The area designated by state law as House District 89, today geographically covering a part of urban Memphis and represented by one of the few acknowledged liberal Democrats remaining in Tennessee, will be transformed on Nov. 6.
On that date, House District 89 will certainly become, geographically, a rural-suburban enclave within Knox County 300 miles away, thanks to the new state legislative redistricting plan enacted to change state law earlier this year by the General Assembly.
And, almost certainly, House District 89 will be politically represented by one of four Republican men who — based on recent interviews — have few philosophical differences in adhering to basic conservative Republican principles and equal ambivalence on issues that have split sitting Republican legislators. The race to represent the relocated District 89, then, would seem to be largely a personality contest.
The district was designed by the Legislature’s Republican majority to have no incumbent and to favor the Republican candidate. Democrat Shelly Breeding filed to run as a Democrat in the new district, but her candidacy has been voided by a court decision finding that she is legally a resident of Anderson County and cannot run. That decision is on appeal. If it goes against Breeding, the seat will certainly go to the GOP nominee. If she wins on appeal, conventional political wisdom holds that it would still probably go to the Republican nominee.
The personalities competing for the Republican nomination:
n Tim Hutchison, 59, who served four terms as Knox County sheriff before being forced to abort a fifth term by a 2007 state Supreme Court decision, Undoubtedly the best known of the candidates, Hutchison lost a 2010 race for county mayor to a former legislator, Tim Burchett.
Asked what one bill he would have enacted by the Legislature if granted a wish, Hutchison declined to single out a single proposal, but said a top priority would be opposing any “unfunded mandates” on local governments by state government.
n Roger Kane, 48, an insurance agent who ran unsuccessfully for Knox County trustee in 2008. A Texas native, he relocated to Knoxville in 1996 and has since been active in some business and community “beautification” organizations.
As for a top ideal legislation priority, Kane said he wanted to seek continued cuts in the “very regressive” sales tax on grocery food. Otherwise, he said, “Everything I look at, I’ll look at through the filter of, ‘Is this good for small business’?”
n William G. “Bo” Pierce, 62, who retired March 31 as vice president of the Knoxville Community Development Corp. after a 35-year stint with governmental agencies in the public housing arena. Active in various community groups, he ties some of them into involvement in the Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers Club and imitation of that show’s character Briscoe Darling, overall-clad patriarch of a rustic mountain family.
Granted one wish as a legislator, Pierce said his would go to passage of a bill requiring elementary school children have a class in “character education” based on principles promoted by the Character Counts organization.
n Joey McCulley, a financial analyst with Marriott International who will turn 28 next week and says he will bring “a new outlook” and not be “part of the old traditional politics like some of my opponents are.”
He declined to single out a specific piece of legislation he would like to see enacted, but said a period of “two or three months” seeking unemployment benefits left him impressed with the need for changes in that area and, in general, gives priority to “job creation” and education improvement — areas also espoused by his opponents.
When asked why he would be a better legislator than his opponents, all four of the candidates spoke of their own background and life experiences,
Two of the candidates, Hutchison and Pierce, have experience trying to influence legislators in their past professions.
As sheriff, Hutchison joined the Tennessee Sheriffs Association and other law enforcement groups in lobbying, he says, “mostly trying to secure heavier sentences for criminal acts.” Pierce lobbied lawmakers as a member of the Tennessee Association of Housing and Redevelopment Authorities, including a stint as legislative chairman of an organization that, according to its website, “advocates for additional housing resources, public support for affordable housing.”
But Kane and Pierce said they do not see some parts of their opponents’ professional background as positive experiences.
“I don’t have any baggage like some of my opponents,” said Kane, explaining he referred Hutchison and Pierce.
In Hutchison’s case, Kane said, “We all remember Black Wednesday in East Tennessee.” The reference was to a Knox County Commission meeting wherein successors were appointed to replace Hutchison as sheriff and various other officeholders losing their position because of a Supreme Court ruling. The appointments came after secret meetings that courts later invalidated as violating the state’s open meetings law.
Though Hutchison has been accused of orchestrating events at the session by a former commissioner, he insists he had no involvement in the process.
“Roger is just confused,” Hutchison said when told of Kane’s remark. “He doesn’t understand the law. The only people who can violate the open meetings act are the county commissioners.”
In Pierce’s case, Kane said he referred to newspaper reports on the conviction of former Knox County Housing Authority Assistant Executive Director William John Pollock on charges of stealing at least $37,000 in government funds at a time when Pierce was his boss. Pierce said he had been stunned by the theft, uncovered in a 2006 audit, and dutifully reported it to state, federal and local officials as soon as he learned about it, subsequently dismissing Pollock and otherwise acting appropriately through the episode — albeit not talking publicly about the matter at the request of prosecuting officials.
Asked about various issues that will be pending before the General Assembly next year, the four expressed similar sentiments on most.
They agreed, for example, that they would not favor a law granting blanket authority to allow all employees to keep their guns in locked cars of a company parking lot even if the company prohibits guns on its property. But they all said they would favor such a “guns in parking lots” law if limited to holders of handgun carry permits.
Perhaps the biggest difference on matters mentioned in the interviews was on legislation calling for school vouchers in Tennessee, which would allow private and church schools to receive state education funding. All four candidates said they want to see specifics of the legislation, which is currently the subject of a “task force” study, before committing.
But Kane was the most enthusiastic in expressing general support for the concept, saying he though vouchers amounted to “striving for excellence” and warranted consideration in an education system that is failing in many respects. Pierce voiced the most misgivings, saying he did not understand how a voucher system could be implemented without taking needed funding away from public schools that are already short of money.
The legislator representing the old House District 89, Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, is an ardent opponent of vouchers. The redistricting law now has her running for re-election in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary against fellow Democratic Rep. John DeBerry in District 90.