell neighborhood in northeast Knoxville west through Inskip, Oakwood-Lincoln Park and West View to Bearden, West Hills and Cedar Bluff. While it may have been drawn to inconvenience Johnson, it still appears to lean strongly Democratic.

Although an exact comparison is impossible because some precincts have been redrawn, the precincts that make up the new District 90 voted 60 percent for President Joe Biden in 2020 over former President Donald Trump. 

That apparent electoral disparity is also reflected in the candidates’ fundraising through the end of July. Johnson started the year with $21,150 on hand and has raised another $101,986.75, compared to $39,399.13 raised in the same period by Poczobut.

Still, Poczobut — whose campaign materials all refer to him as “Pozy,” a nickname version of his last name — has been running an active campaign and has yard signs scattered throughout the district.

He did not make himself available for an interview with Compass, after initially agreeing to one, so the information on him here is gathered from publicly available sources. 

If Johnson loses, it would be a Republican upset in one of the few Democratic-leaning districts in East Tennessee. In introducing Poczobut at the local Republicans’ election night party on Aug. 4, county GOP Chair Daniel Herrera said, “The Knox County Republican Party is making that state representative district our number one target this cycle.”

Here’s a look at the two candidates.

Gloria Johnson

In her three non-consecutive terms in the Legislature — 2013-14 and 2019-22 — Johnson has become one of the Legislature’s most outspoken Democrats, both on the floor of the House and on social media. She often calls out Republicans for what she sees as bad or duplicitous behavior.

That has made her persona non grata with the majority, who have responded in various ways — refusing to call on her to speak during House debates, sticking her for a while in a tiny windowless office, and most recently drawing her out of her own district.

“It was without question personal,” Johnson said of the redistricting. “I don’t even think they’ll act like it wasn’t. It was very clear what they did.”

But she coped with the small office — she now has a larger one, with windows — and moved about a mile and a half from one North Knoxville neighborhood to another in order to reside in the new district. As for the West Knoxville areas of District 90 that weren’t in the old District 13, she said she was already well familiar with them.

“Something that Republicans probably didn't know is that's where I grew up,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I know a lot of people out there. But also, we've been out knocking doors, we've been making phone calls, and the reception is very good.”

In a fourth term in the legislative minority, Johnson said she would continue to advocate for the issues that she has prioritized in the past: access to health care (she has long supported expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act), a family leave plan for Tennessee workers, defending traditional public education against what she sees as threats from charter schools and Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher program.

She said she is encountering a lot of anger from voters over recent state and national events.

“Some of the biggest things we’re hearing about are Hillsdale and Larry Arnn. People are furious about that,” she said, referring to derogatory remarks that Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College and one of Lee’s educational confidants, made about public school teachers. “People are furious about book banning. People are furious about Roe and the Dobbs decision and what Tennessee is doing (on abortion).”

As a former special education teacher, Johnson is particularly focused on what she says is the state’s underfunding of schools. She was unimpressed by Lee’s revamping of school funding, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) act.

“I'm clearly going to try to hold back any more attacks on our schools, attacks on teachers,” she said. “We’re going to push adequate funding for our schools. They keep touting this addition that they’ve made, but it’s not even half of what is required.”

As a former chair of the Knox County Democratic Party, Johnson is no stranger to partisan tussling, and she typically gives as good as she gets. Even so, she said the rhetoric routinely employed in political dialogue now is becoming unhinged.

“Of course they are already coming at me with the attacks, ‘She’s an extreme liberal, communist, Marxist,’” she said. “However, this new thing in the mix of ‘groomer’ and ‘pedophile’ is so ridiculous. I mean, it’s almost comedic. I’m telling this to my mom who’s apolitical and on the other side of the aisle, and she’s like, ‘Why would they do that, Gloria?’ And I’m like, ‘Mommy, nothing matters anymore.’ Nothing has to be true or even come from a place that’s true.”

One issue she continues to hope to get traction on is the establishment of a family leave law in Tennessee like those in 11 other states, in which workers pay a small amount out of each paycheck — similar to unemployment insurance — and are then eligible for paid time off for family needs ranging from a new baby to aging parents.

“If you want to talk about forced birth and forcing people to have kids, well, let’s give them the time to have that child and spend some time with that child,” Johnson said. 

She said Democrats plan to introduce several bills on abortion in the coming session, seeking to overturn the state’s current absolute ban on terminating pregnancies and, failing that, to carve out some exemptions to it. 

Johnson’s campaign contributions have come from a long list of mostly local residents, including many teachers and University of Tennessee faculty members. Her donors include City Councilwoman Lauren Rider, former Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, and Democratic congressional candidate Mark Harmon, as well as fellow legislative candidate Greg Kaplan. 

She has also received contributions from other Democrats in the Legislature, including state Reps. Vincent Dixie, Bob Freeman and Bo Mitchell and state Sen. London Lamar. Her largest donations are $15,000 from the Tennessee Tomorrow PAC of the House Democratic Caucus; $7,800 from the International Association of Heat & Frost Insulators; and $2,500 from SEIU, the service workers union.

Johnson, who is 60, survived a heart attack and stroke earlier in her life, and has had some health struggles in recent years. She used a doctor-prescribed scooter to get around the legislative halls this year, and she suffered a collapse earlier this year while out shopping. (Alert bystanders helped get her medical help.)

But she said her political opponents shouldn’t see those as signs of weakness.

“Some of those folks online are like, ‘Oh, she’s so fragile,’” she said. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m not fragile.”

David ‘Pozy’ Poczobut

Like Johnson, Poczobut grew up in West Knox County, attending Farragut intermediate and middle schools and Knoxville Catholic High School. According to the biography on his campaign website, he earned an economics degree at the University of Tennessee and worked in advertising and for a local manufacturer until getting into real estate in 2004. 

He is now a broker and auctioneer with Keller Williams Realty. According to his LinkedIn profile, he also had a local radio talk show about real estate on WNOX FM from 2009-2014.

He is running with help from campaign manager Erik Wiatr, who is also working with 18th District House candidate Elaine Davis and ran successful campaigns for recently elected county commissioners Gina Oster and Rhonda Lee. 

His use of “Pozy” on the ballot as a shortened version of his Polish-derived surname is unusual but allowed as a nickname, along with his full name. 

Neither his website nor his social media feeds have much detail on his political or policy views. He promises to “Create real solutions to homelessness” and “Expand affordable healthcare” without any information about how he plans to do so. He also pledges to never raise taxes and to invest “more” in education, “including civics and vocational training.”

In a short candidate video on Knoxville Community Media, Poczobut says he was a volunteer reserve officer for the Knox County Sheriff's Office for about three years in the 199os.

"I have been out on the streets and seen what's happening with the police department," he says. "And I think we need to support them, we need to give them the funding that they need for those officers."

He says he was motivated to run by feeling unrepresented by Johnson, whom he accuses of negativity toward Tennessee and its residents.

"This is my way of giving back to the community for what I love," Poczobut says of his candidacy. "I am here to present my interest in helping Tennesseans, helping my district."

Mostly he appears to be running as the Republican alternative to Johnson. That has been enough to earn him donations from local GOP stalwarts like Jim Haslam, Pete Claussen, Wes Stowers, restaurateur Randy Burleson and developers Tim Graham, Tim Hill and Victor Jernagin.

Poczobut has also received contributions from several of Johnson’s Republican colleagues, including Knox County state Reps. Justin Lafferty and Jason Zachary, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, Newport Rep. Jeremy Faison and Oak Ridge Rep. John Ragan.