Oh, Stacey Campfield.
There is not another name in East Tennessee politics today guaranteed to generate so much immediate distaste, so many lip curls, eye rolls, head shakes, or sighs of exasperation. Those reactions are near universal among politically engaged people of a more liberal persuasion, but hardly uncommon even on the right. In August, Campfield won the Republican primary for the state Senate’s 7th District seat, but with just 40 percent of the vote. Fortunately for him, the other 60 percent was split largely between two contenders, Ron Leadbetter and Steve Hill, who were both running on platforms that amounted to variations of I’m-not-Stacey-Campfield.
Now he is running against Democrat Randy Walker for the seat that was until recently held by Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett.
Campfield, with ginger hair and an Eddie Haskell grin that makes him look younger than his 42 years, likes to present himself as just another conservative Republican in a region rich with them, a common-sensical guy who favors low taxes, less gubmint, and better schools. And for about five minutes, it’s easy to believe him—which may be one reason he’s successful at shoe-leather, door-knock campaigning. But the eye rolls and head shakes and sighs come from the things Campfield has actually done since taking office as a state representative in 2005. He has tried to join the legislative Black Caucus. He has pushed for bills to issue death certificates for aborted fetuses, and to force women to look at fetal ultrasound images before having an abortion. He has lobbied for the right of both faculty and students to bring guns onto college campuses. He has proposed a range of legislation on things like child support, orders of protection, and sexual-abuse allegations, that, as a Nashville Scene blogger put it a few weeks ago, seem to derive from a sense “that women are crazy lying bitches men need protecting from.” He is bothered by the existence of gay-straight student alliances, and he is passionate about a bill that would forbid any discussion of homosexuality in elementary or middle schools. He wants to eliminate the state’s pre-kindergarten education programs.
And, yes, there was that whole thing with the wrestling mask at the UT football game.
In short, he has often seemed more like a performer than a legislator, the political equivalent of a pro wrestler. It’s an impression that was only enhanced earlier this year when he willingly appeared on a segment of the Penn and Teller cable show Bullshit!, which mocked his don’t-say-gay education bill and called Campfield “a professional bully” and “an asshole.” Campfield, apparently convinced he’d gotten the better of the encounter, posted a clip from the episode on his blog.
A few Stacey Campfield facts: He is not from around here. He grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., and went to college further upstate at St. John Fisher College, a small Catholic school in Rochester. His parents still live in New York. Apart from his legislative salary, he makes his living primarily as a landlord, renting out 15 properties around Knoxville.
In person, Campfield is engaging and even-keeled, if understandably wary of an interview with Metro Pulse. This is the paper, after all, that asked its readers in this year’s Best of Knoxville poll to propose the best way to get Campfield to leave the state. He has a sense of humor about himself—when told that this article would be called “What the hell is wrong with Stacey Campfield,” he laughed and said he hoped it would be a cover story. He can be defensive when challenged, but no more so than your average politician. He claims to not understand why he is so often singled out as kooky or odd, patiently explaining his positions and attributing disagreements to the normal push and pull of democratic governance.
And yet, it is hard to escape the contradictions underlying his geniality. He is a family-values conservative who has never married, a fathers’ rights advocate with no children, a professed preservationist who has been cited by the city for property neglect and sued by his tenants (though he is quick to point out that he has also won a suit of his own against a tenant), an advocate for education who litters his blog with spelling and grammatical errors, and a legislator who rarely manages to get his own legislation out of committee. He proposes bills more likely to generate headlines than laws. He is, to put it plainly, kind of weird.
So, out of curiosity as much as anything else, I sat down to talk with him. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.
ARE YOU CRAZY?
I’m going to start with three questions that are probably the ones that the Metro Pulse readership asks about you the most. The first one is, what the hell is wrong with you?
I don’t know how to answer that. What do you mean? I think I’m a normal guy. People I talk to think I’m just as normal as they are. Maybe my friends are a little different, I guess. But I don’t know. Takes all types to make the world go ’round.
Okay, fair enough. So. Are you actually crazy?
Clinically? (Laughs.) I, you know, I just don’t look at myself like that. I may look at things a little bit differently than everybody else does, I may say things that a lot of people won’t say, that maybe they think. You know, I think a lot of people realize I try to be very honest with them and just straightforward. A lot of people don’t like that, but that’s just how I am.
That kind of leads to the third question. I was on George Korda’s radio show a few weeks ago and even one of George Korda’s listeners called in and said, “How does he keep getting re-elected?” How do you keep getting re-elected?
