“I don’t want people to think I’m hiding anything,” offers Chuck Williams, Democratic candidate for Tennessee’s 7th senate district, while settling in at the Krystal on Broadway. “It’ll come out.”
Williams isn’t referring to a financial scandal or an extra-marital affair—the usual career-enders for politicians at every level. He means the murder of his stepson Henry James, 22, shot in the head on Aug. 4 and left outside the Western Heights housing project.
As he fingers one of his two Krystals, special-ordered to taste more like White Castle burgers, Williams speaks of Henry’s death as if he’s reaching further back than a couple of months. “Every Father’s Day, every birthday, I would hear from him. He came to my graduation. Out of all my sons, he came. I knew I could count on him,” Williams says.
In mid-September, police captured the man wanted for Henry’s murder, Stanley James, 28, who Williams says is unrelated. Stanley was picked up during a routine traffic stop north of Pittsburgh. Police noticed a passenger acting suspiciously when they pulled over a car for erratic driving, and when questioned, Stanley gave a name that matched a known alias of the murder suspect. He’s now being held without bond.
And Williams intends for it to stay that way. “I will fight hell and high water if they try to bond him out,” he says.
For now, Williams, his daughter, and Henry’s four siblings await the trial. In the meantime, Williams continues to tread his daily path: working the night shift at the city impoundment lot as a vehicle impound assistant, and canvassing areas of the 7th state district where he’s less known.
In order to replace Tim Burchett, who will run for county mayor next fall, Williams has a great deal of work to do.
This isn’t Williams’ first foray into politics. In 2008 he ran for county commissioner in the 2nd District, which Amy Broyles ultimately took. “People told me, ‘You won’t get 1 percent of the vote, if you’re lucky,’” Williams says, becoming animated. “I got over 5 percent. And for somebody that the only money I had was, I had a brother that gave me $300, another brother paid my monthly phone bill, and the other money came out of my pocket—that wasn’t bad.”
He reckons the race gave him some needed name-recognition in the district. Since that election, “I started my own organization called Chuck Saving the—” he stops, correcting himself, “Chuck Serving the Community,” working as an unofficial liaison for citizens who need help communicating with local government. He says he was content with this role; surveying the local government scene, he didn’t see any openings for himself.
But as he became more involved with the Latino Task Force and immigration issues, he decided there were problems that required a state solution.
“If you go to a lot of these major restaurants, look in the kitchen, look at your busboys, ” he says. “And what people got to start realizing is hey, they are providing a service. They’re not on welfare or anything like that.”
He adds that undocumented workers often pay into the system for services they won’t receive, as well as contribute to local economies by buying groceries at local stores and paying rent. “So something has to get done, because I’m not getting up at 4:30 in the morning and going to Blount County to do no farm work!”
Williams adds that he opposes English-only laws, calling them discriminatory, and would fight such measures if elected.
Another issue Williams wants to address is education. He thinks schools need more funding, and wants to award HOPE scholarship money to schools based on need rather than directly to students, which he believes leads to tuition increases while school districts suffer.
He also thinks one way to address crime is through education: “If teachers can reach one kid, that’s one less pocketbook we gotta worry about getting stolen.” He hopes to find ways to encourage more minority teachers, particularly males, to join the profession as role models, possibly through offering higher salaries.
The third issue Williams mentions is inequality within District 7, from the availability of services to receiving tax dollars. “[Burchett] looked after his constituents and things like this, but this side of town kind of got short-ended,” he says, referring to North Knoxville.
“When you go through Farragut and Fountain City, they’re doing well.... I don’t think tax breaks should be used where development’s going to go anyway,” he concludes. Specifically, he wants to know why the defunct Rule High School remains empty while Hardin Valley, out west, received a brand new high school.
Finally, Williams thinks the state should move forward on health-care reform if federal government cannot, and looks to Massachusetts as a model.
At 6-foot 2-inches and 280 pounds, Joseph Lloyd Chuck Williams Jr., 55, cuts an imposing, if lumbering, figure. His eyes are deep set and seem tired; his grated tenor is soft and sometimes falls to a murmur, mingling with and disappearing into the hum of background noise.
