Tennessee, and especially East Tennessee, is a Republican stronghold.
That's a commonly accepted political fact, particularly pronounced after the last few election cycles. But local Democrats still believe they can defeat incumbent and popular Republican candidates in state and national races, the current political climate to the contrary.
"[East Tennessee] is the most conservative place in the United States," says Anthony Nownes, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee (and Thrift-Store Finds columnist for Metro Pulse). "Democrats have always faced an uphill battle here."
And that's the same story Ray Jenkins, chair of the Knox County Republican Party, has always heard.
"East Tennessee has maintained a more Republican flavor...primarily because East Tennessee was more closely tied to the Union in the Civil War," Jenkins explains, compared to the western half of the state.
Even as the South became a dependable conservative Democrat voting block, the eastern part of Tennessee maintained Republican ties, which became more pronounced as conservative Southern Democrats migrated toward the Republican party (and former liberal Northern Republicans moved to the blue side of the aisle). Because of those shifts, the parties became more conservative and more liberal, and Jenkins points to that fact as a reason for the Republicans' reign in Knox County and East Tennessee.
People here don't want to be beholden to government or dependent on welfare, Jenkins says. They want to be empowered to live independently. But Jenkins says he wouldn't go so far as to characterize his party as anti-government. He says there should only be government as far as it's absolutely needed."There's a difference between working for the money from the government and depending on the government to take care of you," Jenkins says. "The government should not be the end-all be-all of assistance."
He says that early Tennessee settlers didn't have a big government to depend on, and were self-reliant people. They took care of themselves and they took care of each other, he says. That sentiment continues to thrive among today's residents of Knox County. "It's just a matter of how most of the people in this area were raised," Jenkins says.
Nownes says that even though Democrats in Tennessee are usually center-left on the political spectrum, "Their message just doesn't resonate here." That, and the fact that Republican identity is so deeply ingrained in many people in East Tennessee make it hard for any Democrat to compete. Nownes says that Republican identity in the area is usually based on social and cultural beliefs more than economics. But it also has to do with people identifying with politicians they can personally relate to.
"The Democratic Party is a party that consists of people who are not like them," Nownes says, though he's quick to explain it has less to do with prejudices and more to do with rural whites not being able to relate to reliably Democrat-friendly groups like urban minority voters or members of the LGBT community.
Though the city of Knoxville usually votes Democratic, the county continues to consistently vote Republican—City Mayor Madeline Rogero and County Mayor Tim Burchett are perfect examples of the city-county tension. But state Legislature districts tend to cover parts of the city and more county area, making it tough for some Democratic candidates to win over conservative voters.
It's not about Republicans' skillful messaging, Nownes says. It's just the fact that Democrats in East Tennessee and elsewhere tend to be "not particularly good at politics."
"Republicans can immediately tell you what they stand for," Nownes says, while Democrats tend to waffle. "They're afraid. They know...government is a dirty word." The party, he says, shouldn't be afraid to just come out and say, "We think government can be a positive force." Though, if what Jenkins says is true, that message won't fare well outside the city of Knoxville. Nownes says that Americans like and respect people who go after what they believe in, and when Democrats simply say they're not Republicans, it's hard to inspire an enthusiastic following. "Democrats just have not been aggressive and upfront about what they believe," Nownes says, "If they're going to lose, they have to at least go out making a case [for what they believe]."
But politics are unpredictable—and that's what Jenkins likes about the game. Nownes agrees and says, "You can never count anyone out."
Sill, the question remains: Why are Democrats still making such a concerted effort, even in districts that seem hopeless? We asked the candidates.
For Troy Goodale, a political science professor at Tusculum College, running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of the 2nd District is about honoring the founding fathers' intentions for government. The Senate was designed to be more elite than the House of Representatives, he says. Members of the House of Representatives were supposed to be regular joes.
"[The House] was intended to be the people's house. Folks like Jefferson and Madison envisioned that you'd have a vocation…and then if your neighbors and friends in the community thought you'd make a good public servant, that was sort of your public duty, to serve," he says.
Goodale, 48, worked his way through college studying political science, and is still paying off his student loans for his doctorate degree in the same field. He started out washing dishes at restaurants, worked his way up as a chef, bartender, waiter, and manager. He was even voted Knoxville's best bartender by Metro Pulse readers in 1995 (after working his way up through the Best Of Knoxville ranks during the previous two years). He still drives a 1980s white hatchback that needs a paint job. Now he's a college professor who says he knows what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck.