I have a lot of really smart people that vote for me. I just talk about issues, I talk about issues that a lot of candidates don’t, I don’t really dance around things, I pretty much tell people what I think and why I think it. I think most people understand they’re not gonna agree with any politician 100 percent of the time. But, you know, with me they have somebody who’s honest, who’s going to work as hard as I can for them. They may not agree with me 100 percent, but maybe they agree with me 80 percent, and that’s pretty good. You know, most people don’t agree with their wives 80 percent of the time or their husbands 80 percent of the time.
HOW DID WE GET SO LUCKY?
Backtracking a little bit to your own personal background, I didn’t know that you weren’t even from here. So how and when did you first come to Knoxville?
Well, my mom is from here. We’re actually first families of Tennessee, we go way, way, way, way, way back to when the state was first formed. My mom moved up North in order to snow ski, and ended up getting married, having kids, but we’d always spend our summers down in Tennessee. I always loved it down here, the people were great, there’s a lot to see and do, lots of things going on. I always said, when I get old enough, that’s where I want to live, that’s where I want to spend my life. I got old enough, threw my stuff in the pick-up truck, and here I am.
How long have you been here?
When I was 25, I moved down.
Before you got into politics, what did you do?
Real estate. I mean, I’ve done a little bit of everything. I’ve had every sort of Joe job, the sort of thing everybody does when they’re young. When I say I came down with a pick-up truck, and not much else, that’s pretty much about true. So I’ve done all sorts of jobs, menial jobs, working my way up. I bought a house, fixed it up, and sort of things just grew from there.
When did your personal political interests start to take shape?
Probably at Big Ridge State Park, not too far away from here. Like I said, we’d spend our summers down here. And my family would just hang out in the park, at the cabins up there, and we’d talk politics. And there was all different points of view. People would say I believe this, or I believe that, this is why I believe this. And I would just, being the little kid, I would sit and listen and every once in a while I’d try to throw in a point here or there, why I thought that. And it sort of developed in me, the more I thought about it and listened to it, the more I believed it. And that’s sort of where it all grew from.
At what point did you start identifying yourself as a conservative?
The more I developed my thoughts on why I thought things politically, just watching how things worked with the markets and what-not, I started to say, well, that’s the way that seems to work successfully, politically, and for our economy, and stuff like that.
When you started in politics, were your concerns more fiscal or social?
I was very much just more of a fiscal conservative and really the social issues weren’t as key to me as the fiscal side was. But after I got up there, the more I studied and the more I looked at stuff, the more I realized that social issues have huge impacts on the fiscal issues. You can go down through it, you can say, unwed parenthood or something like that, that’s somebody else’s problem. Well, it is until they need social services or they need something else.
Do you bring a strong religious perspective to that, too?
I am religious, but I wouldn’t say that’s where my beliefs come from. I mean, I would say partially, part of them, but I wouldn’t say that’s where my philosophies come from. I just really try to look at it analytically.
So, that all sounds relatively straightforward. But then, the things that you’re best known for—maybe unfairly from your point of view—tend to be what have looked from the outside like attention-getting stunts. Like trying to join the Black Caucus.
Well, let’s talk about them one by one. The Black Caucus came from a black constituent who had questions about hypertension and diabetes and things along those lines. And he said, what’s the state doing, ‘cause those have much higher rates with people who are minorities. Incredibly high rates, and he said, well, what are you doing about that? And honestly, at the time, I wasn’t doing anything, I hadn’t really thought about it too much. But I figured the person to ask is the people in the Black Caucus, because hopefully they would be doing stuff along those lines. Well, I started to ask some questions, what are you guys doing, I want to know what you guys do, some of the things, your causes. And the chairman at the time said, well, why do you want to know? I said, well, I just have some questions I’d like to have answered. And he said, well, we don’t tell anybody anything unless you’re a member of the Caucus. Do you want to be a member of the Caucus? I said, I don’t know, maybe I do, if that’s what it takes. I’m not really big into race-based caucuses anyway. Then the whole thing came out, what they were doing with their money, they were funneling it into their own kids’ scholarship funds, they were getting it illegally ‘cause they weren’t a registered nonprofit, they were shaking down lobbyists, it just turned out to a big nasty mess. [In the kind of leap he often makes on his blog, Campfield is referring here to investigations of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., not the Tennessee Legislative Black Caucus that he tried to join.]
And you know, I’m not real big on race-based separation anyway. I think we need to be inclusive of people, not exclusive of people. We’re trying to separate by little groups, that’s just not my thing.
But, I mean, you understand the historical roots of having a Black Caucus in a state that had legal segregation until 50 years ago?
That, to me, is not curing the problem. I think it’s an extension of a problem, it’s not saying, hey, let’s be more inclusive of people, it’s saying we want to be our own special group. I think that’s just creating more division, it’s not creating unity.
What about family? Married?
No, I’m single.
Have you been married before?
Is it in your plans?
If it happens.
A lot of times when people are looking to get into politics, that’s what they do first.
