2014 Elections: State Senate District 7

Dr. Richard Briggs on his campaign to unseat the ever-controversial Stacey Campfield

Among the political types in town, there seem to be two lines of thinking regarding the state Senate's 7th District, currently represented by longtime legislator Sen. Stacey Campfield.

One line of thinking holds that whoever wins the Republican primary is assured a victory in November. The other side thinks that unopposed Democrat Cheri Siler is such a smart and viable candidate, she's got a fair chance at victory.

Among this second group is a subset that thinks Siler will have an easier time beating Campfield than his opponent, Knox County Commissioner Dr. Richard Briggs, to the point that some people are urging Democrats to cross over and vote for Campfield. Another subset—one which substantially overlaps if we were to draw a Venn diagram—thinks that Briggs would be an even more conservative legislator than Campfield, even though he was recently named the most conservative legislator in the state.

"[Briggs is] going to vote the same way without all the nonsense," Commissioner Amy Broyles told News Sentinel columnist Pam Strickland recently, stating that she thinks "he would be more dangerous than Campfield."

But whatever the Democrats and independents think, and however they vote, one thing is clear—neither Briggs nor Campfield agree with that assessment. Campfield's mailers and his one television ad to date paint Briggs as a supporter of Obamacare (and Medicaid expansion in the state in particular), and in debates he has said Briggs would be soft on immigration.

For his part, Briggs denies that he supports the Affordable Care Act—he mentions it repeatedly, in fact—but he otherwise seems to be positioning himself as kind of a "compassionate conservative."

"I consider myself a conservative Republican because I do have very strong beliefs about family and faith and financial common sense," Briggs says. "But people think that because you're a conservative, you don't care about people."

Campfield declined a phone interview, and he declined to respond to e-mailed questions unless we agreed to ask his opponents the exact same questions and then print—in the print edition and not just online—all the responses in full, with no edits. We did not agree, but we sent him questions anyway. He didn't reply. (You can still read all about him over here.)

Briggs, however, sat and talked with us for almost two hours. Here's part of what he said.

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For those who don't pay much attention to county politics, Briggs has represented the 5th District on Commission since 2008. He was appointed to the seat after the Black Wednesday mess and then officially elected that August, and he was re-elected without opposition in 2010.

Outside of politics, Briggs is a cardiothoracic surgeon who has been practicing medicine since he graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine 1978. He's been with his wife Stephanie since college. He also served in the U.S. Army for years, in both the first and second wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. He retired with the rank of colonel and earned the Bronze Star, among numerous other military accolades.

It's this service—his medical practice and his time in the Army—that Briggs likes to emphasize as what makes him truly qualified to serve in the Legislature, not just his time on Commission. And unsurprisingly, Briggs is passionate about health care and insurance reform.

In his own practice, Briggs has treated patients from the Interfaith Health Clinic and various other free or low-cost clinics, and helped found the Knoxville Area Project Access for the Working Poor.

"One of my core beliefs, both personally and politically, is that people have access to health care," Briggs says. "I think Obamacare has been a missed opportunity."

Although his website has no details and Briggs has been vague about his ideas on television, it turns out he really does have a "Tennessee Plan" to solve the insurance gap created by the ACA, and he's more than happy to describe it in detail if you've got the time. Basically, Briggs' idea is that instead of accepting the federal Medicaid expansion funds, the state would expand TennCare to insure people falling in the gap. There's a catch though—if you're on TennCare, it would only pay the cost of your five most expensive medicines. Everything else would be out of your pocket.

"The bottom line is that you now have both physician interests and patient interests in keeping drug costs down," Briggs says.

Briggs says his plan would not only expand insurance to everyone in the state, it would also cut current TennCare costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. And he thinks if he pushes that last point strongly enough, he might be able to get legislators not known for their concerns about constituent health on board.

Briggs is also passionate about improving education in Tennessee. He says that creating a business-friendly environment in the state isn't enough if there aren't enough trained workers to fill positions.

"I think jobs are the number-one priority that we need to be focusing on in the state Legislature. I mean, should we be spending time passing a ‘Merry Christmas' law?" Briggs says. "Should we be discussing about the cock-fighting bill, or the Sex Week at UT bill, when we need to be looking at what we have to do for when kids get out of high school and need job skills?"

Briggs has drawn criticism from some who want Campfield out for his seemingly slow start to campaigning, despite having raised almost $210,000 in campaign funds. He disputes that.

"I don't know what more we could do. We've been on television daily. We advertise on Fox, ESPN, the History Channel, and the three local channels," Briggs says. "We've got mailings we started the first week of June and they're going to go every week until Election Day. We've got people out, as we speak, knocking on doors."

But will the money and the ads be enough to beat Campfield's undisputed prowess at going door-to-door?

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There is, of course, a third candidate in this race, tour bus driver Mike Alford. Before he decided to enter the race, he signed Campfield's petition for office. Alford's petition was pulled by Bryan Dodson, Campfield's former legislative staff member who was fired last fall after campaigning for the senator on the job.

Alford has told multiple news outlets that his last-minute entry into the primary had nothing to do with splitting the anti-Campfield vote. This is probably as true as when Dodson entered the 2006 primary for the House's 18th District at the last minute and said it had nothing to do with splitting the anti-Campfield vote.

Which is to say, maybe it is true, but when it's happened before, it's hard to take Alford seriously. Especially since he has raised no money, nor has he spent any money. He has not campaigned. He has not appeared at public or televised forums with Campfield and Briggs. And so for us to report on him as if he's a serious candidate would be doing you, dear reader, a disservice.

Since Siler is unopposed, we aren't writing about her either—yet. Once we know who her opponent will be in November, we'll be writing all about it.

Note: Part two of our look at judicial races will appear in next week's issue.