He juxtaposes himself with Rep. Jimmy Duncan, who was elected to his congressional seat in a special election after his father's death 24 years ago. "(Duncan) has lived a life of privilege," he says. Meanwhile, what the people of the second district need "Someone who understands what most families and most individuals are going through during these economic times," Goodale says.
That's all well and good, but running against incumbent and longtime Rep. Duncan is no easy feat, and Goodale knows that. But he believes the people deserve another option, especially at a time when Congress' approval rating is so low.
"Gridlock and having a representative that's more in touch with the views, the values, and the economic conditions and climate that most people are experiencing, I think that's important. Ending gridlock, bringing a problem-solving mindset to Washington, D.C., is what I want to focus on. It's one of the reasons why I'm running," Goodale says.
Goodale's platform calls for more government investment in job-training programs, fewer pay and benefits cuts for teachers, and term limits for members of Congress. He says he won't contribute to political gridlock.
But that's easier said than done, as the Democratic candidate knows well. Goodale first ran for the same seat in 1992, when Duncan was still a young and relatively new congressman (though his father had held that seat since 1964).
"I was sitting around with friends and we were always talking about how things should be, and did a lot of talking. Really over that winter into ‘92, I just said ‘We need to stop talking and do something.' It didn't look like anyone was running against the congressman," he says, so he added his name to the pot. "I was real young and idealistic and I wanted to change the world."
But even then, he learned, it's harder to beat the establishment than one would think.
"You have to be able to raise money, you have to get your name out there. Incumbents have such an incredible advantage," Goodale says.
But it's not just money and name recognition. Goodale knows the Republican party has done a better job of sending a clear message out to Americans.
"It's about proper messaging. You need to be more real about what we're about," he says. "I think the big problem is too many Democrats talk about 12-point plans and when they do think government has a proper role in something, maybe some Democrats emphasize that too much...The Democrats have always tried to be the big tent, but still you have to be in tune with certain values."
Goodale speaks at a measured pace until he comes to a topic he likes—as he speaks about what founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had in mind for America, his tone turns reverent. His voice rises as he talks about the longtime, powerful members of Congress, of whom he counts Duncan a fellow. "You can't tell me that someone who's been there for 24 years—and his family for half a century—is not part of that power elite," he says decisively.
On a steamy evening in June—the day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act—Goodale stood among a small group of people gathered to celebrate the ruling. As a man shared his story, recounting the difficulties his wife had in getting essential health care, Goodale looked overcome. He cheered with the group at the end of each story, and appeared as if he "felt their pain," so to speak.
Goodale travels off in tangents as he speaks rapidly and firmly about what's going wrong in government today before pausing to collect his thoughts.
"We need to get back to common-sense values," he says, reciting his campaign's theme. "We need to have more regular, working-class folks in power in Washington, D.C., that support public policy that does right by working families, looks out for the interest of small businesses, and really looks toward equality of opportunity and equal treatment under that law as the basis of what we do and what we're about."
The bottom line is that Goodale believes government can work for people, and despite another all-but-certain loss against the incumbent congressman, he's running to provide an alternative for East Tennesseans.
Gloria Johnson is the consummate teacher. Her voice is strong and carries easily across a crowded room—like the room in the Old City headquarters of the Knox County Democrats where more than a dozen volunteers meet for breakfast (Krispy Kreme donuts and Sausage McMuffins haphazardly piled on a plastic fold-up table) before setting out to canvass neighborhoods. While most of the volunteers are young voters, a few of the older generation show up, too. Johnson welcomes everyone with the same warm greeting, "Heeeey! Thanks for coming!"
Johnson, 50, is currently running for the State House of Representatives to represent the 13th District, formerly Democrat Harry Tindall's district. Though there have been some new areas added to the district—it forms a "C" around the west half of Knoxville and the surrounding suburbs—Johnson is confident Tindall's stomping grounds will remain Democratic.
The Richard Yoakley School special-education teacher appears pretty down to earth. She drives a little red convertible Mercedes—the inside of which is lined with campaign material, opened envelopes, and various other pieces of papers. She bought it used years ago because her long legs can fit in it comfortably. She's the chair of the Knox County Democrats, and doesn't care to remind anyone of that fact. When she introduces herself to constituents while knocking on doors on a Saturday morning, she tells them, "I'm Gloria Johnson. I'm a teacher at a Knox County school."
When talking about policies, she reverts back to her experiences in the classroom almost automatically. How do we create more jobs? Educate more people. How do we provide the best education for kids and young adults? Smaller class sizes. How do you work with establishment members of the other party who may be intimidating to freshman representatives? The classroom has an answer for that, too.
