Lawrence back in District 26 race; Atherton gets case after Fleenor recuses herself

Lawrence back in District 26 race; Atherton gets case after Fleenor recuses herself

August 3rd, 2018 by Staff Report in Local Regional News

Document: Judge's order

Read Chancellor Pam Fleenor's recusal order.

The Democratic primary winner in Tennessee House District 26 who dropped out of the race months ago is back in.

Jean-Marie Lawrence said Friday she's "preparing for the fight of my life" in the general election.

Whether she'll have a Republican opponent to fight is still up in the air.

State Democrats sued when the Hamilton County Election Commission reopened qualifying after incumbent Republican Gerald McCormick dropped out. The Democrats want GOP nominee Robin Smith's name stricken from the ballot.

Lawrence, 31, an emergency management planner at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, outpolled David Jones in Thursday's primary by a little more than 300 votes, 1,971 to 1,668. Jones did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The result surprised just about everyone, since Lawrence was thought to have dropped out of the race shortly after qualifying in March even though her name remained on the ballot.

She said her apartment was sold and she had to move out of District 26 because she uses a wheelchair and couldn't find an affordable place that was handicap-accessible.

It also makes door-to-door campaigning hard, she added, so she was running a quiet race on "minimal resources."

Her primary win makes her believe there are higher forces at work, Lawrence said, and she's getting help finding a suitable home in District 26.

"This is a community, and if they call me to serve them I'm going to step up and figure it out," she said. The New Jersey native moved here as a teen, graduated from Red Bank High School, and got her bachelor's degree in political science and master's degree in public administration at UTC.

She is a longtime disability advocate, focusing on accessibility issues, and said her own experience opened her eyes to the problem of "housing displacement" going on in the district.

"It has become important to me and something I want to look into if elected," she said. "At some point, every one of us will either have a disability or know someone who does. What affects one affects all."

Hamilton County Democratic Chairwoman Khristy Wilkerson said Lawrence is a popular and well-known community advocate.

"I think she will be a candidate, and I think she will be a great candidate," Wilkerson said.

Whether she can earn enough votes in the Republican-leaning district, where Smith's 7,767 votes is twice what the Democrats received, remains to be seen.

A new judge

Meanwhile, a third judge has been named to hear the Tennessee Democrats' lawsuit against the election commission and state Election Coordinator Mark Goins after Hamilton County Chancellor Pam Fleenor recused herself.

In an order filed Wednesday, Fleenor said she recused herself "in the interest of promoting public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary "

The lawsuit landed in Fleenor's court after it was filed and dismissed in Davidson County and refiled in Hamilton County.

But there was a complication. Smith, the qualified Republican candidate, is a political strategist who was paid thousands of dollars for her work in Fleenor's 2014 campaign.

It was widely expected that Fleenor would withdraw and hand the lawsuit over to Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton. A hearing set for Monday has been rescheduled for Aug. 13, according to court records.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.