At some point during last Thursday's debate/forum/what-have-you at the Expo Center on Clinton Highway there were over 200 people in attendance. But by 7:30 p.m., when the debate for the Tennessee state Senate District 6 seat started, the crowd had dwindled by two-thirds.
It's true that three hours of watching candidates answer questions from audience members about campaign issues that may or may not be particularly important makes for a really long evening. And it's true that the next mayor of Knoxville is likely to have a greater impact on most area residents' lives than one state senator.
Still, to see the dozens of Madeline Rogero's maroon T-shirted supporters all leaving, presumably because they don't care about which Republican gets elected to the office? Well, there's a reason no Democrat bothered to run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Jamie Woodson.
But if watching Marilyn Roddy, Becky Duncan Massey, and Victoria DeFreese answer questions last week proved anything, it's this: Not all Republicans are the same, even if they're all white middle-aged women.
It wasn't just the stark contrast in their sartorial choices. Roddy wore a WASP-y pencil skirt and jacket; Massey wore a youthful suit that didn't quite fit her; and DeFreese wore a frumpy black dress with a nautical-styled collar, the sort of dress last trendy in maybe 1991. But in a way, those fashion decisions set the tone for what was to follow.
A middle-aged black man asked about immigration reform (prefacing his statement by saying that he didn't think Arizona's immigration law went far enough). Roddy said she supported the E-Verify program; Massey said immigration reform was necessary; and DeFreese added that all driver's license tests should be in English only. "If people come here, they need to learn our language," DeFreese said. "I've been in other countries, and I had to learn their languages! I had to walk around with a dictionary in my pocket to talk to people—why shouldn't they do the same when they come here?"
DeFreese and Massey both supported judicial elections; Roddy said she would possibly be willing to support electing judges if their current inability to run for office was indeed a violation of the state constitution.
When asked about Sen. Stacey Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill, Roddy pointed out that the amended version that passed the Senate does not actually prevent teachers from saying "gay" but that she still would not have voted in favor of it. (As we have noted repeatedly, the House never took up the bill, which means it is still not a law. We should also note, again, that Woodson was the sole Republican on the Senate Education Committee to vote against the bill.) Massey and DeFreese said that they would have voted for the bill.
They were asked if they would vote to support gay marriage; Massey and DeFreese said no. Roddy was the only one who seemed to realize such a vote can't even happen in Tennessee—as she pointed out, the state's voters overwhelming passed an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage a few years ago, and only those same voters can repeal that ban, something highly unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The candidates were also asked about HB 600, the legislation that prevents any locality from enacting an anti-discrimination ordinance that goes beyond the state's anti-discrimination standards. (The bill was introduced to prevent a Metro Nashville ordinance from going into effect; that ordinance would have blocked companies that discriminate against LGBT workers from doing business with the city, and a lawsuit questioning the legality of HB 600 has been filed.) However, the questioner asked them leaving aside the (gay) issues of HB 600, whether it was ever okay for the state to override local policies in other situations.
Roddy and Massey said no. But DeFreese—who later said that the state shouldn't have passed a smoking ban that prevented businesses from allowing smoking if they so wanted, and that the state shouldn't tell you where you can and can't bring a firearm ("As a mother who regularly frequents parks with my children, I'd feel safer knowing that people with legal permitted guns were there," because that would counteract the people carrying guns in parks without permits)—said that while generally the state should leave municipalities alone, sometimes it was necessary to intervene, as "certain counties have ways of manipulating votes" so that ordinances get passed that are not "what the people had voted for."
All three were in favor of some sort of education reform, although DeFreese was the only one to place the blame of failing schools on the bureaucracy in Nashville. (For someone running to be a part of that same bureaucracy, DeFreese spent an awful lot of time bashing it.) DeFreese and Massey also stated they were in favor of electing school superintendents; Roddy was more equivocal.
But the issue of the night? Red-light cameras. And if the crowd at the Expo Center was any indication of the voters who do actually care about this campaign, it seems poised to become the central issue in the race.
In brief: Both Massey and DeFreese are opposed to red-light cameras—DeFreese called them a "tax"—and both have even more of a problem with such cameras ticketing people for turning right on red before coming to a complete stop. (Campfield has introduced a number of bills on this issue.) Roddy, however, is not opposed to red-light cameras being placed at certain intersections that law enforcement has designated as needing them due to the number of wrecks that occur there.
"It's a safety issue," Roddy said. She voted in favor of the cameras while on City Council, and she defended her decision repeatedly on Thursday. When pushed on ending the ticketing for cars turning right on red, Roddy pointed out that state law mandates that cars stop before turning right on red, so she couldn't vote in favor of legislation that would be in violation of the state's own traffic laws.
When red-light cameras came up the third time, DeFreese criticized the current Legislature for neglecting to pass a law that would prevent any money collected by red-light cameras from going to foreign companies.
DeFreese's political views appear to be right in line with those of Campfield and state Rep. Bill Dunn, while Roddy and Massey are likely to appeal to more moderate voters who care slightly more about business interests than personal ones.
But as Campfield's primary win last year showed, if you combine a split vote with political apathy, crazy (like a fox or otherwise) can win. Which is why if you care at all about the actions our state Legislature takes—or at least how it gets mocked on national television—you need to pay attention to this race, too.