Electoral Electricity: Surveying the Tightly Contested Races in the Republican Primary

Early voting may have already gotten underway last Friday, but there's still a ways to go before the Aug. 2 primary election. And as we reported last week, this year's election has a twist: redistricting. There's a solid chance you no longer live in the same district that you have been in for the past decade. (To find out, visit the Knox County Election Commission's website.)

Still, redistricting in East Tennessee wasn't as drastic as it could have been, mainly because so many of the districts were already safely Republican. However, the two tightly contested state races in Knox County are both in the Republican primary—one in a redrawn 13th District, and one in the new 89th District.

And even though the federal (see last week's issue for our rundown) and state races are getting all the attention, there are still some local issues on the ballot, including a school board race and a number of charter amendments (for the latter, see Rikki Hall's opinion column).

State Races

13th District

When the 13th District was redrawn, the formerly safe Democratic district became a tossup, and longtime Rep. Harry Tindell decided to retire instead of taking his chances in November. The district, which curves to the west and south of downtown Knoxville, is home to Gloria Johnson, chair of the Knox County Democratic Party, who is running for the Democratic nomination unopposed. She'll face off against one of two candidates this fall.

Vanderbilt Brabson, 27, is a former legislative intern who was working in Nashville up until the 107th General Assembly closed in May. If elected, he'd be the first black Republican to represent any part of Knox County in the Legislature.

His opponent is Gary Loe, 54, a veteran TV and radio reporter who now runs his own production company making digital videos for corporations.

Both candidates say they support Second Amendment rights and are pro-life; Loe won the endorsement of Tennessee Right to Life. And both candidates want to create jobs and speed up the state Department of Transportation's plan to expand Alcoa Highway, currently scheduled to start in 2018.

But for Brabson, everything starts with family.

"When I decided to run for office and wanted to put a platform together, I had to go with what I know: traditional family values," he says.

His platform says he aims to support families, but not by adding any more government programs.

"When you have government programs, you become dependent on the program. You don't help yourself," Brabson says.

One key way to bolster families is through education, he says, and encouraging parents to get involved in their children's education. "We have to try. If you don't try, then you can't do it," he says.

Loe agrees that education is the key to a successful workforce tomorrow, but he says that jobs are lagging today. His main focus is supporting legislation and policies that make it easier for small businesses to grow. He cites the U.S. Small Business Association's estimation that 97 percent of all employers in Tennessee are small-business owners who employ more than 40 percent of all workers in the state as a reason to target the group of business owners.

"If we could help the existing businesses as well as attract new businesses, we would have the jobs we need to lower our unemployment rate," Loe says.

He says he'd like to lower taxes across the board, but specifically the unemployment tax, the grocery tax, and the excise tax, which, he says, hinder small-business growth and discourage people from outside the state from moving to Tennessee to open businesses.

Another difference between the two candidates is their respective experiences with the Legislature. Brabson says his experience interning with the House clerk's office and on the fiscal review helped him forge relationships with other legislators that could help him get bills passed, should he be elected.

"I'm already known. As a freshman legislator coming in, it's hard to get legislation passed ... because you have to have those relationships with senior members," Brabson says.

But as a reporter, Loe covered various levels of government for the better part of 25 years, and he says it's given him a chance to study politicians' ideas and how they play out.

"I thought I could have a more positive impact on our quality of life here by working within the system as a legislator rather than covering it from the sidelines," Loe says.

Loe brought in $13,625 in the second quarter of fund-raising, including a $1,000 donation from state Sen. Stacey Campfield. Brabson raised $3,673 during the same time period, including a $150 donation from former Knoxville mayoral candidate Mark Padgett.

89th District

The 89th District used to be in Memphis, but the redistricting committee decided to move it (so as to land two longtime Democratic legislators in the same district, forcing them to run against each other). Now it takes in Powell and Karns and stretches out west to Farragut.

Democrat Shelley Breeding was disqualified from the ballot after the Election Commission ruled that she lived in Anderson County—her property split the county line—so the winner of the Republican primary will be the new representative for the district.

