On Smith vs. Johnson in House District 13, a rare TN place of partisan competition

An enclave legislatively designated as House District 13, one of the last places where genuine partisan competition continues in Tennessee’s political landscape, this year has given birth to combatants with sharp issue differences who are nonetheless polite in talking about one another.

“He seems like a nice man,” said state Rep. Gloria Johnson, one of 27 remnant Democrats in the 99-member state House, referring to the Republican who wants to make her first term her last in representing the 62,000 or so Knoxvillians who live within the district boundaries.

“She is a nice lady,” said Eddie Smith, the Republican who won the right to carry his party’s banner against Johnson by just 28 votes in a primary wherein his GOP opponent, Jason Emert, was remarkably more shrill in denouncing the Democratic incumbent while outspending Smith by more than $5 to $1.

At the statewide level, operatives of both parties see House District 13 as one of about half-dozen House seats where the general election for seats in the 109th General Assembly is not already a foregone conclusion, though Republicans and Democrats alike contend there might be a surprise or two out there

In the 33-member Senate, Republicans are confident Democratic numbers will be reduced from seven to five thanks to retirement of two popular Democratic senators in districts that lean Republican. Democrats, meanwhile, pretty much concede their best-case scenario is to maintain the status quo on the Senate side of the current Republican Supermajority.

In the House, though, there is more debate about the overview outcome on Nov. 4. After listening to opposing partisan operatives review things seat-by-seat, generally commenting on an off-the-record basis, Democrats reasonably believe they could shrink the present GOP Supermajority by a seat or two. Republicans reasonably believe they could gain a seat or two — maybe even three.

House District 13 is a pivot point in all discussions. Back in 2002, when Democrats last controlled the Legislature for drawing district line, they made sure former Rep. Harry Tindell had a safe Democratic seat, along with fellow Democratic Rep. Joe Armstrong in an adjoining district.

In redistricting by a Republican-controlled Legislature in early 2012, Knox County’s Democratically-inclined voters were mostly packed into Armstrong’s adjoining district, but enough remain to make the district competitive. It is generally regarded as tilting Republican, but only slightly. In 2012, Johnson edged Republican Gary Loe by 288 votes in a newly-realigned district — 10,118 to 9,730, with independent candidate Nick H. Cazana getting just over 1,000 votes.

There is no independent candidate this year, leaving Johnson, 52, a special education teacher by profession, and Smith, 35, a staff member at the largest Baptist church in the district, in a head-to-head partisan contest.

That is reflected in their campaign financing as well as on several issues where Republican-Democrat lines are often drawn.

The financials

On the financial front, Smith has reported spending about $28,000 as of Sept. 30, most of that in his primary with Emert, who spent $128,680, including $74,100 that Emert loaned his campaign, according to disclosures filed Friday. Smith’s campaign was virtually empty after the primary; he made $3,000 in personal loans cover expenses.

But since the Aug. 7 primary, Smith reports collecting about $30,000 — much of it from Republican political figures including Gov. Bill Haslam’s political action committee and 20 Republican state legislators. He had a balance of $23,479 cash on hand as October began.

Johnson, who had no primary opponent and two years in office, had a cash-on-hand balance of $121,012 at the same time. She has spent about $49,000 on political activities this year, her disclosure shows. Most of her receipts have come in modest amounts from multiple individual donors, though several unions and PACs associated with Democratic causes have contributed.

Though with less money of his own than Johnson, Smith can expect to benefit from spending on his behalf by the Tennessee Republican Party and other Republican groups, including PACs operated by legislators. Statewide, the GOP side is far better funded than Democrats. In 2012, the state Republican spent about $25,000 just on direct-mail attacks targeting Johnson, mostly likening her to President Obama and all in the last weeks before the election, and spent more than $20,000 helping Loe.

The state GOP’s main campaign fund used to help legislative candidates reported a cash-on-hand balance of $412,471 on Oct. 1; the comparable Tennessee Democratic Party account had $209,128. The difference is even more dramatic on PACs and other political funding controlled by Republicans.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, for example, reported a $578,914 balance in her personal PAC and had $533,128 in her own campaign account, which she often uses to make donations to Republican candidates. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, on the other hand, reported just $10,106 in his PAC and $53,919 in his campaign account.

Top Target

Brent Leatherwood, executive director of the state GOP, says Johnson is a top target this fall and suggests attack ads will follow up on the party’s assertion she plagiarized comments of Democratic candidates in other states on her campaign website.

“I think it cuts to the question of integrity,” said Leatherwood.

The party is making a similar attack on Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Gordon Ball, including a recent letter sent by Tennessee Republican Chairman Chris Devaney to Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren declaring both Ball and Johnson are copying her “liberal policy positions.”

Johnson says she was “amused” by the letter and believes the attack is unfounded and ineffective. Smith says he doesn’t disagree with the party’s focus, though it is not his own.

State Democratic Chairman Roy Herron says the plagiarism accusations against Johnson are foolish and an attempt to divert attention from her opponent’s status as “another tea party Republican trying to pull Tennessee back into the 19th Century.” Johnson, he said, is a centrist who can appeal to “reasonable Republicans” and independents as well as Democrats.

On some issues

Johnson favors a state minimum wage at a level higher than the current federal minimum wage, as proposed in a Democrat-sponsored bill last year that was killed by Republicans in committee. Smith is opposed.

The governor says he will “probably” present a Medicaid expansion plan to the Legislature next year. Johnson favors expansion of the state’s Medicaid program as currently authorized under federal law and says she would almost certainly go along with any modified proposal that Haslam comes up with, believing “anything is better than nothing.” Smith says he opposes Medicaid expansion now, though willing to consider a Haslam proposal, if there is one.

Johnson opposes any school voucher system for Tennessee. Smith supports the idea, which has failed to pass for the past two legislative sessions as Republicans argued among themselves over how broad the program should be.

Johnson says, if re-elected, she will resume her sponsorship of legislation to prohibit so-called “mountaintop removal” coal mining in Tennessee, which has been repeatedly defeated in the Legislature. Smith says “there’s no coal mining in the 13th House district” and he has no position on the issue.

Smith supports approval of Amendment 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot to give the Legislature authority to enact more stringent restrictions on abortion, which he says are needed. Johnson opposes the amendment and says no further restrictions are warranted.

On the other hand, the two came across in separate interviews as having somewhat similar views on Common Core standards, which are expected to be a hot topic in the next legislative session as Haslam attempts to fend off efforts to completely repeal them. Both Johnson and Smith say they do not like the standards as they now stand, but could accept them with some changes. Smith said he looks forward to “working with the governor” on the issue.

Indeed, Smith links himself with the governor generally. Besides contributing money, Haslam has attended at least one event with Smith.

Leatherwood also promotes the notion of a Haslam-Smith alliance, saying he will “partner with Gov. Haslam to keep the state moving.”

Johnson, the GOP leader said, “is a liberal activist in Nashville who has provided the most vocal opposition to the governor — and that’s not what Knoxvillians want.”

Herron, on the other hand, notes that Republicans are feuding with one another frequently and Haslam’s problems in the GOP Supermajority are with archconservatives, adding “the last thing Gov. Haslam needs right now is another tea party extremist.”

Most Tennesseans, he said, are bipartisan and “want common sense representation” that Johnson will provide.

Johnson said she is happy to work with the governor on many issues, but willing to oppose him when he is wrong.