Gloria Johnson is used to going a little against the grain.
Growing up as the daughter of an FBI agent, she remembers some harrowing times. "There was crazy stuff in Mississippi," Johnson says. "We were in Mississippi in the late '60s, and we had to move out of our house because the KKK threatened to kill us. They blew up a Jewish synagogue near our house. Dad just left our house and got his buddy and they went and caught two of the guys in their driveway because they knew who they were. The rest of them threatened to kill our whole family. So we moved out for a while."
Johnson tells the story with a laugh and a shake of her head, the same way she tells stories about her challenging work as a teacher at Knox County's Richard Yoakley School for emotionally and behaviorally troubled students. She is a tall woman, 6 foot 3 with long blond hair and broad shoulders, and she does not seem to scare easily.
That may help explain why she decided, at the last minute, to leap into the special election for the 6th District state Senate seat, against a field that included a member of one of Knoxville's most powerful political families. "You have to answer that question," Johnson says. "‘How are you gonna run against a Duncan?' Same way I would run against anything. I'm going to work really hard. No, it doesn't bother me at all."
But she knows that her challenge is larger than just Becky Duncan Massey, the sister of Congressman Jimmy Duncan and the Republican nominee to fill the vacancy left by Jamie Woodson's resignation. The 6th District is not friendly territory for Democrats: Woodson won it by better than 2-to-1 margins in 2008 and 2004, and former Republican leader Ben Atchley held it easily for decades before that.
"The numbers are horrible for a Democrat," Johnson readily admits. "I think that's probably why a lot of folks didn't want to get in there."
She knows, because she spent months trying to find a good candidate to run. Since 2009, Johnson has been chairwoman of the Knox County Democratic Party. And her Senate campaign is really part of a larger project: Bringing new energy, new attitudes, and especially new people into the local party. She notes that the party now has a permanent office for the first time, even if it is on a scraggly stretch of Morgan Street along the northeastern perimeter of the Old City. During monthly First Friday events, she says, the place is packed with dozens of volunteers.
"The party is very strong, and anybody who's saying it's not hasn't been down here to see it," she says.
Johnson is 49, but she is still new to politics, a lifelong Democrat who never volunteered for a campaign until Barack Obama's presidential run. She has ruffled a few good-ol'-boy feathers in the local Democratic establishment (to the extent there is one), but she has gained the respect of a lot of people, too.
"I am definitely a Gloria Johnson fan," says longtime party activist Sylvia Woods, who preceded Johnson as party chair. "I'm really impressed with not only her abilities to train and engage folks, but also the fact that she's on top of the legislation, she knows the issues."
The issues are where it started for Johnson. Her family landed back in Knoxville, her father's hometown, while she was still young. Her father was a Democrat, she says, which made him a rarity in the FBI. She became one, too, which made her a rarity at Farragut High School. "All of my friends thought I was odd," she says. "My brother's a Republican, my sister's a Republican."
Johnson has been a teacher for 24 years, mostly in Knox County. But from 2001-2004 she lived in Colorado, where she found friends in a politically active crowd at the height of liberal disgust with the Bush administration. When she moved back to Knoxville, she brought with her a yard sign that said "Regime change begins at home" and a determination to get involved. That led to an early enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy. She canvassed for him in South Carolina during the run-up to the 2008 primary. "It was an amazing experience with some amazing organizers," she says.
In Knox County, she found that most of the local party stalwarts were working for Hillary Clinton. So Johnson and fellow Obama enthusiasts set up their own separate Knoxville headquarters. Woods remembers visiting and being surprised by the vibrancy of the operation. "Every time I went into the office, it was full of people," she says. "And not just stand-around people. They were making phone calls, putting signs together."
Johnson started going to local party meetings. "After the primary was over, after Obama was the nominee, I thought, if you're going to do something, it's going to be through the county party," she says. "So, let's join and see what happens."
What happened was that the next year, Johnson was elected party chair. She knows that caused some grumbling among some old-line party hands, but she says it's misplaced. "We didn't kick anybody out," she says of herself and her fellow new members. "We just joined."
A priority quickly became recruiting candidates for local and state races—but good candidates, Johnson insists, people who know the issues and will put up a fight. "I would like to have every race be contested," she says. "That's what I'd like to see. But I don't want somebody there just because they're a warm body. I want quality candidates who are qualified for the position they're running for."
That was especially true when Woodson's seat suddenly came open. The vacancy occurred at the end of a legislative session that left Democrats across the state furious at the new Republican majority, and teachers feeling battered by changes in bargaining and tenure rights. Johnson, as both a Democrat and a teacher, was appalled.
"The last session was horrible," she says. "As a teacher, I felt under attack. I felt like, I'm working my tail off every day, and so is everybody I work with, and this is how they talk about us?"
Her misgivings mounted when she attended a forum in June featuring Massey and the two women running against her for the Republican nomination, Marilyn Roddy and Victoria DeFreese. "It was a room full of Republicans, Tea Party folks were there, and I saw those three women being asked questions and trying to out-right each other. It was awful. And I just thought, this cannot be the discussion." (Massey, for example, has told Metro Pulse that she favors criminalizing abortion and teaching creationism in public schools.)
Even so, Johnson didn't think about getting in the race herself until it became evident that nobody else would. After first making sure it was okay with her school principal, she announced her candidacy at the party's annual Truman Day Dinner on Aug. 12. Besides the obvious challenges posed by the race, Johnson didn't even live in the 6th District. She does now, she says, in a rental on Long Hollow Road in Halls.
Johnson says she's raised about $20,000 for the campaign so far, less than she'd like but enough to get some bumper stickers and yard signs scattered around. Massey, in contrast, had raised over $150,000 even before the Sept. 27 primary. But Johnson says the odd contours of the special election might give her some help. Even though most of the district is outside Knoxville city limits, city-limits voters are more likely to come out because of the mayor and Council races. In the contested Republican primary, turnout in the non-city precincts was paltry. Anyway, whoever wins the seat will immediately face a re-election battle, since Woodson's term expires next year.
Johnson this week announced endorsements from the Knox County Education Association and the Tennessee Education Association. That might not seem surprising, but the KCEA has in the past endorsed many Republican candidates, including Woodson.
Woods acknowledges the race is "an uphill battle," but she thinks it will a plus for Johnson no matter the result. "It will be a great opportunity for her to see how this works as a candidate," she says, "and then she can apply that to helping other candidates."