Yeah, a lot of people said, you need to go ahead and, you know, settle down and get married and stuff like that, for politics. And I think that’s the absolute worst reason for someone to get married. If you marry someone, it should be because you love them, and not because, “Oh, I’m angling for this seat, if I don’t have someone with me all the time...”—it just won’t work out. That’s not why I’m going to get married if I get married.
You’ve become known for championing what are broadly called fathers’ rights or men’s rights issues. There was the bill where if a child was found not to be the biological child of a man who had agreed to pay child support, you wanted the man relieved of that obligation.
Having to pay future child support, yeah.
And there was the bill about orders of protection. [Campfield proposed that anyone who filed for an order of protection should have to pay all court costs if the request was denied. Advocates for victims of domestic violence warned that that would discourage abused women from seeking protection.]
A lot of those were caption bills. The way a caption bill works, see, we’re only allowed to submit bills during a certain period of time, it’s like two weeks of the beginning of the Legislature, and a caption of a law has to be opened. If, say, you wanted to do a bill in that caption of law, you had to already have a bill opened up for that. So a lot of times what you’ll do is what’s called a caption bill, which may have absolutely nothing to do with what you want to do down the road, but it sort of opens up that caption of laws. So, yeah, there were probably some captions that were drawn up, but I didn’t run them as originally drafted.
The perception is that there have been several bills that seem to arise from a concern of, specifically, men being taken advantage of by women.
Yeah, there are situations that I think are a little bit unfair. I mean, there are good fathers and there are good mothers, and there are bad fathers and there are bad mothers. And, you know, sometimes I’d like to see the field a little more balanced. Sometimes I don’t see that as such right now. I think there just needs to be a little bit more parity in there. Because I see a lot of great fathers, who’d love to see their kids. Really just good, good people—they’re not the wife-beaters, they’re not the child abusers, they’re not the alcoholics, just regular, good people. And they wanna see their kids more than every other weekend, every other Wednesday or something like that. And I think the kids wanna see their parents, too. The kids wanna see their fathers. I think a father’s a very important part of a child’s life, just like a mother is.
The child support bill, the criticism of it was that it could actually harm children. If you withdraw one parent’s support but you don’t necessarily have that other biological parent there providing support, the child ends up with less support.
You can say the same thing about someone who might be in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. The victim may feel wonderful that there’s a person in prison, but if that person has been proven by DNA evidence they didn’t do whatever, then I don’t think it’s fair that we should hold them behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit.
On another issue, you wanted to issue abortion death certificates.
Yeah. I’m pro-life, I’ve always been very much pro-life. Every time it’s ever been tested, when does life begin, in the U.S. Congress they had hearings—bipartisan hearings, Democrat and Republican—and they all said life begins at conception. [Campfield is presumably referring to a 1981 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing that is a standard citation in anti-abortion literature.] Well, you know, if you’re ending that life, I don’t think it’s too much to say, hey, there was a life there. And that life deserves a little bit of respect. I don’t think a piece of paper with no one’s name on it, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for.
You don’t intend it as a punitive thing for the woman who’s just gone through this and is then presented with a death certificate?
Punitive? No, I don’t see it as punitive. There’s no penalty, and like I said, her name’s not gonna be on it. But if someone thinks about it, hey, was that a life? If people think a little bit more, if they think about it for a minute and say, is that a life or isn’t it, is it really a human being, is it a baby or isn’t it? If my little piece of legislation, if somebody thought about it for a little while longer, maybe they thought, ‘Maybe what I’m doing isn’t the right thing to do’—well, I’m not going to feel bad about that, either.
DON’T SAY GAY
The “Don’t Say Gay” bill, you’ve brought that up twice now?
Twice. The first time, the Education Committee chairman said they would study it and do research on it and bring it back next year. And I brought it back next year, and they hadn’t done anything on it.
Why do you think that’s an important issue? All the state education authorities say homosexuality isn’t part of the grade-school curriculum anyway.
I had all sorts of testimony, I had all sorts of letters from teachers. The president’s education czar, he’s the chairman of PFLAG [Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays], and he’s always said he advocates for teaching these things. [This is presumably a reference to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who proposed opening a gay-friendly high school while he was CEO of Chicago’s public schools. He is not the chairman of PFLAG.] You can talk about TEA and NEA resolutions talking about how they think there should be not just tolerance of the lifestyle, but acceptance of it. That flies completely in the face of a lot of people. A lot of people say, hey, I understand tolerance. I’m all for tolerance. I’ve co-sponsored the anti-bullying bill. But to say we have to go to acceptance, that’s something completely different.
How do you define the difference between tolerance and acceptance?
