published Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Political insiders eye ways to entice 3rd District voters


by Chris Carroll

THIRD DISTRICT

Federal law requires the Tennessee General Assembly to redraw congressional districts every 10 years to adjust for population shifts documented by U.S. census data.

Anderson, Hamilton, Polk and Union counties and southern Bradley County survived this year's 3rd Congressional District surgery, but legislators added McMinn, Monroe, Morgan, Roane and Scott counties and part of Campbell County to the mix.

Portions of Bradley and Jefferson counties and all of four others -- Claiborne, Grainger, Meigs and Rhea -- were drawn into other districts.

Visiting the district's new hinterlands could be considered a waste of time for some candidates. All 11 3rd District counties are reliably Republican, according to experts and recent election data, and nearly two-thirds of the congressional district's 2010 vote came from just two metropolitan areas -- Chattanooga and Oak Ridge.

But with three big-money campaigns, the Aug. 2 Republican primary is likely to be close, and the new rural voters could make a difference in choosing the area's representative in Washington.

Times Free Press reporter Chris Carroll traveled the new 3rd District over three days, interviewed about 40 residents and filed this report.

There are two worlds in Tennessee's newly reconfigured 3rd Congressional District.

Consultants, strategists and aides inhabit the first world -- the one where the political animals play. Creating color schemes, adjusting the podium and making sure the candidate's hair is combed are all part of the day-to-day operations.

The sharper tools emerge behind the scenes. There, aides use polling, focus groups and, in at least one local case, "targeted database marketing" to study where we live, what we buy and what we care about. They reach us with yard signs, television ads and promises of a new tomorrow. Money gets their message out.

But the message doesn't seem to be reaching the deepest parts of the 3rd District, the rural areas far from the cities, where the majority of people work with their hands, not their calculators and spreadsheets.

In this 3rd District world -- the real one -- the $2,500 entry fee at some fundraising dinners for the major candidates covers many months of rent.

"I figure what's gonna be is gonna be," said Dawn Sharp, a 37-year-old barbecue waitress in Campbell County. "Once they get in, they say they're going to do these major things they never do."

If you hop in the car and meet the people of the district, where seven of 11 counties have higher unemployment rates than the national average, one thing quickly becomes clear: Getting or keeping a job means a whole lot more than who's in Congress or who wants to be in Congress.

On a hazy spring afternoon in Rockwood, Tenn., 56-year-old Wayne Dill, with his tired eyes and scraggly beard, stood outside the Roane County Career Center, where the only job posting in the window involved the armed forces.

"Somebody's got to come here and help," said Dill, a dishwasher at a state park. "Somebody's got to look out for us. If it's our congressman, great. We need jobs here."

Sprawling district

Including Chattanooga, its one big-ish city, Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District sprawls across a mystifyingly diverse physical and economic terrain, with state highways leading into hills, twists, turns, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

People who patronize the rickety bars of Huntsville, the video stores of Wartburg, the bait shops of Benton, the pizza parlors of Oak Ridge, the junkyards of Rockwood and the burger joints of Sweetwater are as diverse as the landscape.

Some read their Bibles at work, others still use the N-word and a few do both. Some are "tree cutters," others are teachers, and a few collect scrap metal, trading their haul in for $98 a day if they're lucky.

Diehard Democrat, rabid Republican or stubbornly independent, they all want something different from their congressman. Still, many are undecided about the candidates, mostly because they haven't heard of the incumbent or his challengers.

The Republican nominee has won Tennessee's 3rd District since 1994, and experts don't see that changing anytime soon, even after the state Legislature scrapped six counties and added six new ones as part of redistricting this year.

The GOP carried the new district's 11 counties in 2010's general elections for governor and Congress. Records show three times as many Republicans voted as Democrats in that year's congressional primaries in the 3rd District's six new counties of Campbell, McMinn, Monroe, Morgan, Roane and Scott when they were parts of other districts.

"The general election's not where the action is," Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer once said. "It's the Republican primary."

Aides for the primary's three likeliest winners -- incumbent U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and challengers Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp -- are likely to treat the four months before the election like a high-stakes, public-policy marketing competition.

But they may be working a blank slate.

The incumbent

After former 3rd District Rep. Zach Wamp decided his eighth term would be his last, Fleischmann beat 10 other Republican candidates to win 2010's primary.

It was a squeaker. Fleischmann lost the district's largest county -- Hamilton -- and ended up winning the overall district by 2 percentage points.

In the five 2010 counties retained within the newly redrawn 3rd District, Fleischmann won 32 percent of the votes, but aides agree that residents in the 3rd District's six new counties make up about 30 percent of the 2012 GOP primary vote.

About 30,000 people in the six new counties voted in the 2010 Republican primary. Fleischmann won his primary by 1,415 votes.