If there’s any question, his preference for White Castle burgers over Krystal’s is a dead giveaway that Williams is not from around here. He was born and raised in the Bronx with five brothers, one sister and a rocky upbringing. At age 17, he was stabbed during a fight over a girl—“He was always trying to feel my girlfriend,” he says of his opponent—and then “mouthed off” to a judge when she accused him of instigating trouble and placed him on probation. The judge gave Williams a choice: He could attend a juvenile facility or join the Navy. He chose the Navy, earning his high-school diploma at a Naval station in Iceland, and spending a total of eight years working in communications, mostly abroad, with a full year in Iceland, three years in the Bahamas, and three years in Norfolk, Va.
In 1974, while still in the Navy, he got married and the next year fathered a daughter, who would later become his bridge to Knoxville.
But he left the Navy in 1980 at about the time of the Iran hostage crisis. “I kind of got disenchanted that the United States of America wouldn’t go in and rescue theirs,” he says.
After leaving the Navy, Williams bounced between different jobs, working at banks as a telecommunications specialist, a manager at Western Union, a court officer in Newark and in New York City’s impound lot. When the city began laying people off, he moved to the post office, where he spent 12 years until an accident left him disabled. He divorced in the late 1980s, but he and his wife had already been separated for a few years.
In 2001, Williams watched the planes collide with the World Trade Center from a hospital bed. He was still recovering from his post office injury—a 100-pound truck platform slammed into his knee. “I kept thinking about Oak Ridge,” he says of Sept. 11, accenting “Oak” rather than “Ridge” so that it sounds like “okra.”
Oak Ridge came to mind because his daughter, whom he’d shared custody of after his divorce but raised himself from the time she was 12, had come to the University of Tennessee in 1994 and was still living in Knoxville. “She told me, ‘When you get out of the hospital, it’s time you come down here.’” Williams’ father had died in 1999 and he’d lost his mother in 1995, and says he didn’t have anyone else in New York. So he came.
He continued to receive disability while regaining the use of his legs. The U.S. Postal Service asked him to return to New York once his condition improved, but he didn’t want to leave. With the help of Rep. Jimmy Duncan Jr. he attempted a transfer to a Knoxville branch, but he was done with it.
This May Williams graduated from Pellissippi State Community College with a degree in elementary education, although he continues to take classes online. While there, he saw a posting for a job at the city’s impound lot, applied, and works there today.
Williams is a black man from the Bronx running for state Senate in East Tennessee; as a Democrat in a district in which many of the voters are white, Republican, and well-to-do; and on a fairly liberal platform of inclusive immigration reform, increasing school funding, addressing economic inequality, and providing health care for all (at a time when the state is struggling with its finances).
It’s not an obvious calculus to see how Williams wins.
Stacey Campfield and Ron Leadbetter, the Republican opponents in the race, are both better-known entities—Campfield currently serves in the state House’s 18th district and Leadbetter served as UT’s general counsel. They ran against each other for the House seat, so theirs will be a familiar rematch.
By Williams’ calculation, Stacey Campfield is an ultra-conservative, while Leadbetter is a moderate conservative who toes the party line. Williams thinks voters want neither. “I’ve had Republicans tell me and Democrats, they know I won’t bend over to the party line. Even though I’m a Democrat, they know that my main concern is what’s best for the people,” he says.
Asked whether that scares Democrats, Williams says, “I think so. That’s why they didn’t support me last time!” And this explains why he’s toying with the idea of ditching the Democratic ticket to run as an independent. “Chuck’s gotta do what’s best for Chuck,” he’s fond of saying.
Randy Walker, who works in transportation logistics at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is currently William’s only opponent in the primary, says he and Williams both have an uphill battle for name recognition. But he thinks his own moderate, pro-business platform focusing on jobs, economic growth, and education will appeal to Republicans in West Knoxville.
Williams knows he’s got his work cut out for him. In addition to the inherent inertia of a campaign, his base—the people who know him from the community, who would most likely vote for him—doesn’t vote. “But that’s why I’m spreading out farther and farther,” he says.
Still, a question remains: Will the 7th district elect a black state senator? “I would hope they wouldn’t hold that against me,” Williams says. “From what I’ve seen from the people who I’ve met, and this is why I got into politics, I’ve experienced more racism in New York City than I’ve ever experienced in Knoxville.”
When pressed, he says it may be a question of less direct racism rather than less racism. But he asks that voters simply look at his positions. “I believe in the same traditional values they believe in, and I’m not out here cattin’ around or anything like that,” he says. “Wrong is wrong. I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican, family or non-family. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”
As for his prediction for next August, Williams grins wide. “I predict it’s going to be a hell of a race.”