The 17th District Race

Meet the contenders vying to represent our most serpentine district

Incumbent Frank Niceley, 61, is a conservative Republican from Strawberry Plains. He has served four two-year terms in the House of Representatives: 1988-92, and 2004-present. He is a graduate of Jefferson County High School and the University of Tennessee, and lists his occupation as a farmer/business owner. He is anti-taxes, pro-gun, and anti-abortion and has the endorsements to prove it.

His service on the House Agriculture and Conservation and Environment committees, and the House Environment and the Parks and the Tourism subcommittees, speaks to an interest in the environment that is emphasized on his Wikipedia page, which says he "has been a remarkable leader in the state to make Tennessee a much more environmental [sic] friendly state. In the 1980's Niceley defeated a mass burn incinerator being proposed for Knoxville. He has been a strong supporter and encourager of the use of ethanol in gasoline in order to reduce air pollution within his district. It is agendas like these that have enabled Niceley to win strongly the public attention and more importantly their votes in recent years."

Leaving aside the implication that Niceley singlehandedly defeated the incinerator (he was one of many opponents of the solid waste burner), he hasn't impressed watchdog groups such as the Tennessee Conservation Voters with his environmentalist chops. TCV issues an annual legislative scorecard rating lawmakers‘ performances, awarding evergreen trees for good environmental records and stumps for bad ones. Last session, Niceley got a stump—again.

He blows off their criticism and says the only thing he regrets about getting on their bad side is that "Some of my supporters are disappointed that I fell back into second place." (Niceley's 2007 TCV ranking was the second lowest in the House, worsted only by fellow Republican William Baird.)

"Look who they are," he says. "I've been a conservationist all my life. This bunch dresses up, puts on their outdoor clothes, and goes to meetings, but they've never spent a dollar of their own money on anything. I don't even like to call myself an environmentalist anymore—I consider myself a conservationist now."

Supporters of a bill to ban mountaintop coal removal (including his opponent, David Seal) credit him with playing a leading role in killing off the measure in the House Environment Subcommittee this winter. He doesn't deny it, and says he did the right thing because the bill was being supported by "behind the scenes" forces with undisclosed agendas. He says the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act supporters are naïve, and says he supports requiring coal companies to "clean up their own messes." He maintains that mountaintop removal cannot be practiced in Tennessee anyhow (this is disputed by the bill's supporters).

"They [supporters of the Scenic Vistas Act] just didn't have their facts straight," Niceley says. "I don't believe in putting people out of work. I believe in solving problems and making it possible to get at these energy sources instead of relying on Muslim oil."

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17th District challenger David Seal decided to run against Frank Niceley because he was mad.

Seal, 47, a career and technical education teacher at Jefferson County High School, is running as an Independent and has been an active supporter of the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act since its inception. He says Niceley's opposition to the bill (which would ban the practice of blowing the tops off mountains to remove the remaining seams of coal) is what pushed him into making his first run for office. Seal's family, including his children, Audrey and Leo, and his former wife, Dawn Coppock, are all involved in this issue.

"My job in the whole process was to make Mr. Niceley's phone ring. We knew he was going to vote against us, but he looked at all the information and just stuck his finger up at us and says he was going to vote against it anyway. About four hours after he voted against the Scenic Vistas bill in subcommittee, I was registered to vote against him."

Seal says he is also dissatisfied with Niceley's support of education, which he says he checked by pulling his voting record and polling the school board and other elected officials about his performance. What he found, he says, was that Jefferson County schools have lost funding on Niceley's watch.

Seal supports early childhood education and would vote to fund both kindergarten and pre-kindergarten—something Niceley opposes.

"He's made comments to teachers that they can do just as good a job with 30 to 35 kids in a classroom as they can with 20," Seal says. "He's got a bare-bones approach to education—as long as you can keep the lights on, it's OK."

Seal says he supports Second-Amendment-guaranteed individual gun rights, and opposes a state income tax, toll roads, and government bailouts of failed businesses. He does, however, think that government should support public safety agencies.

"The difference between my opponent and me is I think we ought to provide a few grants to law enforcement, volunteer firefighters—85 percent of firefighters in Tennessee are volunteers. One of my students was a volunteer firefighter and got killed a few years ago, so I feel very strongly about this issue."