Outside money tips state primary

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Editor’s Note: It was just 10 years ago, August 2014, but it was a turning point election in many ways. Incumbent Republican Sen. Stacey Campbell was ousted by current state Sen. Richard Briggs. It wasn’t even close. Martin Daniel (51%) edged Rep. Steve Hall. And up in Grainger County, school teacher Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach (45%) was defeated by Jerry Sexton. Roach served for 20 years (1995-2015) and Sexton served for eight (2015-2023) when his district was wiped out in redistricting.

Betty Bean wrote this column following that election. It’s instructive today.

On election night in Grainger County, supporters of longtime state Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach got together to await the District 35 Republican Primary returns to come in.

Their candidate fought hard to overcome a tsunami of negative advertising financed by as much as a half-million dollars from out-of-state special interest groups blasting Roach for “ghost-voting” (the common and fairly innocuous practice of seat-mates pushing the voting button for neighbors who have stepped out to use the restroom or take a smoke). The ads painted it as dangerous and lazy, but Roach’s supporters were cautiously optimistic that Roach, a popular teacher and basketball coach first elected in 1994, would survive.

“We thought Jerry was going to get his showing, but it turned out we got our showing,” said Grainger County Commissioner James Acuff.

When the final tally was in, Roach lost by nearly 1,000 votes to opponent Jerry Sexton, a preacher turned furniture manufacturer whose Facebook page describes him as “More pro-life than your pastor, more for the Second Amendment than Davy Crockett, and more for traditional marriage than Adam and Eve.”

The real issue that got the attention of 501(c)(4) groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and the Tennessee Federation for Children wasn’t ghost-voting at all.

“It all came down to my vote on the vouchers,” said Roach, whose district includes Grainger and parts of Union and Claiborne counties.

Roach was particularly disappointed in his Union County showing, where he lost 670-320.

“We thought we might do a little better than that after saving them $497,000 (by pushing to keep the k12 Inc. Virtual Academy open against the wishes of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman). We helped (Union County) save that revenue and they ran a thank-you in the News Sentinel.

“But I guess what we did didn’t impress them enough to overcome those ads. They were good ads, but just about 99 percent false.”

Roach cast the fateful vote on March 5, 2014, in the House Finance Ways & Means subcommittee (aka “the Black Hole”) opposing a school voucher bill that would have directed taxpayer money to private schools.

“I could have very easily voted for them, and saved myself this trouble, but I’ve been in education all my life, and it’s not a real good time to be taking money out of public education,” Roach said. “I’ve run 10 times before, but spent more money in this race than in all my other contests combined.

“We raised about $57,000, and we spent it. The TEA did a mailer or two that didn’t cost me … spent about $7,500 or so, but you compare that to $400,000-something … And they did radio, too.

“We came back and did what we could, but you spend what you got and no more.”

Several of Roach’s colleagues chipped in campaign contributions in an attempt to fend off the onslaught, including Knoxville Rep. Ryan Haynes, who says he’d like to dam the flow of outside money.

“Coach is exactly right. The voucher bill is what got him, and there’s way too much money in politics. I’ve never had a constituent come up to me and tell me they wish they could get more money in my hand. The public is right to be concerned about this, and I think it’s incumbent on voters to start saying, ‘Hey, where’s this coming from?’”

Betty Bean is retired. She formerly wrote a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.


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