Getting Gloria Johnson: Targeted by State Republicans, the Outspoken Knoxville Representative May Prove Difficult to Beat

It was the Friday before Christmas, and state Rep. Gloria Johnson was on the Knox County Democratic Party's live call-in show on community access TV. She was there to introduce Cheri Siler, a first-time candidate who's going to challenge Stacey Campfield. A couple of prank callers decided to target Johnson for abuse, but all their semi-coherent badgering accomplished was to make her laugh. She finished the show without a hitch, and was still laughing days later.

"They called me ‘Miss Piggy,'" she says. "Who's going to think that's cute except a bunch of 20-year-old Republicans? I've been in a classroom full of emotionally disturbed kids who did much better than that. Those guys weren't even clever. ‘Miss Piggy?' I say, keep it coming, because it's such a reflection of who they are."

That evening could be a harbinger of what Johnson will face in 2014, because Tennessee Republicans aren't satisfied to have the governor's office, supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly, seven-ninths of the state's congressional delegation, and both of its United States senators. They want more—they want to beat Gloria Johnson.

This time two years ago, they barely knew her name, although she'd chaired the Knox County Democrats since 2009 and outperformed expectations in a closer-than-it-should-have-been special election race for the state Senate against a member of the powerful Duncan family in 2011. The tall, unflappable special-ed teacher with the Eveready smile and the unflagging optimism had never been involved in politics until she pitched in for Barack Obama in 2007. She was barely a blip on the local Republican radar screen in January 2012, and she certainly didn't look like a serious obstacle to their plan to take over the House seat long occupied by Democrat Harry Tindell, who had already announced his intention to retire from office rather than take on a re-election battle in a district whose lines had been redrawn by his opposition.

Who knew Gloria Johnson would be a natural? Not only did she hold the 13th District seat for the Democrats in a year when Republicans ran a near sweep in Tennessee, but she's also considered by her party's leaders to be one of the best freshman legislators in modern memory. Capitol Hill reporters are partial to her unsparing commentary on administration policy. Republicans, not content with their 70-28 state House supermajority, have branded her an ultraliberal. They'd like nothing better than to eliminate the de facto leader of a Knox County teachers' rebellion before it spills over into other counties and grows strong enough to sully the carefully crafted reputation of Gov. Bill Haslam's education initiative.

But they'd better get moving. The General Assembly will convene next week and Johnson, who is taking legislative leave from her job at the Richard Yoakley School, will begin the second year of her first term with some provocative bills (anti-mountaintop removal and bills to rein in the high-stakes testing required by the state's interpretation of Common Core standards). And no opponent is in sight.

***

The no-opposition part is about to change, says Brent Leatherwood, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, who is happy to address the rumors that Johnson is a marked woman.

"Absolutely. I can confirm that," he says, pivoting smoothly into a barrage of talking points.

"Representative Johnson seems to be taking her cues from the White House and seems to want to deny reality. She's constantly on the attack against Gov. Haslam and his agenda that has made Tennessee the fourth-best state for job creation, the fastest-improving state for education, and one of the top-ranked states for business.

"If she's going to stand there opposed to all that, then she is absolutely one of our targets. We believe the voters of Knox County want someone who will work with the governor, not against him. We're in lockstep with Gov. Haslam's vision of improving education for Tennessee students, and she has made it clear that she is opposed to that. "

Johnson's response to Leatherwood's accusation that she's anti-jobs and anti-education?

The same belly laugh that the pranksters got, followed by a rapid-fire rebuttal.

"I would consider myself relatively fiscally conservative," she says. "I'm all for staying within a budget, and I am very used to working on a tight budget, because I live on a tight budget. I also realize the importance of putting people to work at good jobs at good wages. Unfortunately, our state's not doing a good job of putting people to work. The rest of the country's doing better and we're doing worse. We are one of the few states whose unemployment rate is not improving. We are actually moving in the opposite direction, and that is just a fact."