Tolerance means, say, you’re a Muslim, theoretically. I’m not a Muslim. You wanna be a Muslim, fine, be a Muslim, do whatever Muslims do. Do whatever nice things that Muslims do. But acceptance, it’d be like you saying, I want you to accept the Muslim faith. Well, no, I don’t accept that. That’s not necessarily something I accept.
But gay people aren’t asking you to be gay. They just want to be themselves.
That’s tolerance. I support tolerance.
But so, what, are you afraid teachers are going to teach children to be gay?
Well, a couple of different things. I think our teachers are teaching way too much stuff already. You look at where we stand nationally and internationally on things like math and sciences, we’re dropping. You ask a teacher, why aren’t our kids better? And a lot of it comes from, one, home life, and the other thing is, they say, we don’t have time. We’re always worried about doing this and that and 85 million different things. If I can take one thing away and say, hey, you don’t have to teach about homosexuality to your second-graders, you can spend more time on arithmetic.
I don’t think that’s actually part of the second-grade curriculum in Tennessee.
Well, I had a teacher, a K-3 teacher say, we’re already doing this. The books are already in our classroom.
REALLY, ARE YOU CRAZY?
[Last Oct. 31, Campfield was escorted out of Neyland Stadium by campus police after being told to remove a Mexican wrestling mask he was wearing. There had been an announcement before the game that Halloween costumes would not be allowed in the stadium, and a woman seated near Campfield complained to police that the mask was bothering her young daughters. At an officer’s instruction, Campfield removed the mask, but then began to walk off toward a different part of the bleachers. “Thinking that something was not right” with Campfield, according to the police report, the officer then asked him to leave the stadium. He complied.]
The wrestling mask.
Eh. It’s not gonna be an issue.
Was that just a day you were having fun?
It was Halloween. I dressed up at Christmas as Santa Claus for the Salvation Army, too. If that’s the best thing they’ve got to go after me on, you know. The News Sentinel’s already done 18 stories, I guess you can do the 19th one, I really don’t think it’s going to make that much difference. I don’t think those are the issues that are important to people.
But it’s probably one of the two or three things that people think of when they hear your name.
You can do 18 news stories on anything. “Stacey wears his hair parted on the left instead of the right.” If you did 18 news stories, I think people would remember it.
You are very active on your blog [Camp4U]. But you’re kind of fast and loose with spelling and punctuation and things like that.
Listen, if there is ever a spelling quiz to become elected, boy, I’m gonna lose terrible. (Laughs.) If you ever ask me the whole “potato” question, I’m done. And I’ll be the first to admit my punctuation is terrible, my spelling is not so good. It’s gotten a little better over the years, but you know, when I started the blog it was really just to say—you know, I always used to wonder, why do people do things, why are these things happening and not other things happening? Bills, I’d think, well, gee, that’s a wonderful bill, why did that die? Or, that was terrible, how on earth did that ever pass? That was something I always said, well, if I ever got up there, I’d tell people why that stuff happens. That’s what it really started out as. Sort of pulling back the curtain on what’s going on in Nashville, what people are saying and thinking, what their processes are. Sure, it’s probably won me some enemies and some friends and so forth, but I just throw it out there and say, here it is. Spelling be what it is. It’s that darn public school education, I guess, coming back to haunt me. (Laughs.)
You’re running for state Senate now. What are you telling people, what have you done in the last six years that you’re going out there and saying, this is what I’ve done?
I think people realize I’m a conservative voice, I’ve always been a conservative leader. I’ve tried to pull things to the right. Yeah, sometimes I’m trying to pull everybody over two steps and maybe they pull over one step. Well, sure, it’s not everything I want in the world, but maybe it’s a step in the right direction. I think we’ve done some really good things this last year. We’re finally starting to move some things forward. We were able to put more money into education than we’ve ever put before, we balanced the budget with absolutely no taxes whatsoever, there were a lot of good things.
Does it bother you that the popular perception of you is of this kind of crazy guy with goofy bills who goes around and shows up places in a wrestling mask?
I don’t think my bills are crazy. If you take them one by one, and say, why did you say that people who are on social services shouldn’t be playing the lottery, or shouldn’t win lottery prizes? Well, because I think they’re spending their money on something where they should be saving their money or turning their lives around or putting it toward education or feeding their family. If you take the issues one by one and say, do you disagree with that, well, most people I talk to say, “Well, by golly, I really disagree with you, I hate your guts, but, you know, on that bill there, you were right, you were dead on.” Or, “This bill over here, I don’t like you that much, I think you have horns coming out of the back of your head that I’m just not seeing, but on this bill over here, you were dead on, you were 100 percent right.” It’s just one of those things.
Does it worry you that some of those things make people not take you seriously?
The Legislature’s a funny place, and somebody’s who’s an enemy on one bill will be your best friend on the other. There are people who I vehemently disagree with on certain issues, but on some small issue we may agree upon. Or vice-versa.