Election 2022: State House District 18
Democrat Gregory Kaplan and Republican Elaine Davis are battling for the seat being vacated by state Rep. Eddie Mannis.
Of the five state House districts in Knox County represented by Republicans, the one that Democrats appear to have the best chance to flip would be the 18th.
In 2022, Republican state Rep. Eddie Mannis won the district by 9.6 percentage points.
The district, which was redrawn after the 2020 Census, snakes through West Knox County from Cumberland Estates to Cedar Bluff, Rocky Hill and Sequoyah Hills before crossing the Tennessee River to take in a good chunk of South Knox County.
In 2020, the pre-reapportionment district elected Republican Eddie Mannis, a relative moderate, with 54.8 percent of the vote to 45.2 percent for Democrat Virginia Couch. It was by far the smallest margin of the five races won by Republicans in the election. And the impact of the state’s abortion ban following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade has yet to be measured in polling places.
Davis, a one-time Democrat who switched parties in 2008, defeated City Councilwoman Janet Testerman in the GOP primary contest. A University of Tennessee professor with no previous political experience, Kaplan was unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Davis holds a fundraising edge — she had $40,716.56 on hand at the end of September, while Kaplan’s campaign account stood at $30,040.94. Davis enjoys the support of numerous Republican elected officials and has taken in considerable donations from political action committees. Kaplan has received donations from some people who typically give to GOP candidates and has taken no money from PACs.
Kaplan talked about his campaign during a recent interview at Panera Bread in Bearden. Davis commented by email, and some of the information about her candidacy was included in an article about her primary race. Here’s a look at the hopefuls.
A Spanish professor at UT, Kaplan said that he decided to run for the 18th District seat because of the “divisive concepts” bill the Legislature passed earlier this year.
The bill says students and employees at state universities and colleges can’t be required to adopt divisive concepts or punished for rejecting them. The law defines a divisive concept using 16 examples, including ideas that individuals are privileged, racist or sexist by virtue of their race or sex, that individuals bear responsibility for past actions committed by members of the same race or sex, and that include race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating.
“It imposes government restrictions on what you can teach and what you can learn,” Kaplan said. “This was extremism that immediately affected education … I knew that there was a need to stand up in broader terms and fight against extremism.”
He noted that there are no UT professors in either house of the Tennessee General Assembly. “It is time for someone who at least works at the university and knows what is going on and can present perspectives that it is impossible for them to see right now in Nashville,” Kaplan said.
Another bill he considers extremist is the state’s abortion ban, which outlaws abortion with no exceptons, though medical providers who perform abortions can use saving the life of the pregnant patient as an “affirmative defense” if charged.
“One thing I would hope to achieve would be either repeal or modification of the Human Life Protection Act,” Kaplan said.
He criticized Davis for her unwillingness to amend the law and asserted that his position was more in line with 18th District voters.
“The most amazing thing about my campaign right now is the bipartisan support I've received for my efforts to either repeal or modify the law with the important exceptions of rape, incest or life and and health of the mother, and take out the affirmative defense,” Kaplan said. “People I've spoken to on both sides have expressed support for that.”
He said he wants to be a voice of reason in the Legislature to help lower the temperature of partisan rhetoric in the state capitol.
“The moderate approach I'm trying to actually continue was exemplified in healthcare by (former Gov.) Bill Haslam,” Kaplan said. “He really tried to push a Medicaid expansion that would fit within the boundaries of what the state could afford. And I would continue that effort to attempt to do a bipartisan moderate approach, because I think that people want more than 300,000 Tennesseans to get coverage by accepting federal money.”
Kaplan also wants to increase dollars for K-12 schools in a more equitable manner under the state’s new funding formula to at least the national average.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Kaplan earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas. A master’s degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio was followed by a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He has been on the faculty at UT for 27 years.
Kaplan is married to Nuria Cruz, who also teaches Spanish at UT. They have one son, Andrew Kaplan. In his spare time, Kaplan coaches youth baseball, a passion he inherited from his father.