The National Bureau of Labor Statistics November 2013 numbers bear out Johnson's contentions, pegging Tennessee's unemployment rate at 8.1 percent, or 43rd in terms of employment rate. The national unemployment rate is 7 percent.

Moving on to her favorite topic, education, she says the governor is inflating the success of his education reforms, cherry-picking "good" numbers and ignoring less rosy measurements. She's unimpressed with his recent victory lap around the state delivering sheet cakes to schools to celebrate the state's National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, which ranked Tennessee at the top of the heap in math and reading gains.

"As far as education goes, I'm with the governor when he's right, like his ‘Drive to 55' [an initiative to bring the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees up to 55 percent by 2025]. But when it comes to pre-K through 12, we are not narrowing the achievement gap, and that's what they say these reforms are supposed to do," Johnson says. "We are improving some test scores, but some are not improving. What we're doing is increasing the achievement gap, not narrowing it."

She cites the Tennessee Education Report, which recently compared Tennessee's progress in narrowing the achievement gap between rich and poor with that of its neighbor to the north. Kentucky, which is similar demographically but doesn't have charter schools, doesn't use value-added data for teacher evaluations, and has more liberal tenure laws, outperforms Tennessee in almost every category.

Johnson is particularly dismissive of Haslam's failed 2012 push to increase classroom size, which was unpopular with Republicans and Democrats alike.

"We know that doesn't help," she says. "We need more resources and smaller class sizes in the schools that are struggling. There is no peer-reviewed studies showing that increasing class size is beneficial."

She is equally aggressive in her criticism of the relentless test-and-assess methods of Knox County School Superintendent James McIntyre, a close Haslam ally and, of course, her boss. She has been on the front line of organizing the teacher protests that have rocked Knox County Schools in recent months, gets standing ovations before and after she speaks at school-board meetings, and is being invited to visit teachers' groups from other counties around the state to tell them how they, too, can organize. Asked if she fears retribution, she guffaws.

"What're they going to do, transfer me to Richard Yoakley?"

This is a reference to the alternative school for students from grades 6-12 who are serving long-term suspensions from their base schools. Some teachers consider Yoakley a gulag. Not Johnson, who asked to be reassigned there from Central High School, where she taught from 2004-10.

"I absolutely love Yoakley," she says. "I just like those kids, and I figure somebody who likes those kids ought to be out there. It's a really tight staff devoted to giving kids a second chance, and I just knew it was an environment where I can really help kids. In my career as a high-school teacher, almost all my kids graduated with a regular diploma. I attribute a lot of that to the program we had then that has now been watered down a lot. We had a mental-health component and a liaison between family, school, and child."

In summary, it's easy to see why Republicans would be enthusiastic about ridding themselves of this troublesome woman.

But one prominent local Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says his money's on Johnson returning for a second term:

"With the current crop of candidates, there's no way in hell we'll beat her," he predicts, sounding resigned.

Another prominent Republican, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, is a persistent McIntyre critic who finds himself in agreement with Johnson on many education issues. The son of a public-school teacher and a former legislator whose state Senate district encompassed most of Johnson's 13th House district, he's unimpressed with Leatherwood's bravado.

"They always used to say the same stuff about Harry Tindell, and come election time they'd load up on him, but they never scratched his armor," Burchett says. "True, the district's gotten a little more Republican, but this is a bad fight to pick. It's a mistake to start picking on school teachers and blaming them for all the wrongs in society. The party can spend all day and a lot of money figuring out what they're going to do to her, but meanwhile, she can assemble a group of people with no money in a short amount of time, people that are central to the issue.

"And if you bring in a bunch of outsiders, you're going to look like a bunch of bullies."

The most important Republican in Johnson's world agrees with that assessment. But her mother, Nell Johnson, isn't fretting over her daughter's political fortunes:

"I met somebody at a dog show recently and they said, ‘Your daughter's famous!' So many people tell me she's what they have needed for a long time. I tell them she's moving so fast, the rest of them can't catch her."

