It’s early March, but a lukewarm breeze stands vigil against the evening’s wintry chill. The parking lot is crowded at Coal Creek Armory, but it appears to be business as usual inside. In the shooting range, goggle-eyed sportsmen squint, aim and fire. The thunderclap of shots and the metallic ping of ejected shell casings punctuate the building’s airy silence. In the showroom, two lanky teenagers compare scopes and rifle through boxes of bullets. The man behind the counter busies himself with a stack of paperwork.
In a meeting room upstairs, however, the atmosphere is significantly livelier. County Commission candidate Greg “Lumpy” Lambert stands before a room of friends and rubberneckers, reciting the technical nuances—weight, velocity, barrel capacity—of the Thompson M1A1 he cradles in his arms. It’s one of several “legendary victory weapons” Lambert has on hand tonight as an incentive for attendees to make a donation to his campaign: The bigger the donation, the bigger the gun they can shoot. There are also a handful of door prizes to be won, including commemorative knives, a rifle and a scholarship for a handgun carry permit.
As an active supporter of the Second Amendment, Lambert knows his guns. Even his nickname, “Lumpy,” is a reference to the alias he uses when participating in his favorite sport, cowboy action shooting. Once during a competition, while he was costumed in a puffy Mexican-style blouse and weighing in at about 50 pounds more than he does today, a friend commented that he looked like a “lumpy sack of ’taters.” The adjective stuck and has since proven itself as both an ally and a hindrance.
Lambert postulates that it earned him some reprieve, for instance, when he caught grief for a “buy-a-car, get-a-gun” giveaway at his used-car lot in Powell back in 2000. Representatives of both the local and the national press, including Jane Clayson from CBS’s Morning Show and Matt Lauer from NBC’s Today Show , shook their heads in dismay, but in the end, he came out no worse for the wear. How angry can you get at a guy named Lumpy?
Yet, the name, combined with his gun collection, has also made Lambert the butt of his fair share of jokes. His history as a rather theatrical political activist—a position that occasionally entailed wearing a chicken suit—hasn’t aided his dignity. And his strong stances on issues such as eminent domain and the wheel tax have only served to further his reputation as a man anatomically equipped with two right wings and a built-in rifle.
All of which is to say, it seemed only natural that Lambert’s announcement that he was running for County Commission came packaged in the bubble-wrap of amusement for many Knoxvillians, especially those who live outside his northwestern Knox County voting district. But as a rule, it’s wise to look inside the envelope before writing it off as junk mail. Could there be something more substantial hiding beneath that puffed-up façade of gun-slinging conservative machismo?
Lambert recently agreed to let Metro Pulse step into his life for a day and find out.
On a typical day of door-to-door campaigning, Lambert pays a visit to between 50 and 60 homes. It’s the best strategy, he says, for getting his name out to potential voters. And if Lambert has one gift, it’s his ability to quickly make allies of strangers.
Today, he’s armed with a list of likely voters in Solway, and he intends to introduce himself to them one by one. More often than not, the residents aren’t home, but his enthusiasm refuses to budge. Like a Thin-Mint-wielding girl scout, Lambert toddles onto each porch and thumps his knuckles against the door. His pockets bulge with bubble gum and puppy treats, and a posse of two campaign-shirted pre-teens follows on his heels.
If nobody answers, he leaves a campaign sticker and note on the doorknob. And if they are home, he’s usually able to make short work of finding common ground—even if he’s dealing with a less-than-willing second party. This time, for instance, a grandmotherly woman cracks open the door and frowns, obviously annoyed. “I’ve got the croup,” she says, verifying her condition with a chalky wheeze. Lambert groans with empathy. “Would you like a cough drop?” he inquires.
Moments later, they’re chatting like old friends—pooh-poohing the dismal weather, praising the bravery of war veterans past. In closing, Lambert hands the woman a package of Chiclets and gingerly reminds her to vote in the May 2 primaries; he’s running for County Commission, 6th district, seat B.
Alissa, the strawberry-blonde fourth-grader standing beside him, suddenly leaps into action. “So, are you gonna vote for him? Are you gonna vote for Lumpy?” she asks, tugging at her silver-sequined belt. The woman manages a nod and a smile before dissolving into another violent coughing fit.
