Election 2022: State House District 15

Sam McKenzie, Charles "Pete" Drew

Election 2022: State House District 15

Incumbent Democrat Sam McKenzie faces off against perennial candidate Charles “Pete” Drew in a Democratic stronghold.

by scott barker • October 18, 2022
Sam McKenzie, Charles "Pete" Drew
Democratic state Rep. Sam McKenzie (left) and Republican Pete Drew.

The 15th state House District has been so firmly Democratic for so long that no Republican has even bothered to run for the seat since 2008. Until now.

Democrats have represented the district for the past four decades.

Charles “Pete” Drew, a perennial candidate who frequently declares himself an Independent, is running as a Republican against incumbent Democratic state Rep. Sam McKenzie.

The district encompasses East Knoxville, downtown and portions of North and South Knoxville. For the past 40 years, it has been represented by African-American legislators.

McKenzie, a former county commissioner, garnered 73 percent of the vote in defeating Independent Troy Jones in 2020. Drew is a former county commissioner and state legislator, but hasn’t won an election in nearly four decades, despite running almost every year for one office or another. 

Drew, who typically does little campaigning after filing his qualifying petition, has not raised any money for the race. As an indication of confidence, McKenzie has raised only a small amount compared to candidates in other House races — $3,608 in the third quarter of the year. He had $6,757 on hand as of Sept. 30.

McKenzie spoke with Compass by phone during a trip to Nashville. Drew couldn’t be reached, so the information about him for this profile has been culled from records and other sources.

Sam McKenzie

McKenzie said that if he’s learned anything about being a Democrat in the GOP-dominated state House of Representatives during his term in office, it’s that the proverbial aisle dividing the parties is a chasm that’s difficult to bridge.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s hyper-partisan environment and I think that the more we can find common ground, and we have found some,

the better off the whole state will be,” he said.

McKenzie said Democrats have little choice but to look for opportunities to compromise in order to accomplish anything with legislation.

“We found a little bit of (common ground) in education,” he said, adding that Republican enthusiasm for charter schools and vouchers appears to be waning somewhat. “I think that more and more people are starting to see that that's not the right path to go on … we’re trying to put more money into our public schools to make them as good as we can.”

McKenzie said the urban-rural divide among legislators is primarily due to Republicans wanting to punish Metro Nashville-Davidson County for passing progressive legislation locally.

“I try my best to get my rural colleagues to see that there's way more that unites urban constituencies and rural constituencies,” he said. “We all have trouble with poverty. We have trouble with the funding of education.”

The state has invested heavily in higher education facilities over the past few years, according to McKenzie, and now the focus should go toward increasing enrollment at state institutions and supporting the faculty.

“Hire the best and the brightest, and then leave them alone,” he said.

McKenzie said the university is the place for students to be challenged by ideas, and that the GOP supermajority is passing legislation such as the “divisive concepts” bill aimed at creating a monoculture. “That's wrong,” he said. “That’s just plain wrong.”

McKenzie predicted the Democrats would make gains in this year’s election, in Knox County and in Middle Tennessee especially, because so many Tennesseans disagree with the state’s abortion ban. He said it shows the GOP doesn’t care about women’s rights.

“I’m not pro-abortion in any way, shape or form, but what I’m not about is me telling another human being what they can do with their body,” he said. “That is wrong, and I think it's gonna show in November.”

McKenzie, who turns 57 on Oct. 26, grew up in East Knoxville and graduated from Austin-East High School. His brothers, Reggie and Raleigh McKenzie, were AE and University of Tennessee football stars who played in the NFL. He is married to Gwen McKenzie, who represents East Knoxville, downtown and Mechanicsville on Knoxville’s City Council.

After graduation from Austin-East, McKenzie earned a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in Nashville and a master’s in physics from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). He has worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he is the Environmental, Safety, Health and Quality Group Leader at the lab’s Spallation Neutron Source, for longer than three decades.

McKenzie was elected to represent the 1st District on Knox County Commission in 2008, in the aftermath of the Black Wednesday scandal. He decided to run for the 15th District House seat two years ago because he said then-Rep. Rick Staples had become ineffective in the midst of questionable campaign expenditures. He narrowly won a three-way Democratic primary contest before breezing to victory in the general election.

McKenzie said he thinks his constituents have responded to his approach to public office.

“It's all about honest, effective leadership,” he said. “You have to trust someone before you invest in them, so I think over the last 10 years in elected office, I’ve earned their trust.” 

Charles “Pete” Drew

Hardly a year goes by without Drew’s name appearing on a ballot. Since 2006, he has run for Knox County Commission twice, Knoxville City Council twice and the state House of Representatives six times, including this year. In 2008, he ran for both a County Commission seat and a state House seat.

He has run as a Democrat; he has run as a Republican; he has run as an Independent. During that time, however, he has not won and only once has earned more than 30 percent of the vote.

Drew has embraced being known as a perennial candidate.

“When you don’t provide opposition, you say, ‘I’m in lockstep with political leaders,’” he told the now-defunct Knoxville Mercury in 2016 when he was running as an Independent against Democrat Rick Staples for the 15th House District seat.

Drew has had success in elections, but it’s been nearly four decades since he could claim a victory.

He served on the Knox County Commission from 1976 (when it was still known as the County Court) to 1982. Drew won the 15th District House seat as a Democrat in 1982 and held it until 1988, when, after switching parties to become a Republican, he lost to Democrat Joe Armstrong.

In this year’s contest, Drew is running as a Republican. That aligns with the conservative stances he’s taken in the few public comments he’s made during the campaign.

Answering a brief News Sentinel questionnaire, he said he’s against abortion (in a previous campaign for the seat he was endorsed by Tennessee Right to Life) and pro-choice when it comes to education, which apparently means he is in favor of school vouchers and charter schools.

In past campaigns, Drew has said he opposes the legalization of marijuana and the possible expansion of the state’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act.

In a longer piece that ran last month in the Knoxville Focus, which is published by East Knox County GOP power broker Steve Hunley, he said he wants to incorporate biblical teachings into science education. 

“God created everyone in his image,” Drew told the Focus. “We are better off with God in the education system than with Planned Parenthood in it.”

Drew, 84, previously held positions with Rohm & Haas, Holland Construction and CK Construction. He now works at Honey Rock Thrift Store in East Knoxville and is a teacher at Honey Rock Victorious Church. After his legislative run ended in 1988, he was a lobbyist for Tennessee Right to Life.

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