Morgan County illustrates a potential problem ahead. No one at the beloved Chuck's Deli -- not the waitress, not an old man, not a young man -- knows Chuck the congressman.

"I don't know him," said Will Crawford, a 34-year-old dog breeder with two young daughters. "I guess I should."

At the next table, Willard Scarbrough, 73, knew "that doctor" -- Scott DesJarlais, the Republican Morgan County helped elect in 2010 when it was part of the 4th Congressional District.

But Fleischmann?

"Never heard of him," he said.

A few hours east, just outside of Oak Ridge, John Jordan, a Fleischmann donor and the president of Community Bank, said the congressman's popularity gap doesn't surprise him.

"There's not much that has happened in Congress since he's been there so there hasn't been a real chance to shine," he said.

Jordan said Fleischmann's work ethic eventually will garner widespread 3rd District support.

"You know, he's a freshman congressman. You're a backbencher when you're a freshman congressman."

Fleischmann has attempted to combat the name recognition problem with bigger names than his own.

In late March, his campaign sent 7,000 3rd District households an endorsement letter from former Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose 2008 presidential campaign was managed by Fleischmann's onetime campaign consultant and current chief of staff, Chip Saltsman.

The challengers

  • photo
    Orlando Upton, 54, ponders politics at a bar in Sweetwater, Tenn. Staff photo by Chris Carroll
    enlarge photo

Meanwhile, Fleischmann's challengers had solid name recognition before they spent a dime on advertising.

Mayfield, in most cases by virtue of being "the ice cream man," made people light up and smile a few weeks after he got in the race on Feb. 3.

The 3rd District knew his name. They knew his bowtie.

"He's got Mayfield Dairy," Anderson County resident Laurie Goab. "He'll be fine."

They knew him from their gas stations, their work cafeterias, their refrigerators.

"There are dairy products in supermarkets all over the district with his name on it," said Kyle Kondick, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "But it's hard to know if that will translate to the ballot."

Thus far, Mayfield hasn't said much about why he wants to be in Congress. What he has said is that nothing about Fleischmann's voting record bothers him.

For some, it doesn't seem to matter. Linda Condo, a 67-year-old kindergarten teacher for Cleveland City Schools, stood outside the Belk department store in Athens one Saturday afternoon, contemplating politics.

"I don't have faith in anybody anymore, like everybody else," she said. "It's hard to even think about voting."

But she changed her mind seconds later when asked if she'd heard about Mayfield's first run for office.

"Oh yeah," she said. "He'd probably be somebody I'd be for. Because I grew up in Athens and he's run an honest business."

Others hope for some political positions from Mayfield -- and soon.

"What are the issues [you] are running on?" Chattanooga resident Rick Tucker posted on Mayfield's campaign Facebook page. "What is your stance on the Chickamauga Lock? How would [you] continue to help the Oak Ridge area?"

The questions remain unanswered online.

When you mention Weston Wamp without explanation, people go blank. When you say, "Weston Wamp, the 25-year-old son of former Congressman Zach Wamp," their eyes light up and the youngest candidate's campaign makes a little more sense.

"I love Zach Wamp. He was like a neighbor," said Janice Schabot, a federal government worker in Oak Ridge. "Whatever he ushers in will be great for me."

Poll
Which candidate do you support for the 3rd Congressional District?

"Sometimes young people have great ideas," added Betty Hayes, a school secretary from Englewood, Tenn., in McMinn County.

Others aren't so sure.

"My kids are between the ages of 23 and 28," said Robin Melton, a 49-year-old craft store owner in Union County. "I wouldn't put them in that position."

"I don't even think cops should be cops until they're 26," said Joe Sexton, a 48-year-old Scott County resident. "They need to live a little bit."

Some said they would not dismiss the notion of another Wamp in Congress based purely on age.

"I guess he grew up around it," said Johnny Bates, 65, of Benton.

Very few people in the 3rd District know the other names on the ballot -- Democrats Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor, Republican Ron Bhalla and Independent Matthew Deniston -- and experts don't give them much of a chance against the big money.

But they have some votes.

"I'd think they're for the poor and middle-class people," said Orlando Upton, a 54-year-old Democrat from Sweetwater. "I don't know if we're getting that right now."

Lisa Bowman said she would research Fleischmann's work for the middle class. A 45-year-old health consultant from Athens who's been laid off three times in five years, Bowman said she'd like to see more "fresh faces and women in Congress."

"I'd like a new perspective," she said.

She said Democrats still stand a chance in the 3rd District, where "a lot of people couldn't exist" without Medicaid and other social services. But she admitted that sometimes she's unable to research candidates, much like other people with busy professional and family lives.

"That's why candidates spend $300,000 or whatever on advertising," she said. "Sometimes when I've gone in to vote, it's just whose name I've heard."

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