published Saturday, July 21st, 2012

District 30 Democrats wary of state's direction

DEMOCRATS

Name: Brock Bennington

Age: 42

Education: Graduate of Central High; attended Cleveland State Community College and UTC.

Occupation: Private investigator for a local law firm.

Issues: Supporting public education, promoting District 30 economic development, reining in payday-loan companies.

Name: Sandy Smith

Age: 65

Education: University of Chattanooga and UTC graduate.

Occupation: Retired special education teacher.

Issues: Supporting public education, District 30 economic development, implementing state "living wage" requirement.

Name: Brian White

Age: 43

Occupation: Caregiver for family member.

Issues: Fighting "blight" along Ringgold Road, promoting economic development, erecting sound barriers along Interstate 24 bordering East Ridge.

NASHVILLE -- Democrats running in their party's state House District 30 primary say they're in the contest in part because of concerns over where the Republican-led General Assembly is taking Tennessee.

Brock Bennington, Sandy Smith and Brian White of East Ridge are vying for their party's nomination in the Aug. 2 primary. They acknowledge that whoever wins will face an uphill fight to unseat Republican Rep. Vince Dean, also of East Ridge, in November.

Bennington and Smith said they decided to run when it appeared Dean would run for the state Senate and the House seat would be open. But Dean changed his mind and decided to stay in the House.

Still, the Democrats said, it's a winnable race and argue Dean needs a challenge. And so does the GOP-controlled General Assembly, they said, pointing to, among other things, several education or socially conservative laws passed by the Legislature.

They said their focus will be on promoting public education and jobs-related efforts zeroing in on the district, which includes East Ridge, East Lake, East Brainerd and part of Collegedale.

"We need to be looking at real issues and not the evolution bill or the 'gateway sexual activity' bill," said Smith, a retired Hamilton County teacher, calling those types of issues "red herrings."

"I just feel we have so many more important things to deal with."

Bennington, a private investigator for a local law firm, took aim at the 2012 "evolution" law that proponents said was needed to provide a framework to protect public school teachers who address controversies over theories like evolution and climate change.

"To me it's a waste of our tax dollars [spending hours] debating the issue in committees," Bennington said. "It just made us a laughingstock when corporations are looking at moving here."

But Benningston, Smith and White all said they are conservative enough to appeal to voters in the general election. All said they support a controversial guns-in-parking lots bill that would prevent employers and others from barring handgun-carry permit holders' ability to store weapons in their vehicles on private or public lots.

Smith, however, said schools should be excluded while White said he thinks it shouldn't apply to universities.

White, who worked as a security guard but said he is now at home caring for his elderly father, also took issue with Dean's support of two laws, which he contends are Dean's main achievements. One allowed businesses in East Ridge to sell fireworks and the other bans motorcyclists from popping wheelies.

"There's a lot of injuries" associated with fireworks, White said. "A lot of elderly people don't like the noise. I don't like the noise."

Moreover, he said, "I don't like the blight coming into East Ridge" and he thinks the addition of fireworks stores doesn't help.

Dean, a former East Ridge mayor seeking his fourth term in the House, said the time discussing social issues "is very small in comparison" to the House's overall activities. He said he wasn't on the committees considering the laws mentioned by his opponents, but he defended such legislation.

"I'm a conservative, and I'm generally going to vote conservative, and I don't apologize for that," he said. "I think the majority of the district is conservative, and they want a conservative representative."

He said he has led to passage far more laws than White cites and is ready to defend his record once Democrats settle their own election. But he questioned how effective any Democrat will be in a General Assembly dominated by Republicans.

All three Democrats said they can work with Republicans on issues they agree on and argue forcefully when they don't.

None of the Democrats has reported raising much so far in the contest, which the candidates attribute to donors reluctant to take sides in a multicandidate field. Smith and Bennington both cite their work for past Democratic causes.

Bennington said he had lined up $15,000 to $20,000 in promised contributions when Smith decided to run, prompting donors to back away until the nominee fight is settled.

Smith said Bennington "was pretty angry that I was going to run" and said he considered running two years ago against Dean but didn't. Now, she said, he "feels pretty entitled to the nomination."

In a twist, the Hamilton County Education Association's political action arm recently endorsed Bennington over Smith, who recently retired from the school system.

Before Smith retired, she headed the HCEA committee on endorsements. From 2009 to 2011, she served as a Tennessee Education Association board director and was frequently at the state capitol.

At the time, the TEA was waging ultimately losing battles against GOP lawmakers and Gov. Bill Haslam over bills abolishing collective bargaining for teachers, tying teacher evaluations to teacher tenure, expansion of charter schools and for-profit online schools.

Bennington said one reason he received HCEA's endorsement is "they liked my answers to their questions. I think a part of it is I think we need to put the dollars back into the classroom for teachers and for students."

Smith said she wants the same things and was "disappointed" by the HCEA political action committee's endorsement. She said she hopes the panel's endorsement of Bennington "is not personal."

"All I can say is, regardless of whether they chose to endorse me or not, I will always work for children and public education," Smith said.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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