In the Running: Meet the Candidates for 6th District State Senate

Victoria DeFreese, Gloria Johnson, Becky Duncan Massey, Marilyn Roddy

There are any number of ways to break down the race to fill former state Sen. Jamie Woodson's seat in the 6th District. All four candidates are women. Three are Republican. Two have racked up a lot of donations. One has four children, one has three children, one has two children. Two are teachers. One is a City Council member.

If there's one thing all four candidates have in common besides the accident of their biological sex, it's that they are each trying their damnedest to define themselves as a distinct quantity. But in race where one candidate's internal polling a few weeks back showed the majority of voters remain undecided, and in a district mostly outside of Knoxville city limits, it remains to be see whether it will even matter how they position themselves in opposition to each other. This is a race, more than any other this fall, that will be determined by voter turnout, as non-city voters will have no reason to go to the polls.

Will any of the Republican candidates get county voters fired up enough to show up for the primary? Now that a Democrat has jumped in the race, will conservative county voters turn out in force in November? We can't tell you. But we can tell you about the candidates themselves.

The Legacy

Becky Duncan Massey knows she has the most familiar name in the race. She was just a little girl when her daddy was elected to Congress, and she spent her teenage years going back and forth between Alexandria, Va., just outside of D.C., and Knoxville.

"It made me really appreciate Knoxville," she says. "When I was applying for college, I only applied to UT."

Massey majored in business administration at the University of Tennessee, but she quit working just a few years after college when she had her first child. Massey says she spent a lot of time volunteering—PTA, Girl Scouts, the Dogwood Arts Festival, and coaching softball. When her youngest daughter entered middle school, Massey returned to the workforce and has served as the executive director of the Sertoma Center for the past 14 years.

As Massey walks around the building, giving a tour, it's clear that she's actively involved in more than just the financial side of the nonprofit that works with the developmentally disabled. She knows everyone by name—not just her employees, but the people they serve.

Massey says her work at Sertoma led her to be appointed the head of the statewide association of similar community organizations, which led to her spending a lot of time in Nashville. And that is why, she says, she's running for state Senate.

"I've spent a lot of time in the Legislature. I have a working relationship with a lot of legislators. I've seen how the state system works, and I've developed a comfort factor with it," Massey says.

She is not running, she emphatically states after being asked, because her father was a congressman and her brother is a congressman and her nephew is Knox County trustee—in short, not because she happens to be a Duncan.

"If I thought that was the only experience I needed, I would have [run for office] 30 years ago," Massey says.

She says the issues that matter most to her are regulatory relief. "We've got to promote business in Tennessee and pare down regulations and help the economy grow," she says. But when asked about a number of hot-topic issues from last year's legislative session, Massey was unclear about most of them. (For a full report on what we asked the candidates and their responses, please see our website.) She hadn't heard about Rep. Bill Dunn's "critical thinking" bill, which passed the state House but was not taken up by the Senate—a bill that garnered negative national attention from critics who say it would introduce creationism into the classroom. But that's not a problem Massey has anyway.

"I think creation is a good thing to teach. We teach a lot of variety of views," Massey says. "I believe in creationism. Strongly."

Still, out of all the candidates, Massey seems the one least focused on education and most focused on the business community—yet another way she's setting herself apart from the pack.

The Thinker

There's no question that when Marilyn Roddy suddenly quit her mayoral campaign in April to jump in the Senate race, she lost some potential voters in the process. But she remains convinced it was the right move. She says that when Woodson resigned it came as a huge surprise to her.

"It was a game changer," Roddy says. "My family and I sat down and talked about where I could make the biggest difference and where would be the best match for my skill set and ability."

Roddy clearly takes offense when asked if she decided to run for Senate because she thought she wouldn't win the mayoral race. "That's not true at all!" she says indignantly.

So why would she want to give up a shot to be mayor in the city in which she lives as opposed to being one of many state Senators, with much less influence? "The state Senate deals primarily in policy, and that can have far-reaching effects. Much of what a mayor does is operational," Roddy explains. "I'm more interested in policy development. I really like digging into the issues and delving into the background of things."

It's clear throughout the interview that this statement is true. As she likes to put it, Roddy believes in doing her homework. When you ask her something that she doesn't know anything about, like Dunn's legislation, she says she needs to do more research before she can answer. She says this a lot, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether it's simply a politically expedient way to get out of answering hard questions. Still, as evidenced in the candidate forums to date, Roddy clearly has a depth of knowledge about a number of legislative issues that her Republican cohorts don't. Her opponents have taken potshots at her privileged life in Sequoyah Hills, to which Roddy likes to respond by talking about how she only attended public schools. (If you point out to her that the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, could be considered an elitist public school, Roddy is apt to take offense.) But Roddy says the only privilege she wants is to serve the voters of the 6th District.