The candidate who's gotten the most attention to date is former Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison, who unsuccessfully battled Tim Burchett for the county mayoral seat in 2010. Hutchison, 59, served four terms as sheriff before he was forced to resign from his fifth term due to term limits.

Hutchison says his 33 years of government experience position him well as a potential legislator, and that his top areas of concern are public safety, schools, and infrastructure, but he's running on a platform of "smaller yet smarter" government.

"The economy is down. ... It's time to start looking for areas to do away with," Hutchison says.

When asked what specifically he would be in favor of cutting, Hutchison declined to elaborate. He also declined to list any legislation he would introduce if elected, saying only, "What's going to help the economy and business in the state ... that to me is the priority for now." Hutchison also dismissed the idea that the Legislature had brought negative attention to Tennessee over the past couple years for legislation like Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill.

"That's just the liberal media. ... They're not paying attention to the real serious concerns of the Legislature," Hutchison says.

William G. "Bo" Pierce, 62, is the retired former head of the Knoxville Community Development Corporation. As a part of that job, he chaired the state housing association's legislative committee, which he says has given him an in-depth understanding of the legislative process.

Pierce says he wants to focus on three things in the Legislature: education, economic development, and public safety. He says increasing the amount of character education in the schools could have a positive effect on the crime rate.

Pierce also says the Legislature needs to spend more time properly vetting the ripple effects of bills before passing them, which means, in effect, reducing the number of bills introduced each session.

"I mean, 3,000 or so bills is just crazy for as short of a legislative session as we have here in Tennessee," Pierce says.

Roger Kane, 48, is an insurance salesman who ran for the Knox County Trustee post in 2008. He has won the endorsement of Tennessee Right to Life, but says he's pro-woman as well as pro-life.

"I'm not out there to overturn Roe v. Wade," Kane says, adding that he would advocate an increase in state funding for prenatal care for pregnant women addicted to drugs to encourage those women to not get abortions.

But Kane says he also thinks the Legislature should steer clear of the agenda of the past two years that has been overly loaded with provocative social issues. He wants to decrease taxes, including getting rid of the Hall tax on capital gains income and removing all sales tax on food items, and he wants to increase funding for vocational training and promises to work to overhaul the schools.

"We've got to get our education system on track to make Tennessee a better place for business," Kane says.

Joey McCulley, 28, is a financial analyst for Marriott. He says his work experience would put him ahead of the game when it comes to tackling the state budget, and his youth means he's bringing new and fresh ideas to the table.

McCulley says his two most important issues are to promote job creation and to enhance education. He says he'd approach the former by reducing regulations in order to encourage businesses to locate in the state. As for the latter, McCulley says the legislation has taken the wrong track the past two years when it comes to education. He is opposed to standardized testing and standardized teacher evaluations, saying that a more individual approach is needed in order to attract and retain the best teachers.

Hutchison is the fund-raising frontrunner in this race, having brought in $9,150. Kane raised $2,570 and has loaned his campaign an additional $3,943. Pierce raised $3,326, and McCulley raised $800 in donations.

Local Races

Board of Education 3rd District

Only one local race remains contested after the primary in March, and that's between would-be school board members Doug Harris and Gina Oster. Harris edged Oster in the three-way March vote, but not by enough to win outright, so the West Knoxville duo are battling again for the right to represent the district.

Oster, 42, has earned the endorsement of current 3rd District board member Cindy Buttry due to her longtime work in the PTA and experience as a special-education assistant at Karns High School. (Oster is also a Realtor.) In a Metro Pulse profile of the race in February, Oster said her classroom knowledge would help her on the board.

"I feel like I know what teachers are up against," Oster said. "I have the firsthand knowledge to know what we can do and what we can't do."

Harris, 51, owns franchises of Papa John's Pizza restaurants in Columbus and Augusta, Ga. and wants to bring his business-world expertise to the seat. He's a proponent of technology in the classroom, including getting an iPad (or similar tablet computer) in every student's hand.

"To me, if we are going to get significant education gains, the iPad is the only way we're going to get there," Harris said in February. "It's a tool—it's not going to replace great teachers."