Randy Walker begins the year a political neophyte and a nice guy, but whether the latter must change to accommodate the former is uncertain.
Since Chuck Williams became an independent late last year, Walker, the 50-year-old business developer from Oak Ridge, has been running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Senate district, which now belongs to Tim Burchett.
That district is large, spanning from Knoxville's inner city all the way out to Hardin Valley, as well as politically and economically diverse—although not as much as it used to be. Since Democrat Bill Owen held it in the 1980s—the only Democrat to hold it in 60 years—the district has been redrawn twice, in the process shedding some inner-city, black precincts to add more West Knoxville precincts. "So the Democratic vote has been substantially reduced and the Republican vote has been substantially increased," says Owen, who's now a lobbyist.
Succeeding Owen was Republican Bud Gilbert, serving two terms, followed by Burchett, who's held it for the last 12 years.
This year Burchett is running for Knox County mayor, and with his departure, Democrats have a rare opportunity to compete in an open race. With the very real possibility the GOP could go into the next legislative session controlling the House, Senate, and Governor's mansion—something that's not happened in the party's history—a win in the 7th could help stem the growing gap between Democrats and Senate Republicans, who currently hold a 19-14 majority in that legislative body and a slim majority in the House.
"I would say this is one of our best opportunities," says Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester.
With such an opportunity, Burchett says the race to replace him is going to get ugly.
Which makes one wonder why someone like Randy Walker would want to get involved.
"I've got a pretty good career, and I don't have to run for State Senate," Walker says, "but in my heart I felt like, ‘Well, maybe I need to step up and say I'll do it.' Now I didn't realize, in all honesty, all the work that this was going to be at the outset, but now I'm in it. And I'm ready to win this thing, win it for Knoxville, and I'm excited about it."
On Walker's website, a Thomas Paine quote—"I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments and common sense"—appears high, beside photos of the Sunsphere and Walker, who looks slightly uncomfortable in a photo-studio pose.
In person, there's nothing to indicate Walker doesn't genuinely believe these words. His wife, Cindy, tries to contain her smile as she sits by his side in the conference room of an Oak Ridge technology company Walker helped develop. That company, NucSafe, builds radiation detection equipment for the Department of Homeland Security, foreign governments, private industry, and state and local governments around the Southeast.
"While I'm not the person who works with national politicians at Oak Ridge National Lab, I touch them from time to time," Walker explains. "But I did work a lot with state and local [politicians] in the things I did, in development and in putting things in weigh stations and so and so forth. And it struck me that we really need to make sure [there are] qualified people in those jobs."
And that's about as searing a criticism as you'll get from him. For now, Walker prefers to focus on his accomplishments, believing the voters can sort out the best candidate for themselves.
As a transportation and logistics manager for Oak Ridge, Walker says his experience coordinating the public and private sectors, while cultivating a network of individuals in both, prepares him uniquely to tap into the resources of East Tennessee to meet what he believes will be the next great economic boom—in energy.
"Look, we're in a situation now, we're in a low point economically, but we'll bounce back. Our economy always has and it will. But there's always something that usually drives us back," Walker says, summarizing eras from the post-World War II period to the dotcom bubble. "So coming in the future will be energy, and energy is the area that we need to be prepared to take advantage of. I mean, there is no one better prepared to take advantage of it than we are, here in Knoxville. We've got a national lab; we've got a university; we've got TVA; we've got large companies; we've got booming companies, successful companies, small companies. And those jobs will create opportunities. We want to take advantage of that.
"My background is in transportation," Walker continues. "The world's transportation is going to change over the next 20 to 30 years. And you're going to see a push back to green energy, to more efficiency. Efficiency generally means mass transit—in some cases, where it makes sense."
One place Walker thinks lightweight rail might make sense is between Knoxville and Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. He also thinks this area should get ahead on smart-grid technology, making energy consumption more efficient.
As far as his new role as a politician, Walker says he's comfortable with the fund-raising, citing his experience securing donations to start a girls volleyball league in West Knoxville through the Cedar Bluff Farragut Optimists Club, where he and his wife were board members. But he's not as comfortable with other aspects of politics, especially with labels, or "tags," as he calls them. "That's the part that bothers me because I'm not very good at it. I don't know how to get at a tag," Walker admits.
"For me," he says, "every situation is different, and I want to look at what's best for the place I'm working or the community I'm working for or the operation I'm working for at the time."
Should Walker make it through the primary—currently he's running unopposed, but that may change—he could face one of three Republicans: Steve Hill, Ron Leadbetter, or State Rep. Stacey Campfield. (To date, only Leadbetter has returned his petition. Steve Hill, a Republican, and Chuck Williams, an Independent, have both picked up petitions. Campfield has not picked up a petition but announced he would run. There are also mutterings that Ellen Adcock, who worked in the Victor Ashe administration, may run.)
Leadbetter and Campfield ran against each other in 2008 for the 18th House seat, which Campfield ultimately took, so theirs will be a familiar rematch and is therefore already attracting attention.
Leadbetter is positioning himself as the moderate, bi-partisan candidate to Campfield's controversial and hard-right reputation. In the past six months, Campfield has also attracted some attention outside of politics for his ejection from a UT football game Halloween night and, more recently, for being forced by a court decision to return a deposit to tenants living in a house he owned that was condemned.
Burchett says the seat is the GOP's to lose. But he also says it's not inconceivable that a Democrat could pick up the 7th. "I think somebody with a pro-business attitude has a shot. And he'd need to be fairly conservative," Burchett surmises. Walker, a member of the NRA, describes himself as just that. Additionally, he's from the Farragut area, which draws on Oak Ridge for jobs, and Owen thinks this population is more likely to vote for an individual than a party.
Democratic political strategist and one-time County Commission candidate Cortney Piper considered running for the seat herself, and says it's "absolutely possible" for a Democrat to take this election.
"That being said, it's not going to be an easy campaign for anybody, Democrat or Republican," Piper adds. The challenge a Democrat faces here, she says, are the fundamentals of running for office: fund-raising and campaigning. Campfield is known as a dogged campaigner, and Republicans tend to trump Democrats in the money realm. In a race like this, she says—over a large geographic area—a financial advantage will be crucial.
It's still very early, but so far Walker's more than holding his own. Two weeks ago, he met his first fund-raising goal of $25,000, on his way to a campaign goal of $500,000. Compare that with about $6,000 raised so far by Leadbetter and $6,480 by Campfield. Both Walker and Gloria Johnson, the Knox County Democratic Chair, say Walker received donations from Democrats and Republicans alike.
"I'm putting some skin in the game here, and I'm asking some folks who know me and believe in me to put some skin in the game," Walker says. "And I don't think people are going to vote based on an R or a D. I don't think people are going to vote on ‘I don't like this person, I do like this person.' I personally want them to vote on who's got the best ideas, who's going to bring some prosperity to the area."
And this brings up an interesting scenario down the road. "You've got a lot of very moderate Republicans who do not care for [Campfield's] leadership," Piper explains, "and so I think that if he were to emerge from the Republican primary as the nominee, you could get a lot of those moderate Republicans who might take a look at a Randy Walker or whoever the Democrat nominee is."
So should Democrats, likely strongly opposed to Campfield's substance and style, root for him to win the primary?
"No," Piper says, laughing, "and I'll tell you why: He's a very, very tough campaigner. I don't think his campaigning abilities can be underestimated."
In other words, don't play with fire.