Election 2022: State House District 89
Democrat M.D. Dotson III is challenging incumbent Republican Justin Lafferty in a Northwest Knox district that tilts toward the GOP.
State House District 89 occupies the fast-growing northwest corner of Knox County, encompassing the Karns and Hardin Valley communities. Farragut lies to the south, outside the district, but both candidates in the Nov. 8 general election have ties to Farragut High School.
The fast-growing area that includes Hardin Valley and Karns has been a solidly Republican district.
Education is one of the big issues in the race. Lafferty, who chairs the House Higher Education Subcommittee, has been at the forefront of sometimes-controversial changes the GOP legislative supermajority has enacted, while Dotson is a critic of the Republican approach in general and comments Lafferty has made in particular.
A majority of voters in the district reliably vote for GOP candidates. Lafferty won his first two races for the seat by significant margins — 27.9 percentage points in 2018 and 42.5 percentage points in 2020. In the 2020 presidential race, President Donald Trump snared 60 percent of the vote in the district.
Lafferty holds a significant lead in fundraising, with $57,447 on hand at the end of September. At that point, Dotson had $2,400 available. Eleven of Lafferty’s 14 donors during the third quarter were political action committees, while Dotson has relied heavily on family members in his hometown of Cleveland, Tenn.
Dotson participated in a phone interview for this article. Lafferty declined to speak on the record.
Dotson had no plans to run for the 89th House District seat until he heard what Lafferty said on the House floor during debate over how the history of racial strife is taught in Tennessee.
Lafferty drew national attention when he mischaracterized the reason for the infamous “Three Fifths Compromise” in the U.S. Constitution, which decreed that three-fifths of a state’s slave population would be counted for the purposes of representation and taxation.
Northern states argued that only a state’s free population should be counted; Southern states wanted the entire slave popluation counted, though slaves could not vote. The deal resulted in more presidential electors and congressional seats — and thus more power — to slaveholding Southern states.
The Founders arrived at the Three Fifths Compromise to convince Southern states to ratify the Constitution. Lafferty, however, incorrectly contended that the compromise was reached for the purpose of ending slavery.
An African-American educator, Dotson was incredulous that his state representative was spreading misinformation.
“This is disturbing,” he said. “Because the rhetoric that’s put out consistently is inaccurate. As an educator, I’d like you to talk about my field in an erroneous way.”
He talked to Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a fellow educator who encouraged him to challenge Lafferty.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m going to do it because if nobody's gonna do something, then nothing's gonna get done,’” Dotson said.
Dotson grew up in Cleveland, where his family’s funeral home business is based. He graduated from John A. Gupton College, a mortuary school in Nashville, and went into the family business. He then earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia State University, a master’s degree from Lee University and an Ed.S degree from Lincoln Memorial University.
Dotson, who is married to a middle school administrator and has four children and a grandchild, lives in Solway. He teaches choral music at Farragut High and in his spare time still helps his family run its mortuary business, which has funeral homes in Maryville and Athens as well as Cleveland.
As might be expected from a teacher, education is one of Dotson’s signature issues. He said he has nothing against private schools, but he doesn’t want public school funds to subsidize vouchers and charter schools. He’s also concerned that the state’s new funding formula for public schools would force local governments to raise taxes to fully fund their school districts.
“It’s always good on paper, but they don't tell you that it's going to hinder the taxes of every county, in every city, and everybody's (property) taxes are gonna go up,” Dotson said. “So let's take this thing back to the drawing board and find a better way to do this.”
Dotson said he’s in favor of women making their own healthcare choices, but said the state’s abortion ban at least needs exceptions in cases of rape, incest and to preserve the life and health of the woman. His background as a funeral director informs his stances on abortion and gun control.
“As a mortician. I've seen several different things on my embalming table,” he said. “That ranges from mothers with failed pregnancies to young men, young women who just had access to a gun. The people who will benefit from (the abortion ban), unfortunately, will be the funeral director, and I don't want to benefit from it like that.”