The need to maintain and improve parks in the district is often unrecognized, he said. Kaplan credited former Republican lawmaker and Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe with alerting him to the benefits of seeking federal and state funding for parks and greenways.
Kaplan said he’s pleased with his campaign’s fundraising efforts, emphasizing that he counts people who typically donate to Republicans such as businessman Raja Jubran and among his donors. He said he enjoys meeting voters, especially in light of the experience of going through restrictions on public gatherings during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also praised the Knox County Democratic Party for its support.
“They are extremely professional, well-informed, efficient, and they are like a well-oiled machine,” he said. “They provide UT students with real-world experience with internships working on campaigns.”
Kaplan said 18th District voters should vote for him “because I'm running against an extremist opponent who does not represent the views of the district. I would continue a moderate, bipartisan approach to problem solving.”
Davis is emphasizing her intent to secure state funding for public safety and infrastructure needs in her bid to keep the seat in Republican hands.
She said Northshore Drive and Chapman Highway are two transportation corridors in the district that could use more state investment. She’s also pointed to staffing shortages at the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s Office as critical needs that Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s administration has begun to address.
“Gov. Lee's investment of $100 million for the Violent Crime Intervention fund, which provides $30 million for recruitment and retention of officers as well as grants for evidence proven programs which reduce crime and recidivism, is a strong effort to protect Tennesseeans,” she said.
Davis said her prioritization of public safety funding led to endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police Volunteer Lodge #2 and the Knoxville Firefighters Association.
She’s also been endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which she attributed to her pledge to reduce or eliminate regulations that create barriers for entrepreneurs or small businesses.
Davis said the GOP’s fiscal policies have led to prosperity.
“In Tennessee, we have had many years of holding the line on taxes, and even some tax cuts, while experiencing increasing revenues including beyond expectations,” she said.
For example, she continued, Lee and the Legislature invested an additional $1 billion dollars in K-12 education this year, for a total of $6.5 billion.
Davis does not support efforts to amend the state’s abortion ban to provide exemptions for cases of rape or incest. She characterized the affirmative defense provision of the bill as an exemption, though it doesn’t prevent healthcare providers from being charged with a felony and having to prove in court that an abortion was necessary to save a pregnant patient’s life.
She referred to a news report from Nashville’s WKRN-TV quoting newly appointed state Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti stating that affirmative defenses are not new and have been part of the legal system for hundreds of years.
“This is a law that provides them with a defense such that if they act to save the patient’s life, they’re protected,” he said.
Davis grew up in Farragut and now lives in South Knox County. A University of Tennessee graduate, she has been married for 26 years and has three adult children. Davis has worked at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church and as a substitute teacher, served as a caregiver to her parents before their passing, and has been the host of a local conservative talk-radio program.
She has been active in local politics for nearly two decades. This year, she initially planned to run against Mannis, considered by some Republicans to lack conservative credentials. He survived two challenges to his status as a bona fide Republican in 2018. Some, like Davis, thought he deviated from GOP principles while in the Legislature.
“After redistricting changed my residency to the 18th District, I decided to run against Eddie Mannis because I disagreed with many of his votes in the state Legislature including allowing boys to compete in girls' sports, allowing obscene materials in school libraries, and the teaching of critical race theory to minors in public schools,” she said, referring to two controversial bills on transgender student athletes and K-12 curriculums. Mannis opposed both bills.
Davis ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a County Commission seat in 2006, but she was appointed to a Commission seat two years later in the aftermath of the Black Wednesday scandal. Her term was brief — later in 2008 she lost her chance for a full term in the Democratic primary.
Davis then switched parties.
“I was raised in a Christian conservative family who were Democrats,” she said. “That was the party I was raised in and the same is true for many in Tennessee. But in the 2000s I had concerns about the direction of the party.”
An invalid signature on her qualifying petition cost her the chance to run for Commission as a Republican in 2010. She subsequently lost a bid for school board in 2012 and a race against Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson for the 13th District House seat in 2020.
Davis said she is the candidate who can represent the values of the 18th District.
“I think it is important that residents have an elected official who is accessible, willing to listen, and they can trust to do what they say,” she said.