Is Stacey Campfield Beatable?

In the sprawling 7th District, Democrat Randy Walker thinks so

This would not seem like a great year to be a novice politician running as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district in East Tennessee. But the 7th District state Senate race has some interesting wrinkles.

The first is that the Republican candidate is Stacey Campfield (for more on him, see the adjacent cover story). The second is that the Senate's 7th District is both much larger and more politically mixed than the 18th House District that Campfield has represented for the past six years. Campfield's base to date has been a swath of northwest Knoxville, from Pleasant Ridge through West Hills to Cedar Bluff. The Senate seat he's running for, which was until recently held by County Mayor Tim Burchett, takes in all of Farragut, most of West Knox County north of Kingston Pike (and some parts south of it), all of North Knoxville south of Fountain City, all of downtown, and most of East Knoxville. So it includes both some heavily Democratic city neighborhoods as well as a good many affluent, educated suburban areas.

And that's where the third wrinkle comes in: That novice Democratic candidate is Randy Walker, who is presenting himself as a moderate, technocratic problem-solver. Unlike Campfield, he is "from here"—he was born and raised in Oak Ridge, where he still works. He is a transportation and logistics guy both by education (he has a business degree from the University of Tennessee) and by profession, currently on behalf of the Oak Ridge National Lab. His work over the years has included negotiating the trans-state shipment of radioactive materials, and, after 9/11, supervising the installation of radiation-detection equipment at trucking weigh stations. His wife, Cindy, was active for years in the PTAs at the West Knox schools their two children attended, at one point serving on the state PTA board. And Walker, who is 51, describes himself as "pretty conservative" and "pretty bipartisan," adding, "My mother was a Republican."

Having observed and engaged with governments at local, state, and federal levels from his ORNL vantage point, Walker says he had thought about running for office before. And his displeasure with his own representation at one particular level helped nudge him into it.

"I'd watched Representative Campfield, he'd been my representative, and I was not pleased with my representation," Walker says. He sees his Republican opponent as a grandstander more interested in making symbolic statements and grabbing headlines than grappling with economic development, education, or any of the other serious issues facing the state.

In a way, that's how Campfield seems to see himself, as an ideological warrior trying to force the state as far to the right as he can push it. Talking about why so few of his proposed bills have been passed into law, he says, "I'll be the first to admit, a lot of my issues are sort of ‘edge' issues. Some could consider them partisan issues. When a committee is 3-to-3 or 6-to-6 [Democrats and Republicans], a lot of times it's difficult to get that seventh vote."

Campfield believes he would be more legislatively successful in the Senate, with what is expected to be its strong Republican majority. But Cindy Walker, who is working hard on her husband's behalf, says she doesn't think that kind of take-no-prisoners partisanship is what the 7th District wants. "Knoxville needs to be represented by someone who represents their values, their work ethic, their love of their community, someone who's going to reach out across" party lines, she says.

Although Campfield has never been chummy with the Republican leadership either locally or at the state level—"I've never been a courthouse-crowd kind of guy," he says with a shrug—the party has necessarily rallied to him as its designee in this race. He held a fund-raiser at Club LeConte on Sept. 21, with most of the big local GOP names listed on the host committee, including Mayor Bill Haslam. (Haslam did not attend the event, but Burchett was a featured speaker.)

Ray Jenkins, chairman of the Knox County Republican Party, thinks Campfield is in good shape for the election. While allowing that "Stacey is a unique individual" who had a fiercely contested primary, he says, "We unite behind the nominee, and as far as I'm concerned, the Republican Party's united behind Stacey."

As of Sept. 18, the 7th District had 107,180 registered voters. In 2006, running unopposed in the general election, Burchett picked up 36,588 votes. That suggests a favorable partisan field for Campfield, but how favorable is not clear. Just over 19,000 voted in the August Republican primary, and only 7,708 of those votes were for Campfield.

Gloria Johnson, Knox County Democratic Party chairwoman, thinks Campfield is uniquely vulnerable. "I don't think Stacey has done anything to represent the folks in Knoxville," she says. "He focuses on wedge issues, and he's not done anything to benefit working families in East Tennessee."

Walker, for his part, promises to make job recruitment his biggest objective. And he argues that his professional background would put him in a good position to coordinate efforts between UT, Oak Ridge, and local business and educational leaders. He says he has invited Campfield to debate him, but has yet to hear back.

But Jenkins notes that Campfield's hijinks and headlines have in the past not mattered when it came to Election Day. "He's a model for grassroots organizing," he says of Campfield. "You don't see a lot of fancy media buys or things like that out of a Stacey Campfield campaign. But what you do see is people who are motivated to get out and vote for him."

(Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the results of the 2006 7th District Senate election. Tim Burchett was unopposed in the general election.)