Dotson said he’s a gun owner but believes that ownership should be regulated.
As far as district-specific issues, he said he would like to help bring in more commerce to serve the surging population of Northwest Knox County and support the infrastructure and road improvements the area needs.
Dotson said that most people in the Republican-leaning district have been willing to listen to his message.
“I'm appreciative of that,” he said. “All you can really do is just approach people with some love and kindness, and hopefully they'll give you a moment and consider you. That's all you can really ask for.”
Dotson said he’s the better choice for the 89th District seat because of his background in the biggest issues that need to be addressed — education and healthcare.
“I’m a small business owner,” he said. “I'm a hard-working man. We're more alike than you realize, and give me an opportunity to represent our district and I think you'll be happy that you did.”
Lafferty isn’t as outspoken as his West Knox Republican colleague Jason Zachary or some other members of the GOP supermajority, so his controversial remarks about the Three Fifths Compromise came as somewhat of a surprise. He has not addressed the incident in the media and hasn’t participated in candidate forums during this election cycle.
But he makes it clear that he is a confirmed conservative through his public statements, votes and campaign stances.
As chair of the House Higher Education Subcommittee, he has influence over bills affecting the University of Tennessee, Pellissippi State Community College and other institutions of higher learning in Tennessee.
He was a co-sponsor of the “Divisive Concepts” bill, which regulates how certain topics can be taught in the state’s public universities and colleges, and voted to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public schools, even though the topic isn’t taught below the collegiate level.
On his campaign website, Latterty discussed the importance of technology in education.
“It is more important now than ever before for our schools to be equipped with the resources necessary to keep our children ahead in these rapidly changing times,” he said.
He also is advocating for strong vocational pathways for students who choose not to attend college, as well as mentoring programs with trades professionals.
“Some kids struggle with high school,” he wrote. “Not because they are not intelligent. They often are just not interested. Since education is intended to prepare us for life, why not allow the kids to get high school credit for entering a program like this?”
Lafferty graduated from Farragut High, then attended Pellissippi State and earned a political science degree at the University of Tennessee. A small business owner, he’s married and the father of one daughter.
Lafferty was first elected in 2018 to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Roger Kane. He finished first in a five-way primary race that included two GOP heavyweights who had begun losing steam — former state Sen. Stacey Campfield and former Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison. Lafferty then handily defeated Democrat Colleen Matinez in the general election and was reelected in 2020 with 70 percent of the vote in a three-way contest.
Lafferty opposes abortion, though his campaign website does not directly address the state’s abortion ban. He has not publicly said whether he would be open to adding exceptions to the law as many Democrats and some Republicans have suggested.
“Government’s reach into our churches, our neighborhoods and our schools should be limited,” he wrote. “We know best how to uphold the values of our community, protecting life and ending funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood. As your representative, I will fight to uphold these values that I cherish in our community. It’s time to put faith, family and community first again.”
Lafferty has opposed expanding the state’s Medicaid program, saying that government has been too heavily involved in healthcare and is driving up costs for consumers and businesses.
“It’s time to get government out of the way and return healthcare to the private market,” he said. “Let’s sell policies across state lines, put an end to frivolous lawsuits and allow doctors to treat their patients without having to look over their shoulder.”
Lafferty has said he wants to limit regulations on businesses that would erect barriers to innovation and entrepreneurship. He’s opposed to raising taxes.
“We are fortunate to live in a state that has kept taxes low,” he wrote on his website. “However, it is important to stay vigilant. We must continue to restrain government spending and leave more money in the hands of the people who earn it.”
Lafferty has spoken often about American exceptionalism and is asking voters to return him to office to continue promoting conservative values.
“I have a passion for this country and protecting the many blessings it has given its people,” he said on his website. “I ask for your support and pledge to focus my talents and judgement to serve the 89th District of the great state of Tennessee.”