Election 2022: State House District 14

Portrait photos of Amanda Collins and Jason Zachary

Election 2022: State House District 14

In a solidly Republican West Knox district, incumbent Republican Rep. Jason Zachary faces Democrat Amanda Collins.

by jesse fox mayshark • October 13, 2022

Portrait photos of Amanda Collins and Jason Zachary

Democrat Amanda Collins is running against Republican state Rep. Jason Zachary.

It is no accident that one of Knox County’s most vocally conservative legislators comes from one of its reddest corners.

Two candidates with little in common except a willingness to speak out.

Republican state Rep. Jason Zachary has represented the 14th District since 2015. It covers the affluent suburbs and subdivisions of Farragut, Concord, Bluegrass, Toole’s Bend and Riverbend.

After winning the seat in a special election to fill an unexpired term, Zachary has gone on to three easy reelections, winning two-thirds or more of the vote against Democratic challengers in 2016, 2018 and 2020.

This year, Democrat Amanda Collins, a former school psychologist, hopes to change that trajectory. But she faces the same structural and financial challenges as her forerunners — a reliably Republican voting base and a sizable campaign war chest for her opponent.

As of the end of September, Collins reported raising $25,840 this year. That’s just over one-third of the $72,009 Zachary started the year with, and he’s raised another $45,150 since. 

Zachary is the conservative firebrand and culture warrior of the Knox County delegation, keeping up a steady stream of strongly-worded social media posts and equally strongly-worded legislative proposals. Collins, a first-time candidate who became politically active during fights over COVID health measures in schools, is prone to strongly-worded posts of her own.

Zachary did not respond to a message seeking to set up an interview for this story, but he has a voluminous public record to draw from. Here is a look at both candidates.

Jason Zachary

When anti-transgender activist and writer Matt Walsh last month posted tweets attacking the Pediatric Transgender Clinic at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Zachary’s response was swift and strong.

He immediately tweeted that the clinic — which operates according to established medical guidelines and has not been accused of any actual wrongdoing — was “evil.” He followed up with a letter to the hospital’s board of directors demanding an immediate stop to any surgical procedures for patients under 18 years of age, and gathered signatures from 62 other members of the House Republican Caucus.

The willingness to attack the state’s leading hospital in the most forceful moral terms was in keeping with Zachary’s track record as the most vocal social and cultural conservative in Knox County’s legislative delegation. (The hospital said last week it was pausing those surgeries while it conducts a review of new medical guidance.)

After moving to Knox County with his family as a teenager, he graduated from Farragut High School and earned an associate’s degree in marketing from Pellissippi State Community College. He works for Americomm, a company his father founded in the 1990s that provides telecommunications services to businesses.

Zachary is a member of First Baptist Concord, the Farragut megachurch that has long played a role in local conservative circles.

During his current term, Zachary led the pandemic charge in the Legislature to rein in the authority of local and state health officials and put them under the control of the governor and county mayors.

He has been a consistent opponent of any kind of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and a skeptic of the vaccines themselves. Just last week he retweeted an analysis by Florida state Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo raising concerns about possible negative effects of the vaccines for young men — a study roundly criticized by other public health experts as putting politics before science.

He has found a strong ally in Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. The two of them helped produce a controversial video in the fall of 2020 that appeared to attack the Knox County Board of Health.

They teamed up again earlier this year to promote a lawsuit pursued by a group called Unmask Knox County Kids, which sought to intervene in the federal lawsuit that had imposed a COVID-related mask mandate in Knox County Schools. The mask mandate ended up being lifted in a settlement with the original plaintiffs, but the suit Zachary and Jacobs helped promote was thrown out by the presiding federal judge in the case as “meritless, if not a political orchestration underneath the veneer of a federal lawsuit.”

Zachary hailed the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June, which eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, calling it “a day to rejoice!” He voted in 2019 for the state’s complete ban on abortion from the moment of fertilization, which took effect after the ruling.

He has also been a vocal critic of the moderation efforts of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, cosponsoring a bill this year that would have designated them as “common carriers” and restricted their ability to police objectionable content. (That bill died but could be revisited next year.)

Besides his criticism of Vanderbilt’s clinic, Zachary has supported several bills that have been opposed by LGBTQ advocates. He sponsored a bill last year that essentially opens local school systems to possible legal action if they allow transgender students to use bathrooms or locker rooms of their gender identity. The bill passed and was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee.

