State Rep. Harry Tindell says state House District 13, which he has represented for 22 years, may be seen as a microcosm of the national presidential race when it comes to voters choosing his successor on Nov. 6.
Voters’ partisan options in the district are Democrat Gloria Johnson, a politically active school teacher, and Republican Gary Loe, a former television reporter who now runs a video production operation. Nick Cazana, a retired businessman, is on the ballot as an independent candidate.
“I don’t think anybody can tell you who is going to win,” said Tindell, a Democrat who has met with all three candidates while not declaring his support for any of them.
He basically agrees with The Tennessee Journal, a statewide political news publication, which rates the contest as a tossup between Loe and Johnson. The difficulty in political prophesy, Tindell said, rests in the fairly even balance between Republicans, Democrats and independent-minded voters — rather like the national presidential election picture and a striking contrast to most districts statewide.
While the nation has red states, blue states and swing states, Tindell said, District 13 has red precincts and blue precincts and swing precincts. The red precincts are in the south of the oddly shaped district designed by Republican-drafted redistricting earlier this year.
There, in places like Sequoyah Hills, the retiring legislator sees voters giving any generic Republican 60 percent or so of their votes. The blue precincts are in the middle, as a general proposition, and a Democrat can expect 55 percent or more of the vote there, he said. The swing precincts are in the north with many voters willing to vote for who they think is the best candidate, regardless of party, and “that’s where the election is decided, in my opinion,” he said.
If Johnson can attract some Republican voters — and she contends she can because of her education orientation and emphasis on jobs — that tilts things toward her. Conversely, if Loe can attract some Democrats — and he contends he can because of his emphasis on the economy and jobs — that tilts things toward him.
Cazana has run a low-budget campaign, spending about $350 out of his own pocket to buy yard signs, and he has no money in his account, according to reports filed last week.
Loe has spent about $29,000, some of it in his primary win over fellow Republican Vanderbilt Brabson, and had $22,330 cash on hand. He has loaned his campaign $6,000. Johnson, who had no primary opponent, has spent $14,595 and had $45,261 cash on hand.
At the statewide level, both parties are targeting the race.
The Tennessee Republican Party last week reported already spending almost $14,000 in “independent expenditure” direct mail pieces to help Loe. One mailer last week attacks Johnson for taking money from “left-wing special interest groups,” a reference — according to a state GOP official — to funds from unions. Johnson said the mailer is “silly” and she is proud to accept donations from those representing “working people.”
Tennessee Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester, meanwhile, charges in a news release distributed by the party: “It’s apparent that voters can’t trust Gary Loe to stand up to his party bosses or the special interests to fix this wasteful blunder.” The referenced “blunder” is a law enacted under Republican sponsorship that authorizes the operation of for-profit “virtual schools” in Tennessee, including a Union County-based operation that has been criticized for poor student performance.
Loe called the news release “a cookie-cutter” Democratic attack. He said virtual schools are “just another avenue for boys and girls to get an education” that he generally supports and “my only concern is that, years from now, we don’t want to replace our traditional model of education and have kids just sitting in front of a computer screen.”
Johnson said she is adamantly opposed to the virtual schools operations of K12 Inc., which has about 2,000 students statewide and gives Union County’s school system 4 percent of the state funds it receives, about $5,000 per student.
The two also differ on another education issue assured of coming before the Legislature next year — whether to implement a voucher system, wherein the state would pay for children enrolled in private or parochial schools. A task force appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam is working on draft legislation. A bill that passed the Senate — but not the House — in the last session would have authorized vouchers worth about $4,000 each in Knox and three other large counties as a “pilot project.”
Johnson opposes the idea as a drain on funds needed for public education. Loe was ambivalent on the idea in an interview, saying he supports the concept of “giving more choice” but wants to see the governor’s final proposal.
He also said some constituents who already have children in private schools are concerned that if they begin receiving state support, they will be subject to too much state control. And he said the state should pay all the tuition at a private school, otherwise students from low-income families would not have equal opportunity.
Johnson said she has heard Loe discuss vouchers and thinks he is “confused” on the issue with no clear views.
Loe, in turn, said he thinks Johnson “hasn’t thought through” a call for passage of legislation that would give Tennessee-based businesses a preference in winning state government contracts. If such a law were enacted, he said, other states likely would retaliate and put Tennessee contractors at a disadvantage in getting business outside the state’s borders.
Johnson said Loe’s objection is an attempt to “argue process” and legislators “should be trying to find a way to make this work” to benefit Tennessee businesses and create jobs.
Loe said he considers Johnson “too partisan” to attract independent voters, noting she serves as Knox County Democratic chairman and served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. In contrast, Loe said he can “work with everybody” — including Haslam, whom he admires. The governor said last week he plans to attend an event soon to show support for Loe.
Johnson said Loe was chairman of the West Knoxville Republican Club, which she sees as little different from her party chair role, and assumes he would have liked to be a delegate to his party’s convention. As for herself, Johnson said she is “a consensus builder because that’s what I’ve done every day for 25 years.”
Cazana said he would like to focus as a legislator on stopping “bullying” in schools and on legislation that creates jobs, a subject he said he understands because of a background running small businesses. As for vouchers and virtual schools, Cazana said he wants to learn more about the issues before taking a position.
Cazana said he knows both Democrats and Republicans who have said they will vote for him, though perhaps more Democrats because he was formerly a Democrat. As an independent, Cazana said he will be in a position to work with both parties with the goal of common good and less “bickering.”
Tindell said that Cazana, who has the same name as a cousin who is a prominent Knoxville developer, will likely get some votes, but not enough to play a major role in the outcome. He noted that Johnson and Cazana live in the same neighborhood, a Democratic-leaning area, and said that the independent may pull more votes from Johnson than from Loe.