The first time I laid eyes on Randy Boyd, he was getting introduced as the guy who helped Bob Kronick realize his dream of opening a community school. Kronick, a UT sociology professor attached to the College of Education, had worked with young people in prison and wanted to do something at the front end to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Nobody around here much knew what he was talking about, but using school buildings to offer afterschool programs and services in low-income areas sounded like a good idea.
The downside was money. Kronick didn’t have any.
Enter Boyd, who had plenty. He’d parlayed an invisible dog fence business into Radio Systems and PetSafe, a pet care conglomerate that made him a very rich man. He loved Kronick’s idea and ended up funding the Pond Gap program, which soon started winning awards and becoming a model for the concept that was embraced by Knox County Schools. And money wasn’t his only contribution – he showed up, and even became a Big Brother to a Pond Gap student.
This wasn’t Boyd’s first foray into philanthropy. He’d been funding dog parks, first in Knox County and then all over the Southeast. Nor was it his last.
Later he bankrolled KnoxAchieves, which provided community college tuition for Knox County’s high school graduates. Three years later, that program went statewide and morphed into TnAchieves. More recently, he took unpaid positions with Bill Haslam’s administration, first as an advisor in charge of developing a plan to increase college graduation rates, and then as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
You’d think that a self-made man with a resume of kindness, success, generosity and a dash of state government experience would be an easy choice for governor, right? Make him an instant frontrunner, even.
Not in this century. Not in this state. Not in this party.
Boyd is locked in a four-way mud-wrestling-in-an-alligator pit of a Republican gubernatorial primary with U.S. Rep. Diane Black, state House Speaker Beth Harwell and business guy Bill Lee. And he appears to be fading.
In fairness, Harwell hasn’t been engaged in the nastiness (cynics might say she doesn’t have the money to mount a good mud fight) and is running last. Until recently, Lee was running third and staying out of the fray while frontrunners Boyd and Black flailed away, each accusing the other of failing dog whistle tests like sanctuary city hating, wall building, national anthem kneeling and abortion opposing. Black, who has always been an orthodox right winger, has been landing direct hits on the generous, public-spirited, previously-moderate Boyd, who spent the past year attempting to inoculate himself with MAGA hats and embracing all things Trump. Obviously, this did not work.
Boyd’s side has flung its share of poo, too, calling Black “DC Diane” and labeling her a swamp thing insufficiently devoted to building a border wall. Polls are showing that they are hurting each other, to the benefit of Lee, who sounds like a preacher and brags that he’s the only candidate who has never run for office or worked for the government.
Back home, Boyd’s old friends are unfamiliar with the guy they are seeing on TV and in direct mail.
“I knew him before he was Jesse Helms,” one said.
When asked why Boyd is taking this road, the friend sniffed.
“Anybody can read a poll.”