Election 2022: State House District 19
Republican incumbent Rep. Dave Wright has two challengers to represent the rural East Knox County district — Democrat Zeke Streetman and independent Mary Rochat.
by jesse fox mayshark • October 17, 2022
Mary Rochat, Zeke Streetman and incumbent Rep. Dave Wright are contending for the east Knox County seat.
Tennessee State House District 19 is by far the largest of Knox County’s seven House districts, at least in terms of square miles.
The county's largest House district includes Corryton, Gibbs and Carter.
It forms something of a backward C-clamp encompassing largely agricultural areas from Norris Freeway in the north through Gibbs and Carter in the east and then around south all the way to Seymour.
“It’s the rural district,” is how incumbent Rep. Dave Wright puts it. Wright, a Republican holding a traditionally Republican seat, is seeking a third term. He faces two opponents on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Democrat Zeke Streetman is a recent University of Tennessee graduate with a degree in philosophy and political science. Independent candidate Mary Rochat is running from Wright’s right, fueled by concerns about an overreaching government and the power of pharmaceutical companies.
The district has long been politically conservative. It is among other things the home territory of Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley, who carries political weight there. In general, candidates don’t get elected in the district without at least tacit support from Hunley.
Wright won 73 percent of the vote in his first campaign for the seat in 2018 and didn’t face any opposition at all in 2020.
The lopsided partisanship of the district shows up in campaign fundraising. Wright began the year with about $44,000 already in his campaign account and has barely bothered fundraising at all, adding just $5,600 over the first three quarters of the year — almost all of it from political action committees.
In contrast, Streetman has raised only about $4,500, and Rochat has reported only $200 (from her own pocket).
Here’s a look at the three candidates.
Born and raised in Corryton, where he still lives, Wright is an East Knox Countian through and through. A graduate of Gibbs High School and the University of Tennessee, where he earned a degree in business administration, Wright is also a Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran.
He worked for decades for AT&T until retiring in the mid-2000s. He shifted his energies into public service and elected office, first being appointed to an open 8th District seat on Knox County Commission in the wake of the Black Wednesday scandal. He was then elected to that Commission seat three times (which was allowed under the county’s term limits law, because the first one was a partial term), serving a total of 10 years before being elected to the Legislature in 2018.
Both on Commission and in the state House, Wright, who is 77, has cut something of a courtly figure — dapper and low key, he listens more than he talks and has an understated sense of humor. (The voicemail message on his phone says, “You’ve reached the Wright place at the wrong time.”)
He is a reliable party vote, almost always siding with the Republican supermajority, but does not invest much personal energy in its hot-button cultural fights. In general, he said, he’d prefer to focus on practical issues: education, economic development, infrastructure.
“The state of Tennessee’s number one job is education,” Wright said in an interview at the Starbucks on Merchant Drive. “Good education is followed by the next thing, attracting good employers.”
He was among the Republican votes in favor of creating Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Account voucher program, although limited only to Metro Nashville and Shelby County students. He said he doesn’t yet know whether he would support expanding vouchers to Knox and other counties.
“I need to see (the results),” Wright said. “That’s the reason for having the two (districts) for me. If this proves to be a good help …” he trails off, suggesting he’d consider expansion at that point.
His most prominent role in the Legislature is as vice chair of the Local Government Committee, which reviews any legislation affecting city and county governments across the state. That includes election operations, and Wright said he is glad the committee has taken a cautious approach to any electoral changes.
“Not many things were changed,” Wright said. “I'm happy that I had my 10 years on County Commission and I had enough background in local government — cities, counties, elections — to have had a bit of input into that committee.”
One small state measure that Wright championed meant a lot to him personally: the designation of portions of Tazewell Pike and Emory Road as “SSG Ryan C. Knauss Memorial Highway,” in honor of the Corryton native who was killed in Afghanistan last year.
“I’m a veteran,” Wright said, explaining why the tribute was so important to him. “My dad was in World War II. My grandfather was chasing Pancho Villa before the First World War. I’m brother to a West Point graduate, have a nephew that’s an Air Force Academy graduate, currently still in the Air Force in Okinawa.”
Like most Republican legislators, Wright voted for the 2019 “trigger law” that led to a complete ban on abortion in Tennessee after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs case this summer. He suggested he is open to some revisions in the law, but he is waiting to see what gets proposed in the next session.