"I think when people get to know me, they know I care very deeply. It would be a huge privilege to take their ideas to Nashville," Roddy says.

The Outsider

Victoria DeFreese is the youngest candidate in the race, and, she says, the only one running simply to fill the rest of Woodson's term next year. (Yes, that's right, whoever gets elected this fall could be unseated in the regularly scheduled election of November 2012.) DeFreese says she just wants to shake things up for one session by serving as a metaphorical breath of fresh air in the Legislature.

"I don't come from a family in politics, and I'm not wealthy. I have a lifelong dream of being a librarian—seriously! I just want to serve the people of the state of Tennessee," DeFreese says.

DeFreese grew up in Speedway, Ind., a small town right next to the—you guessed it—Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While in the shadows of a big city, DeFreese says she had a classic small-town childhood, with a public school system so small there were no buses and no cafeterias in the elementary schools. "They saved money, but I still had a stellar education," DeFreese says.

She came to Tennessee to attend Johnson Bible College, where she met her husband Donald, a former Marine, on the first day of school. (Donald DeFreese is well-known to downtown residents and workers as their trusty mailman.) The couple was married a year later, and the first of their four children followed a few years after that.

DeFreese taught the Talented and Gifted program at Carter Elementary and Gap Creek Elementary before focusing on home-schooling her three daughters and one son. During this time she also taught at a Christian cooperative home-schooling program and worked as an educational consultant. When all of her children entered Knox County Schools two years ago, DeFreese returned to teaching full time.

"I really get education, and a large part of our budget goes to education," DeFreese says. She's also concerned about Second Amendment rights—she says she would support Sen. Stacey Campfield's "guns on campus" bill—and red-light cameras. And like the two other Republicans, DeFreese says there are too many regulations that are hurting businesses and too much government interference in things in general. But mostly, DeFreese says, she wants to return government to the people, something she says she tried to do during the time she served as an interim County Commissioner.

"We wonder why we've had a government gone wild. We've dropped the reins," DeFreese says. "It's like Red Rover—you know, the game? You have to hold hands, and together you can stay strong. We need to vote and stick together."

The Carpetbagging Democrat

No, Gloria Johnson does not live in the 6th District. Yet. But according to the state Election Commission, since Johnson lives in Knox County, as long as she lives in the district by election day, and as long as she keeps living there while she's in office, she is qualified to run for the 6th District senate seat.

Johnson says she works in the district, and spends most of her time in the district, so she might as well move into it and represent it. She says she's looking for an apartment, since it's unlikely she'd be able to sell her house by November. When asked if she'll still sell her house if she loses the election, Johnson replies, "I might."

As the only Democrat in the race, Johnson's assured a spot on the November ballot. As the head of the Knox County Democratic Party, she got involved in finding a Democrat to run for the seat; eventually, she says, she realized she was probably the party's best choice.

Johnson's a relative newcomer to organized party politics—she says she first became active in 2007 when she started campaigning for Barack Obama. But in conversation, Johnson knew more of the ins and outs of several pieces of pending legislation than any of the Republican candidates. (Again, see our sidebar on our website for details.)

When asked about the large quantities of legislation introduced in this spring's session, Johnson gets fired up. "I was feeling pretty terrible about the last legislative session. There was no jobs bill. … The attack on teachers was demoralizing," she says. "A good education system and an educated workforce is what businesses are looking for."

Johnson has been a public school teacher for 24 years, so she can see the point of view of teachers better than most. Although she taught in Denver for three years from 2001 to 2004, Johnson has otherwise been teaching special education in Knox County Schools since she graduated from UT. She says she is involved in the lives of her students above and beyond her time in the classroom—she takes them out to experience as much of Knoxville as possible.

Like the other candidates, she stresses the need to focus on job creation, although Johnson is not quite as concerned about regulatory reform. She does say that there should be a sales tax break for groceries, and she supports tax cuts that would help small businesses. She says her experience has given her good mediating skills, such that she thinks she'll be able to negotiate her way around the Republican-controlled Legislature and find common ground.

"My job is working with difficult people, and I'm good at it. I'm always able to find a middle ground," Johnson says.