Zachary confirmed earlier this year that he was one of about 14 legislators subpoenaed in the criminal probe of activities related to former state House Speaker Glen Casada, but he said it was only to provide information. Casada and his former chief of staff were indicted in August on federal bribery and kickback charges.

Zachary does not appear to be taking the challenge from Collins too seriously. He doesn’t have a campaign website or social media presence, relying on his regular Facebook and Twitter accounts to share information and encourage people to vote.

Besides some of the usual local Republican donors — including members of the Haslam family — Zachary has received contributions from several political action committees: ARDA-ROC, which represents companies that sell timeshare apartments; Core Civic, the private prison company; the Tennessee Apartment PAC, representing corporate landlords; Tennessee Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities; and the Tennessee Realtors, among others.

Amanda Collins

As outspoken as Zachary is on the right, Collins is equally unabashed in advocating for progressive ideas. A recent tweet is representative:

If we don't GET OUT AND VOTE this November, Tennessee's toxic male-dominated, white Christian nationalist, misogynistic Republican supermajority will call this mom-of-three's IUD ‘gender affirming care’ or ‘abortion’ and take it away. 

And yours, too.

And your daughter's, too.”

“We are tired, we are fed up,” Collins said in an interview at the Knox County Democratic Party’s West Knox branch office, speaking for her supporters in the 14th District. “And we do not want to be represented by someone who continues to be divisive and hateful and appears uneducated.”

Collins grew up in northeastern Alabama, but her family’s roots spread into Tennessee and Georgia. She remembers driving through Knoxville many summers as a kid on the way to Church Music Week gatherings in North Carolina.

At the time, she wasn’t impressed by the aging industrial sites visible from the interstate. “I would look side to side and be like, ‘This is the roughest-looking city, who would want to spend voluntary time here?’” she said.

But by the time she came here in 2008 for a year-long internship while pursuing a doctorate at Georgia State University, the city had changed. She and her husband, Dan, rented a house in South Knoxville for that year, and by the end of it, they didn’t want to move back to Atlanta.

They bought a house off Northshore Drive between Rocky Hill and Bluegrass, and Collins — who has an EdS educational degree  — went to work as a psychologist for Blount County Schools and then Knox County Schools. She took a medical retirement from Knox County in 2020, because of persistent allergies from working with old records in old buildings.

Collins has three children — one each in elementary, middle and high schools — and like many people across the political spectrum, she was galvanized into political action by the COVID-19 pandemic. In her case, it was what she saw as a lack of responsiveness by local school officials to the health risks of the virus.

When Knox County Schools opened in the fall of 2021 with no mask requirement and no plans to mitigate the spread of COVID, Collins and other parents founded KCS PASS, a nonprofit organization to “promote healthy, supportive, and responsive safety practices in our schools.”

“COVID was here, and educators needed a voice that was reasonable,” she said. “So did parents who had concerns about their kiddos that they didn't necessarily want to disclose to everybody.”

At the same time, the events of Jan. 6, 2021, deeply disturbed her. She sought out the local Democratic Party and started going to meetings and getting involved.

“I thought I had been paying attention before that,” Collins said. “But I had not, I was very complacent.”

That increased engagement eventually led her to decide to run for office this year. She said she had long been frustrated with Zachary, particularly after he cast the deciding vote in 2019 to enact Lee’s school voucher program.

Collins’ legislative priorities are in line with those of other local Democratic candidates running this year. She supports more funding for traditional public schools, better protection of the state’s environmental resources, and what she calls “common sense” gun regulations.

“I grew up in Alabama, I grew up with guns, I am a gun owner,” she said. “I’m a big fan of the 2nd Amendment. But the best part of it to me is the ‘well regulated.’ You have to demonstrate in some way that you're able to handle the responsibility of firearms, of weaponry.”

On abortion, she supports repealing the state’s ban but at a minimum wants to see exceptions to it for rape, incest and to protect the life and health of the pregnant patient. She said she believes decisions made before a fetus has reached viability should be strictly between patients and doctors.

With her background in psychological services, another big focus for her is improving access to mental health care — including increasing the number of providers.

“People are finding it difficult to find providers who are accepting new patients, who take their insurance, or if they don't have insurance people who will accept them,” Collins said. “There are government-level and particularly state-level things that we can do to try to address that.”

Collins’ campaign donations have come from a small roster of local residents, including former attorney general candidate Jackson Fenner, former school board candidate Annabel Henley and lottery millionaire Roy Cockrum. She also received $2,500 from the Tennessee Tomorrow PAC of the House Democratic Caucus.