In electing their new state representative this summer, Republican voters in parts of Jefferson and Sevier counties will choose either an engineer, a lawyer or a retired businessman who wants to take tax money from the state and give it to city and county governments.
The three candidates are vying in the Aug. 2 Republican primary for the House 17th District, which was redesigned by the Legislature earlier this year.
The engineer candidate is Roger W. Griffith, 50, of Jefferson City, a married father of nine who worked 14 years for TVA, then set up his own firm, specializing in the design of mechanical systems for commercial buildings. He currently serves on the Jefferson County Commission.
The lawyer is Andrew E. Farmer, 32, who returned from a Florida honeymoon with his bride last week. He is the grandson of a former Sevier County road superintendent making his first run for public office.
The retired businessman is Larry Boggs, 71, of Dandridge, a married father of four and grandfather of seven who grew up in Mississippi and spent much of his professional career, he says, as a “rescuer of broken plants” in the apparel industry, both inside and outside the United States.
Before redistricting, the 17th District included a portion of Jefferson County and a slice of Knox County. Reapportionment removed the Knox portion and added a chunk of Sevier. The old 17th District was represented by Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, who this year is running for the state Senate. He has been neutral in the race to replace him.
In separate interviews, the three candidates all voiced belief in general conservative principles but had differing stances on some specific issues.
On school vouchers, for example, Boggs said he would support creation of a system for providing a state payment to children attending private or parochial schools. Griffith said he believes vouchers are “a good idea,” but wants to see specifics of the legislation when introduced next year. Farmer said he generally opposes the idea, fearing that diversion of taxpayer money to private schools could “destroy public education.”
A voucher bill passed the Senate in the last legislative session, but did not win approval in the House after Gov. Bill Haslam called on lawmakers to wait until 2013 for more study of the issue. He has promised to back some form of voucher legislation then, but has given no specifics.
On the education front, Boggs and Griffith both pointed to Farmer declaring, during a forum before the Sevier County Tea Party, that he supports the National Education Association, regarded by many conservatives as a liberal teachers union.
Griffith said the “astonishing” remark “kind of left everyone in the room with mouth hanging open.” Boggs said it was an example of Farmer “sticking his foot in his mouth.”
Farmer said he “misspoke” in referring to the NEA, which he says has “marched to the left, left, left” in recent years, and had meant to voice only a belief that the association’s state affiliate, the Tennessee Education Association, and local TEA affiliates have done “some good things” for education within the state.
Boggs, meanwhile, is promoting a somewhat new idea in Tennessee politics and declares it a central point of his campaign. There is now a 7 percent general state sales tax, with local governments allowed to add up to 2.75 percent local sales tax on top of that. Boggs proposes that the state divert a penny per dollar of its sales tax to distribute it to local governments, many of them in financial straits this year while the state has built up a revenue surplus.
“It may be radical, but it’s very practical,” said Boggs, contending that there would be a “groundswell of support” for the idea among city and county government officials.
His opponents are skeptical.
“It’s easy to dream up these ideas, but on a state level you’ve got to think of the effect in all areas, not just one rural county,” said Griffith.
Farmer said that the idea “sounds good in theory, as long as it didn’t put our state government in a bad situation.” But he added, “theory and practicality are two different things.”
Farmer said that being a lawyer, with a background in jobs involving physical labor, will make him a better legislator.
“That gives me an automatic leg up in Nashville, just in interpretation and understanding of the law,” he said.
Boggs and Griffith, on the other hand, say a background in business is more important.
“I don’t think the state needs another attorney over there,” said Boggs, adding that Griffith “hasn’t indicated to me that he can do a county commissioner’s job, much less a state representative’s job.”
Boggs says the Jefferson County Commission has been “embroiled in controversy” with few accomplishments and several tax increases in past years. Giffith said he has been on the commission just two years and “significant progress” has been made toward resolving problems.
Three are 22 commissioners, he said, and “I don’t think any one commissioner is going to change the county.”
Roughly 55 percent of the new district is in Jefferson County. But Farmer said that a review of past voting data shows that voters in the Sevier County portion of the district have a tendency to turn out in greater numbers than those in the Jefferson County portion. That and the fact that two candidates are from Jefferson County and one — himself — is from Sevier could give him some advantage, Farmer said.
Note: This story also appears in the News Sentinel with candidate photos.