Triumphant, Lambert’s entourage bounds back to the minivan. He slides the door shut behind them and climbs in. “Everyone buckle up,” he clucks, cautiously backing out of the driveway. Once they reach the road, Alissa cheers, “Hit the gas, Lumpy!”
He checks his mirrors and shifts the minivan into drive. “You know,” he says, motoring through the neighborhood, “after this campaign, all the young volunteers will have a tea party at a real castle!” The “castle” is a reference to the Island Home residence of Julia Tucker, his longtime friend and a write-in candidate for last year’s City Council election.
Alissa crinkles her freckled nose. “I don’t like tea. Can we have a pizza party instead?”
“Of course we can,” Lambert assures her.
Meanwhile, the Powell Middle School sixth-grader sitting in the passenger seat, Lindsey, turns the radio dial to a local hip-hop station. “Booty, booty, booty!” she chants in sync, bouncing up and down. Lambert looks concerned. “Now, do your parents let you listen to gangster rap?”
Alissa starts in as well. “Get it right! Get it right, get it tight!” she sings. “Get it right! Get it tight!”
Lambert slows the minivan down to edge around a cat that’s napping in the middle of the road. It’s a stark reminder of the No. 1 rule of the campaign trail: Either you run over it, or it runs over you. And throughout North and Northwest Knoxville, this year’s County Commission race is already shaping up to be one of the nastiest in recent history. Lambert complains of his signs being stolen, and he speaks regretfully of the smear campaigns other candidates are currently enduring. “I’m just not going to play that game,” he says.
Later in the afternoon, after returning his crew of worn-out campaigners to their rightful parents, Lambert swings by his apartment to change shirts before his final stop of the day: a meet-the-candidates rally at the Fountain City Lion’s Club. “Here,” he says, sliding a disc of Kinky Friedman campaign ads into his DVD player. “This is interesting.” Friedman, a Texan who’s running for governor on the Independent ticket, has likewise taken an unorthodox approach to winning votes. Where Lambert traded in traditional spaghetti dinner fundraisers for campaign kickoffs at the local armory, Friedman has action figures in his likeness and an animated spokesman. “People think things have to be done in these certain ways, but we live in a big, interesting world with lots of ideas,” Lambert explains.
Then it’s on to the rally. Tonight’s event is staged by the same circle of anti-wheel tax, anti-eminent domain politicians who hosted a “Take Back the Government” rally at the Clinton Highway Expo Center earlier this year-—an event that turned out to be something of a sideshow despite its serious intentions. Lambert doesn’t intend to hang around the rally for long, he says, but he does feel obliged to attend.
Attendance is sparse, thanks in part to the weather; the afternoon’s partly cloudy skies have since given way a steady, freezing rain. But conversation among the politicians and supporters who are present is effervescent; they chatter like friends, even though a handful of them are rivals.
Lambert’s affiliation with the “Take Back the Government” crusaders is something of a mixed blessing. After helping to spearhead opposition to the wheel tax, he managed to acquire the support of Knox County’s most notorious conservatives, several of whom are in attendance at tonight’s rally. But Lambert is quick to dispel the notion that they’re running on any kind of a combined ticket. They each have different ideas about how local government should be run, and they can—and do—disagree.
In fact, people’s willingness to jump to conclusions about what Lambert does and does not represent, their quickness to lump him into categories where he may not belong, may be the biggest hurdle he has to overcome in the upcoming election. Between his guns and his peer group, Lambert suspects some voters already have a preconceived notion of who he is fixed in their minds. There’s more to him, he says, than that.
“I feel it gives people this one view of me. That’s only one piece of me, one glimpse of what Greg Lambert is about,” he explains. On the contrary, he argues that one of his greatest strengths is his ability to keep an open mind. “I’m not stuck in my own ways, and I can get along with folks even when we don’t agree.”
After a few more moments of shaking hands and chatting, Lambert glances at his watch and motions toward the door. It’s time to get going, he says, and waves a heartfelt good-bye to the small crowd. It’s raining harder now, but he’s got an umbrella and the minivan’s not parked too far away. As he walks away from the commotion, into the downpour, it’s almost tempting to believe that this town’s ideological holster is big enough for his opinion, and everybody else’s, too.