"People are just dug in, and we've got to stop it. Just like I have to look at one of my kids and go ‘this child came up differently than I did. It's not wrong, it's not right. But it was different. I need to try to understand where he's coming from. I can't talk to him if I don't try to understand where he's coming from.' And so, let's talk," Johnson says. And when negotiations get tough? "Working with the kids that I do, you learn how to have a productive conversation with somebody and not be confrontational and adversarial all the time."
Johnson's out to pass legislation that will create jobs and improve education in Tennessee, and she says she's not afraid to compromise to get it done.
"I'm not going to shun compromise. I won't compromise my beliefs, but I will compromise on issues, certainly. I think that's how you move forward. We do all have to give a little bit. If you're that dug in, we're not going to move forward," she says definitively.
Johnson can afford to be optimistic about her chances of winning the new 13th District. She's taught at several schools, including South Doyle High School in the southern part of her district, and says she's gained support from people she knows in the area.
"I have a lot of folks there, they know me from teaching. A lot of them are Republicans, and they will support me," she says with confidence. "When somebody meets you, and when they can talk to you face to face and they know you're going to work for them, that makes the difference. That's why I try to get as many doors knocked as I can and as many phone calls as I can."
But she doesn't have it in the bag yet. In late September, Jim Haslam, the governor's father, threw a fund-raiser for Johnson's Republican opponent, Gary Loe. Loe also has the backing of Republican Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, who spoke at a luncheon fund-raiser for Loe. Johnson is facing the formidable support of big names in the Republican party. The 13th District has been called a tossup throughout the election season, and Johnson knows it'll be a close race.
"I will always tell you what I'm for," she says. "You can't start a movement against something. I am for something. I am for jobs for my neighbors in Tennessee. I am for the best education that a kid can possibly get in every zip code. I'm not against anything. You start a movement for something."
Evelyn Gill is intense. She's no nonsense. As she speaks, she seems to carefully choose her words in order to make the most impact with each full sentence. And she's not concerned with party politics, or trying to persuade people pick a party.
"You have to let people define [their agendas] based on whatever their individual needs are, then that will vary depending on whatever those [needs] are," she says. "I'm not interested in regurgitating a party rhetoric because I can think for myself, and that is what we're going to need in order to move Tennessee."
Nonetheless, she is running for State Senate as a representative of the 6th District on the Democratic ticket against popular incumbent Republican Becky Duncan Massey.
When it comes to her competition, Gill shrugs. Though Massey is part of a political family with deep roots in the area, Gill simply asks, "And? If people vote based on name recognition, then they must be voting for the status quo."
Gill, 45, grew up in Jackson, Miss., got a degree in political science, and then went on to Rutgers University, where she earned a master's degree in public policy and administration. While completing her master's, she was drafted by General Electric to work in the human resources department.
"They were looking to connect people who wanted the experience, and that's just how I ended up there. I very well could've ended up being in the banking and bonds industry. It just depends because of the broad spectrum of the degree. That's just where I landed," she says.
She also taught at Camden County College in New Jersey, and ITT Technical Institute before becoming a teacher in Knox County. She's been a special education teacher in Knoxville for 10 years, and currently teaches at Carter High School. Like Johnson, Gill's main focus is education. Creating a good environment for education—both teachers and students—is what makes places attractive to businesses and families, she says.
"We, in terms of our platform for education, cannot vilify teachers because we are where the rubber meets the road. You can't put teachers last thinking you're going to put students first," she says.
But it's not just kindergarten through 12th grade that are important to Gill. She says vocational education has been neglected, and is one component in education that helps lower unemployment rates.
"It's education that will retool people who are unemployed and underemployed and give our future leaders in the pipeline of higher education the opportunity and access to jobs," she says.
Gill is confident that her education, career experience, and community involvement would benefit the state senate.
"Coming out of a classroom, with the education I have, I could help direct the policy instead of some of what this current Legislature has put on the table for Tennessee to be focused on," she says.
Instead of wasting time in the Senate, Gill says she would take into account the diversity of her district—which, as she says, spans rural, suburban, and urban areas—to find ways to create jobs that suit the community. "So that would look different in Kodak as it would look different in East Knox County," Gill says. "This area is so large you want community-centered employment, not to have people trained and moving [away]. But we don't have any business and industry here...That doesn't lead to what the dynamics of this district need, so we need a broader plan to look at that."
Ultimately, Gill is in the election to challenge the status quo, she says, despite the odds being against her bid.