“I will not propose anything, because there are already bunches of people out there proposing,” he said. “I just want to be around during the process to be heard about where I think the people of the 19th District are — and it's not zero abortion, and it's not abortion on your birth day. It’s somewhere in between.”
He is taking a similar wait-and-see approach toward any efforts to legalize or decriminalize cannabis.
Wright’s minimal fundraising this year has mostly amounted to checks from PACs. Those include groups representing timeshare companies, the private prison company Core Civic, homebuilders, firefighters and Realtors. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s PAC also chipped in $1,000.
Streetman, who is 25, is a more recent arrival to the 19th District and to Knox County. He grew up in Savannah, Ga., and Indiana before moving to Murfreesboro, Tenn., where he attended high school.
He moved here in 2015 to attend UT, and stayed on after graduation. He currently works at Rocket Fizz, the candy store on Market Square.
Streetman’s run for office was sparked by simply wanting to have a choice on the ballot.
“There’s just so many seats that there’s no competition, I figured might as well give people the opportunity,” he said in a phone interview.
Streetman had some local political experience already, having served as the outreach coordinator for Democratic state Senate candidate Jane George when she ran against Sen. Becky Duncan Massey in 2020.
He is concerned about access to education, healthcare and housing. He said the tight housing market is driving up rents and squeezing many working people, even in the relatively sparsely populated 19th District.
“Knoxville’s at 97 percent capacity, and you know, nobody can afford to live here anymore,” he said.
He supports more funding for traditional public education, and he opposes Gov. Bill Lee’s push for more charter schools across the state — “Obviously it’s just a ploy to segregate education in the hands of the rich,” he said.
He believes the state should expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would provide health insurance for many working people who don’t currently have it and would also mean increased revenues for Tennessee hospitals.
Streetman is unimpressed by the state’s current political leadership.
“I don’t think Bill Lee’s doing a very good job,” he said. “And I think our Legislature is really just making things worse. They spend so much time on all these fake crusades.”
He supports repealing the state’s abortion ban, framing it as a matter of constitutional liberty despite the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to the contrary.
“I see it as a 4th Amendment issue,” Streetman said. “We’re supposed to be able to be secure in our person. So if you can’t even be secure with your own doctor, then your 4th Amendment rights are not there.”
He supports legalizing marijuana and taxing its sale to provide increased revenues for state needs. Those include infrastructure spending to help support more housing in areas like East Knox County — among which Streetman includes better broadband internet access, a persistent issue in some of the county’s rural areas.
His campaign donations have come mostly from a few reliable Democratic donors — local lottery winner Roy Cockrum and Chattanooga photo studio heir Olan Mills.
Rochat calls herself a Christian conservative constitutionalist and is running as an independent because she is not persuaded the Republican Party is adequately committed to any of those principles. The Democratic Party isn’t even in contention for her support.
“I feel like our government has lost touch with common sense,” she said in a phone interview. “I went independent because I felt that the Democratic and the Republican Party both had compromised. I knew I wouldn't go Democrat, but I didn't know what compromise would be expected of me, and I didn’t want those binds.”
Rochat homeschooled all nine of her children, and notes with satisfaction that all of them attended college. (She did herself, as well, at Kent State University in Ohio.) She is now grandmother to 22 grandchildren under the age of 12. You can see the large family on her campaign website.
Based on that experience, she has some thoughts about how the state’s school curriculum could be revised. She thinks children need to learn more practical things, such as agriculture and personal health.
“They don’t teach much about how to maintain good health to the young people,” Rochat said. “They’re teaching things that are not really necessary. Obviously reading, writing and arithmetic — I think cursive also is important.”
She thinks that health education should include more “alternative,” holistic approaches. She is suspicious of the pharmaceutical industry and its sway with government regulators.
“I worked at a medical school for a couple of years in Ohio when I was going through my college years. The second- and third-year med students, all they learned was drug intervention, to intervene with other drugs. I just think we can do better than that.”
She acknowledged that she was not yet fully versed in all the areas of state authority, so she would need some time to study and understand where she could have most impact in the Legislature. Like Streetman, she mentions internet access as a need in the district.
Overall, her greatest emphasis is on limiting government’s role and encouraging more self-sufficiency.
“They’ve lost so much entrepreneur motivation,” Rochat said. “I think our government has slowly turned the society into dependents. And they’re not being servants. I think government officials are supposed to serve the people, not make people serve the government.”
CORRECTION: The reference to Zeke Streetman's childhood has been corrected to note that he lived in Indiana, not Louisiana.