Brian Stevens is a young and exuberant would-be politician. And he'll need every bit of that energy because he's already begun a two-year campaign against one of the most competitive and controversial politicians in the state (and arguably in the country): state Sen. Stacey Campfield.
The tall and strapping Stevens embarked on this venture earlier in the year and took advantage of the campaign season to get his message out early to likely voters. He'll need those two years, he says, if he wants to win the state Senate District 7 seat.
"If no one's ever heard of me, they're going to reject me," he says. "We have to fill in that blank. And then I come in and create the rest. It's hard. Beating Stacey Campfield is not going to be an easy job."
Stevens, 30, is a statistics professor at the University of Tennessee. This semester, he's also picked up a math class he's never taught before—and he's learning the material right along with his students. He says he reads the textbook himself and works out the example problems before teaching a lesson. If a student asks him a question he can't answer, he tells him or her he'll look it up himself. On top of his bachelor's degree in psychology and master's in business analytics, he's worked a slew of unrelated jobs, including working on an archaeological dig in Texas. In college, he was a member of the student government.
"I've had positions of authority and leadership," he says. "My experience is there for my age."
Stevens will run on the Democratic ticket, but mostly for the purposes of raising his odds against Campfield.
"I know a third-party candidate will only increase Stacey Campfield's chances. And it's not so much about party because it is about me as a person," he says.
Stevens and his supporters don't use the word "Democrat" to describe him very often; they prefer "social libertarian/fiscal moderate." In fact, "Democrat" isn't used on his official website or on his Facebook page.
Campfield, on the other hand, waves the Republican flag proudly. He's become something of a conservative celebrity both on the state and national stage during his time in office. Campfield's signature piece of legislation, of course, was the "Don't Say Gay" bill, which would block classroom discussions of homosexuality from kindergarten through eighth grade. He also got significant attention for asserting that humans contracted AIDS when a gay pilot had sex with a monkey, and that transmission of AIDS between heterosexual couples is nearly impossible. In January, he told Sirius satellite radio show host Michelangelo Signorile, "Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community—it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men...My understanding is that it is virtually—not completely, but virtually—impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex."
Consequently, Stevens says Campfield is too distracting to be an effective legislator for Tennesseans, especially when the need to create jobs and improve education are so important.
"He creates a circus around Tennessee. He gives us negative national attention. With great power comes great responsibility. And he's been entrusted with this power, this responsibility of being our legislator. And he's not doing anything with it," Stevens says.
Knox County GOP chairwoman Phyllis Severance, who has met Stevens, says it's not unusual or unexpected for political unknowns to start a campaign against well-known incumbents like Campfield years in advance.
"It takes a lot of money to run a race," she says, as well as to get your name out to enough people.
Severance says its too early to say whether Stevens will stand a chance against the incumbent, especially since she says she's not well-versed in Stevens' platform issues and no one else has stepped up to run as a third-party candidate. (Severance points out the inclusion of third-party candidates usually bodes well for incumbents.) "We need to see who else is running," Severance says, before she can say for sure who she thinks will win in 2014. The chairwoman did say she wasn't aware that anyone is or has been gunning for Campfield's state Senate seat, despite the negative attention he's garnered during his time in office.
"That's the beauty of this country," she says, "Everyone has the right to run."
Campfield himself nearly echoes Severance's sentiment, saying in an e-mail, "This is America. [Stevens] has the right to run just like anyone else."
Thus, Stevens will run as a Democrat, even if he prefers not to associate too closely with the party label. In fact, he's quick to place himself deliberately in the middle of the political spectrum, saying, "I do side more with the Democrats on social issues, and sometimes when it comes to fiscal issues, I'm a little bit more conservative. I'm not an extremist by any means, and I've always been open to information, facts, because I can be swayed when someone presents an argument," he says.
And Stevens admires local Democratic politicians like longtime state representative Joe Armstrong, but he is also a big fan of Gov. Bill Haslam, whom he praises effusively for keeping out of wedge issues and focusing on the economy.
"I think [Campfield's] taken what he thinks is popular and tries to use that as a platform to obtain election and to go through the ranks. [Then] we have someone like Bill Haslam, who focuses on the important issues, who works on education, who works on unemployment, who really doesn't use wedge issues to gain election, and that's someone I respect. He and I, I'm sure, are different in a few ways… but he's working hard for Tennessee," Stevens says.
Though Stevens' platform is fairly typical of Democratic ideals—it includes support for environmental protections, marriage equality, and more efficient education strategies—he says he would defer to Haslam's business knowledge when it comes to creating jobs.
"He knows what will bring business here. And I think it's great we have a businessman as a governor," Stevens says.
Stevens is chatty and waves at people who pass by him on Market Square ("I talk to everybody," he explains). The people who stop to speak with him seem eager to discuss their issues further (a Greenpeace representative assures Stevens he'll get in touch). He can't seem to help gushing about his girlfriend or how his former roommate was so good at picking up the tab before he could when they went out to eat. Stevens is equally effusive on topics like environmental protections and job creation. After a soliloquy about his political convictions, he stops, takes a breath and asks, "Sorry, do you have any questions?"
But underscoring his many reasons for starting a two-year campaign against a well-known state senator (which he admits could make it difficult to maintain intensity and energy) is his dissatisfaction with Campfield's performance record.
"The way I see a politician is different than most people. I believe it is their job to make the lives of individuals better," Stevens says. "It's working with these people, finding out their problems and finding solutions. It's a very intricate job because there's so many problems and the solutions are many. I don't think a lot of politicians view it that way anymore."