***

Nobody in Gloria Johnson's family was very involved in politics when she was growing up, although her father, Ron, a special agent with the FBI, was involved in highly charged, dangerous situations while he was stationed in Mississippi during the civil-rights struggles of the late '60s. The family endured some scary times and even had to move out of their home at one point because of racist threats. Ron Johnson was in the FBI for 22 years and then went to work as an Anderson County public defender when he retired; he died last summer after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis. Johnson inherited his service revolver and his sense of fairness.

Gloria, who is 51, grew up as the middle child of three children. Her sister Kim Rouser is five years older; her younger brother, Chuck Johnson, is 15 months younger. Chuck was an all-state point guard at Farragut High School who set a state record for assists and went on to play college ball. Their dad was his AAU coach, and every summer the house was full of athletes who were like brothers to Gloria.

She reached her full height, 6 feet 3 inches, in early adolescence. Her mother remembers the ridicule she endured because she towered over her classmates.

"When she got up into middle school, it was hard on Gloria because she was so tall," Nell Johnson says. "I always felt so sorry for her. She even had a teacher make fun of her because she was so tall and thin. We couldn't find a coat to fit her until we found a leather company in LaFollette that made one for her. But she was always considerate of other people. And she'd always seem to find children who had problems and try to help them. I never had to whip her—I'd just threaten."

Despite growing up in a family of athletes, Johnson says she never had any inclination to play sports, even with considerable pressure at school from adults who thought it a shame to let all that height go to waste.

"The girls' basketball coach would ask me almost every day in the hall if I would play, but it was half-court stuff and I thought that was stupid," she says. "Quite frankly, I'm competitive, but not necessarily physically competitive."

Now she understands that her lack of interest in organized athletics probably saved her life.

"It wasn't until years later that I found out that playing basketball could have killed me," she says. "I didn't know then that I have Marfan syndrome," a genetic disorder of the connective tissues usually associated with great height, frequently complicated by life-threatening heart problems. "Playing basketball could have killed me," she says.

The diagnosis solved a family mystery—why she is the tallest person in her family. Her father was 5 feet 11 inches ("And a half," she says, laughing. "Gotta give him that half.") Her mother is 5-4. Johnson agrees with Nell that being ridiculed in childhood probably nurtured her lifelong affinity for underdogs.

"Try being 6-3 in a 5-2 world," she says. "I was thankful for the Carpenter brothers, the two 7-footers at Farragut High."

Johnson didn't get her diagnosis until she was 21, married, and attending the University of Tennessee. She was having breakfast at Shoney's and stuck her finger into a "pulsometer" to check her heart rate.

"It kept going up and up and finally busted the machine," she said. "My heart rate was over 200."

Nell Johnson remembers meeting her panicked daughter at the doctor's office.

"Her heart was beating so hard you could see her blouse moving," Nell said. "That's when we found out about this Marfan."

The Johnsons took her to a heart surgeon in Birmingham who specializes in aortic valve replacement, and they were informed that she had an aortic aneurysm the size of an orange, a marker for Marfan syndrome. She took down one of her dad's old medical books and did some reading. What she found was alarming.

"I was like, 'Holy shit!' Now I have a titanium valve. I was given a choice of a pig valve or this prosthetic valve. I'd be working on my second pig valve by now, and I'm not interested in having my chest cracked open again. I've been taking Coumadin for 30 years. They took out part of the aorta and put in Dacron tubing. Can you hear me tick?"

Johnson has had several TIAs (transient ischemic attacks, or "mini strokes") and a full-blown stroke that affected her vision.

"I just keep praying they'll come up with something that'll help," Nell Johnson says. "I worry about the fast pace she goes, but I know she's lived her life many times over. She's traveled and she's always had a cause."

She stabilized her health, got her degree and a divorce and a teaching job and started spending her summers traveling, driving out west and visiting Europe. In 2001, she decided she needed a change of scenery.

"I had a good friend out in Colorado, and thought ‘Hey, wouldn't it be fun to go live out there?' I decided to give it a try, and it was paradise for teaching, quite frankly. They treated you as a professional and paid you well. Retirement was fabulous. The atmosphere was totally different."

