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State House District 13: Always a Showdown

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Metropolitan Planning Commission
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While electoral districts are often shaped to produce easy one-party victories, Tennessee House District 13 is an oddball: Every two years, it’s up for grabs.

It wasn’t always this way. So what makes District 13 so competitive?

 

Residents and political observers say the answer is twofold: Demographic changes, and political angling.  

 

This fall, the same two candidates are facing off for the third time to represent state House District 13. During the last two races, Republican Eddie Smith beat Democrat Gloria Johnson -- each time, by less than 200 votes. Back in 2012, Johnson triumphed over Republican Gary Loeby a 1.4 percent margin.

 

But those races were since 2012. Before that, the district was a uniform chunk of North Knoxville. It was known for a mostly working-class, white, pro-union population, said Betty Bean, a politics reporter who has lived in the district more than three decades.

 

“This is the only white district where Democrats are deemed to have a fighting chance,” Bean said, adding, “It was probably no accident that there were so many labor union offices in North Knoxville along Broadway.”

 

In fact, Democrats held the seat for about 40 years. The exception was a brief interval after nine-term representative Ted Ray Miller committed suicide while under investigation for taking bribes.

But Republicans won control of the state legislature just in time for the 2010 Census. They reshaped District 13 to gain a nine-percent Republican advantage, Bean said.

 

The district now consists of three large chunks connected by narrow bottlenecks. One third of it is south of the Tennessee River along Alcoa Highway.

 

The resulting blobby “L” shape might not make much sense in terms of grouping neighborhoods, but it makes “all the sense in the world” when it comes to politics, Bean said.

 

“When I first started covering the state legislature back in the 80s, I remember an old legislator told me to just remember the golden rule, and I said, ‘Huh?’ It didn’t sound like a legislator to me,” Bean recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, them that’s got the gold makes the rules.’ So following the golden rule, when they redistricted, they shifted it.”

 

Demographics are shifting, too, even in the older parts of the district, noted Mark O’Gorman, professor of politics at Maryville College. As North Knoxville revitalization makes neighborhoods like Park Ridge trendy, gentrification could lead to more conservative voting patterns.

 

Nevertheless, redistricting didn’t create a reliable red stronghold.

 

Cliff Rodgers, administrator of elections for Knox County and a resident of District 13, says its votes remained divided even after redistricting. As an example, he points to the precinct that voted at Belle Morris Elementary School during the 2012 presidential election.

 

“There was exactly the same number of people that voted for McCain and voted for Obama,” he said. “That kind of captures the flavor over there.”

 

So if the district was redesigned to tilt Republican, why doesn’t it?

 

“I can’t really tell you why the Democrats are doing such a good job of hanging in, but they are, when you look at the numbers,” Bean said.

 

Rodgers notes that some formerly-reliable Republican precincts are becoming more politically diverse.

“When I drive my neighborhood -- I live over in Sequoyah Hills -- there’s a lot of Gloria Johnson signs out there,” he said. “That neighborhood over the years has gone from one that was probably more a Republican neighborhood to one that is, again, a very even split.”

 

Money has become a wedge in that narrow political gap. In 2012, donors gave $166,000 to candidates in the District 13 race. The National Institute on Money in Politics reports that four years later, contributions had more than doubled to $488,000 dollars.

 

There’s a widely-held belief that Smith rakes in the biggest bucks in matchups with Johnson. But

in the third quarter, which lasted from the primary to the beginning of October, Johnson raised about $70,000 to Smith’s $47,000, according to their campaign filings with the Secretary of State. (They both started with a balance of around $50,000 before the primary.)

 

“You clearly see both sides are pouring money in, and usually money follows competition,” O’Gorman said.

 

Bean said the race is rumored to be closer than ever this year, with education being a driving issue. Johnson is a retired special education teacher. Smith, an event and volunteer management consultant, first won District 13 partly by reaping those new South Knox votes when he was working at Sevier Heights Baptist Church.

 

Rodgers says he expects turnout in November to be unusually high for a midterm election -- perhaps as many as 115,000 voters. It will be the first election in his lifetime when “the trifecta” of Tennessee’s power seats are up for grabs: governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

 

Yet in the long run, state legislative races could be just as important.

 

“These are the elections that are going to start guiding who’s going to be in power in Nashville, or in any state capitol, to begin to draw the lines for the 2020 Census,” O’Gorman said. And today’s GPS technology allows maps to be drawn to capture individual homes to tilt the balance in a precise way that wasn’t possible a few decades ago.

 

That could eliminate the balance in districts like House District 13.

 

However, judges are telling state legislatures in North Carolina and Pennsylvania that they’ve gone too far in creating districts to favor the ruling party. They are being required to revert to old maps or face the court redrawing the districts.

 

This has started a conversation about whether the U.S. needs to create independent redistricting commissions to draw the lines, instead of essentially leaving those decisions to political parties, O’Gorman said.

 

“What you’re seeing now is that court cases are saying, ‘Be careful. Don’t take that to extremes,’” he said. “If you suddenly are finding yourself being so excited about trying to capture a majority with a changing of the lines, you might shoot yourself in the foot.”