No matter the outcome of the race for Senate District 20 this fall, Tennessee Republicans may well achieve the two-thirds majorities they’re seeking in both chambers of the state legislature.
But putting a Republican in the seat held by Democratic Sen. Joe Haynes for 28 years — in a traditionally Democratic district that now includes areas once represented by the Senate’s longest-serving member, Democratic Sen. Douglas Henry — would be a symbolic blow to the reeling state Democratic Party. Not surprisingly, both parties have identified the race as a critical target.
The state Democratic Party has expressed excitement about attorney Phillip North since he announced his candidacy, listing him among the new crop of candidates they believe will get the party back on the road to prominence. North told The City Paper he got in the race partly in an effort to keep the statehouse from tipping over completely on its right side.
“History has shown us that when that occurs, no matter which party it is, it gives the extremists in the party too loud of a voice,” he said during an interview at his downtown law office. “So I think the party that’s in charge now has gone too far and is leaning too far in an extreme direction. I feel like a Democrat needs to be added to the Senate, specifically, because I’m afraid a moderate Republican is either going to be shouted down — or have opposition in the primary — by the more extreme faction in the party.”
Republican Steve Dickerson, a physician, is an example of the Republican Party’s healthy bench, the kind that Democrats say they need to rebuild. Dickerson ran against Henry in 2010 and lost, but said he had planned to run more than once all along.
“When I ran against Douglas Henry I knew there was a very good chance I would lose,” Dickerson told The City Paper at his Berry Hill campaign headquarters. “He’s, at the time, a 40-year incumbent, maybe the most revered politician alive in Tennessee, well-loved by Democrats and Republicans alike. So I knew if he came up in the general election, there was a very good chance I would lose. I thought this was a two-step process. I sort of, psychologically, and my wife in agreement with me, committed to two runs.”
Both candidates list the economy, education and containing the size and reach of the government as among their priorities. Dickerson has pledged not to accept a per diem from the state to cover expenses for travel and hotel stays, pointing out that he lives in Nashville and doesn’t have to commute to the state capitol. He said he considers that a “down payment” on his commitment to cut government waste. North, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative, said he plans to donate the per diem and the Senate salary to one or more schools in the district that need assistance, adding that he would not give the money back to the state government.
When it comes to how to handle the state’s half-billion-dollar revenue surplus — around $331 million now, after Gov. Bill Haslam included around $210 million in his revised budget for the year — the two are essentially aligned.
Dickerson echoed previous statements from Republican leaders, who have emphasized the importance of a well-stocked rainy-day fund.
“I don’t think by virtue of the fact that we have a surplus we necessarily need to go on a spending spree,” he said. “So fundamentally, that’s not the direction I’d head.”
He did, however, express support for continuing to cut the sales tax on food. He said he believes it’s “a regressive tax.”
North is preaching caution as well. He said tuition increases at state universities are a hardship on students who have to borrow money and work to pay for the loans — he joked that he may have a conflict of interest on the subject, since he has two children attending the University of Tennessee but said he concurred with Haslam’s instinct to save the money, particularly due to uncertainty surrounding the new health care law.
North said he thinks it’s “a great and noble idea” for everyone to have health insurance, but wonders if the country, and individual states, can afford it.
“In general, I thought this health care plan was a significant power grab on the part of the federal government,” he said. “And the Supreme Court backed them up.”
If it stays in place, however, he said the state will have to “make sure it’s administered fairly” and “try to be financially responsible with it.”
Dickerson said he’s “pretty skeptical” of the expansion of Medicaid, saying he’s concerned about the financial burden it could put on the state down the road. When it comes to insurance exchanges, he said he can “hear both sides” on the issue. One part of the Affordable Care Act he favors, he said, is the move toward risk-pooling for those with pre-existing conditions.
On education, the two part ways with regards to charter schools and vouchers, two issues likely to come up in the next session. They mostly agree, however, on the autonomy of local school boards, an idea that was tested by the recent drama surrounding charter operator Great Hearts Academies and the Metro school board.
Dickerson said that while he doesn’t believe charter schools and vouchers are the sole answer, he thinks they’re part of the solution. He said a situation like the one in Nashville — in which he said he disagrees “wholeheartedly” with the school board — represents “a conflict between two strongly held beliefs.” But after calling it a “tough question” and a “controversial subject in the party” he said he would come down on the side of local autonomy.
“There has to be a pretty high threshold before a larger governing body, whether it’s the Congress in Washington, whether it’s the state Senate, whether it’s Metro, whether it’s your locally elected mayor in Berry Hill, steps in,” he said. “And there needs to be a good case made. And if I have to err, I’m going to err on the side of more autonomy rather than less.”
He said he agrees with Haslam’s recent statements that there’s not yet a need for a state-level charter authorizer.
North said he believes “the public education system is the backbone of this democracy” and that he’s “willing to look at any reasonable proposal that improves” it. But he expressed skepticism about charter schools and vouchers. He said he has an “open mind” about charter schools, but the state has to be careful not to let charter schools result in the return of “racial segregation in the schools system.” As for vouchers, he questioned the wisdom of “the idea of taking tax money and going and spending it somewhere else” and the effect that might have on the public school system.
When it comes to important decisions about local schools, he said he’d rather see them made by an elected body that is accountable to the people, than a board appointed by the governor.
“Some people in the state feel like that the city exists at the pleasure of the state authority, and without state authority, the city can be abolished,” he said. “I think that’s a little extreme. My political philosophy is that politics should be local. The more control you can give the person in his neighborhood, and the more his vote counts locally, the better our democracy works.”
The victorious candidate will undoubtedly be confronted with the continued debate over guns in employee parking lots, and the myriad social-issue bills that are bound to crop up in the legislature.
Both men said they believe a compromise can be worked out between the two factions, business interests and the gun rights lobby. North noted he currently allows his employees to store their firearms in their car, if they have a permit.
On social issues, Dickerson said that when he suggests, or advocates for, legislation, it will be aimed at jobs, education or reducing government waste, adding that anything else would be a distraction. North agreed, saying the legislature should put social issues “on the backburner” and “deal with the problems at hand that are more pervasive.”