"My platform looks at the issues of education, of environmental issues, looks at business development, and economic and community development," Gill says. "The difference [between her and Massey] is in making sure you elect someone who is informed on the issues of education, who can speak to the issues of environmental business impact, and who has the experience in that."
In that sense, Gill is an anomaly among politicians. She doesn't give a second thought to who she's running against, or the fact that East Tennessee is, and has been for as long as many can remember, a Republican stronghold. Gill says she's running because she's not satisfied with what the current elected leaders are doing. She wants to move forward, and not get mired down in past squabbles.
Gill says that teachers always give examples, and compares her race against Massey to the rapid change in telephone technology. Gill says that while she grew up in a house that relied on an old rotary phone (and Gill isn't from the rotary phone era), she and most people have adapted to, and have come to rely on technology like smart phones without much hesitation. In Gill's analogy, Massey's status quo voting record makes her the rotary phone.
"We can easily go back to a rotary phone, because some people still have them. But I don't know anybody clamoring to do that," she says. "So that is the difference this election brings about, and the opportunity to embrace the present, because that's our future. That's why I'm in this race."
Joe Armstrong, 55, has been a politician since he graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1981. He worked at a radio station throughout college and started interviewing politicians. His family was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960's in registering people to vote, and championed that right with fervent discussions around election time. But really, the radio station played a bigger role in shaping his future.
"I never thought about going into public service until I worked at the radio station," he says.
He first ran for Knoxville City Council that year, and lost by a thin margin. The next year, he ran and won a seat on the Knox County Commission. He was elected as the state representative for the 15th District in 1988, and has held that position ever since. He's a pretty sure bet next month.
But that doesn't mean he's immune to what's going on with other Democrats. Like Johnson and Goodale, Armstrong is intensely aware that Republicans have been doing a better job of getting elected. But that, he says, is because the Democratic party enjoyed so many decades of government control.
"We know how to govern. We forgot how to get elected," Armstrong says. Armstrong would know about that. For decades, both houses of the General Assembly elected West Tennessee Democrats as their Speakers and enjoyed more than three decades as the majority party. From 1971 through 2006, West Tennessee Democrat John Wilder served as the Senate speaker (and lieutenant governor). The Senate's first Republican speaker in more than 30 years was Ron Ramsey from Sullivan County.
Armstrong also admits Democrats need to do a better job of getting their messages across to people they represent, but isn't sure there is one exact answer of how to do that.
"There's not a silver bullet to say ‘Hey, what do we need to do to rebuild the party?' Because it's not one individual. It's gonna be a collective effort," he says.
Like Gill, he thinks people will have to face reality, see how Republican leadership has failed them, and listen to what Democrats have to say before the party can regain its place in state politics.
"If the last two years of legislation is reflective of what kind of leadership is going to come from that right wing [of the Republican party], I'm fearful of the future. All we've been talking about is guns, taking away teachers' and municipal employees' rights, and in turn, looking at ways of trying to cut budgets as far as education and health care. Those aren't finding solutions to our problems, those are just exacerbating and kicking the can down the road," Armstrong says.
But it's not just letting the marketplace of ideas take over, it's also bringing in new blood to the party that will strengthen it and revitalize it in East Tennessee, he says.
"That lack of being able to market the Democratic party in the South has led to the erosion of the Democratic base. In addition, when you look at what we as Democrats stand for, it's been for middle class and working families. That message is not resonating, so one thing we've got to do in Tennessee is to establish and identify ourselves and look at the next generation and bring young leadership on," he says.
On a rainy day in September, he spoke with students at the Magnolia Avenue campus of Pellissippi State Community College—where he has a building named after him—about the importance of voting and the constitutional amendments that gave blacks and women the guaranteed right to vote.
"It's a part of our social and civic responsibility. If you don't vote, you can't complain," he says.
Armstrong isn't complaining, and he's staying optimistic about the party's chances in Knox county.
"The thing about it is to keep a voice out there. If you keep telling a lie over and over again, eventually people are going to believe the lie. It is quite obvious that some of the propaganda that some of the right wing are putting out there are absolute lies," he says. "We aren't challenging them. We really never challenged George Bush. We need to challenge not only nationally, but we need to challenge within our state and within our own county. We as Democrats are just too nice. We don't go after people."
For now, Armstrong sees the party's strength at the city level in Knoxville as a good start for growth.
"I think the Democratic party truly is not lost in the city of Knoxville. When you look at our City Council, and within our city limits, the Democratic party is strong," he says.
Ed. Note: Anthony Hancock, Democratic candidate for State House District 18, did not respond to requests for an interview.