***

In 2004, Johnson returned to Knoxville from Denver and moved into her little yellow house on Brice Street in North Knoxville. She wanted to be closer to her family, and her dad was in failing health. She missed her friends back home. She had a heart attack that April, but was soon back to her daily routine. Knox County Schools rehired her and assigned her to Central High School, where she enjoyed a close working relationship with then-principal Jon Miller, who she says "got" the needs of kids in special-education classes. (McIntyre demoted Miller to assistant principal and transferred him to another school the year before Johnson left.)

Johnson was first introduced to the political bug in Colorado and brought a yard sign back to Tennessee that says, "Regime change begins at home." The bug got hold of her for real in 2007, when she volunteered to spend spring break in South Carolina, campaigning for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.

She became party chair in 2009, winning over long-time party regulars who had supported Hillary Clinton the year before, like Sylvia Woods and Jim Jennings. They came to appreciate her enthusiasm, organizing skills, and willingness to lay aside differences of opinion. Woods, who was party chair in 2008, was struck by the contrast between the somnambulant county party headquarters in Fountain City and the lively Obama headquarters downtown.

"They were over there selling T-shirts and making money. We were barely covering expenses," Woods says. "But Gloria worked with me every way she could, and it got to where she turned the money over to the Democratic Party and we put it in the account. When we had our big election-night party, we split the cost. We stood together and we made it work. When she ran in April for chair, she was unopposed."

The 2011 Senate race against Becky Duncan Massey was a seat-of-the-pants campaign that Johnson waged because she couldn't find another candidate.

"It was weird how that happened," she says. "I had never in my life considered being a candidate until I was at the Expo Center and the candidates were speaking—three Republican women [Duncan, Marilyn Roddy, and Victoria DeFreese] trying to out-right wing each other. They weren't talking about any of our issues. I just wanted to go up there, pull up a chair, and change the conversation. A few days later, some friends asked me to run. By Truman Day, I said, ‘Oh, what the heck.' We didn't win, which was no surprise, but we did move the percentage about six points in our favor, which was very unusual in that district. And we were actually in that race for just about two and a half months.

"What it did was energize those Democrats who previously hadn't had somebody to vote for in that district for a long while. It got people excited."

Johnson says she likes Sen. Massey personally, and works well with her, particularly on issues concerning people with disabilities.

***

The controversial Stacey Campfield is the senator who represents Johnson's district, and she signed onto one of his bills last year.

"And it passed!" she says. "It was a cosmetology bill allowing cosmetologists and manicurists to expand their business. I think Joe Armstrong was the House sponsor. When I read it, I thought it would really help some of my past students, so I signed onto it."

Johnson hasn't heard who her opponent will be in this year's election, but she figures the Republicans will surely find one.

And whoever it is, Democrats say they'll be ready to fight him (no women have been mentioned) off.

Rep. Mike Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, is ready to go toe-to-toe with Leatherwood in defense of Gloria Johnson, whom he calls "a great woman, a breath of fresh air."

Turner says Johnson has been an "impact freshman" who has made friends all over the state.

"She was ready to hit the ground running and I wish I had 10 more just like her. She's courageous and doesn't back up from anything and she's got a following across party lines because people know she's honest. Her base is growing. There are a lot of people over here (in Nashville) who think the world of her, and I can tell you this—we're not going to sit back and let them load up on Gloria without giving two or three of them something to think about besides beating Gloria. We are talking to three very viable candidates in Knoxville and we plan on contesting two races over there.

"And here's what they know about Gloria, whether or not they'll admit it—the thing about Gloria is, you can't not like her."

Correction:

In a previous version of this story, a statement that Gov. Bill Haslam promised to "retool" and revisit his plan to tinker with classroom size during the 2014 session of the General Assembly was incorrect. The proposal failed in 2012, and he said he planned to bring it back in 2013, not this session.

Additionally, Haslam press secretary Dave Smith says the governor's intent was to give school districts the flexibility to pay teachers in hard-to-staff subjects more, not to lift the caps on class sizes.