Five Republicans are seeking the nomination for the Tennessee House District 32 open seat, created by the retirement of five-term State Representative Kent Calfee (R-Kingston).
The winner of the Republican primary on August 4 will face off against Democrat Jan Hahn, who is running unopposed in the primary, to represent citizens of Roane and a small portion of Loudon County. The district includes not only the city of Oak Ridge, but the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, production site of the Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb, as well as the Y-12 National Security Complex.
The Roane County portion of the district is dominated by Republicans, where the Trump/Pence ticket won over Democrat nominees Biden/Harris with 76 percent of the vote in the November 2020 election.
All six candidates were featured in a Roane Chamber of Commerce Voter Forum held on June 28 at the Roane State Community College’s O’Brien Theater, an event moderated by WIVK personality Kent Stephens.
Over the course of about an hour, attendees heard from all six candidates three times to introduce themselves, talk about their first 100 days in office as it relates to four topics important to voters – economic development, infrastructure, education and substance misuse – and finally a closing statement in alternating alphabetical and reverse-alphabetical order.
Keaton Bowman, a late-twenties Roane County native who is a bail bondsman with Hill Bonding in Kingston, said he struggled with the decision after attending college at Eastern Tennessee State University as to whether to come home. He concluded, “I don’t shy away from a challenge,” regarding his decision to return to Roane County after graduation.
In his first 100 days, Bowman said he would work on education bills, specifically pushing for more vocational education in response to the demand for electricians, plumbers, and brick masons.
Bowman spoke further on business development and said he favored not just existing but the expansion of PILOT – payment in lieu of taxes – property tax incentive programs to bring more business to the district.
Wanting to be a public servant and not a politician, Bowman said he is taking time away from his job to run for the office. He emphasized working together and committed himself to honesty and working tirelessly. At the end of his term when he decides to come home, Bowman said of his time in Nashville, “My biggest goal is to say that I left it better than when I come out here.”
Randy Childs, a security officer at the Oak Ridge Y-12 plant and member of the Kingston City Council since 2014, described himself as the lesser-educated and simplest person there. What he learned from working on farms with his grandfather was, he said, listening to people, which Childs considers to be his biggest strength. He also has experience in production, manufacturing, law enforcement, and working with other cities and counties.
Childs, not taking credit individually for the accomplishments, said that the Kingston council got more done by working together over the last four or five years than at any time in the past. He emphasized working together and getting everyone’s opinion.
Choosing economic development as the issue he identifies with most, Childs said the district is blessed to have Oak Ridge, where many of them work. With not everyone wanting to work there, however, Childs said there needs to be more business, and expressed concern about the ability of the Roane County education system to produce the qualifications needed.
Monty Fritts, a Roane County native, is a U.S. Army veteran of the War in Iraq, where he initially served from 1983 to 1993 and then re-enlisted in 2003, earning numerous awards. He holds a B.S. in business and chemistry, M.A. in theological studies from Liberty University, and an M.B.A. from University of Tennessee, and completed a certificate program with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He spent most of his career in nuclear manufacturing including a position in the U.S. Department of Energy after Donald Trump’s election.
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,” is the quote Fritts used to open his introduction after which he referenced the upcoming 4th of July holiday and the Declaration of Independence.
Fritts expressed concern that low taxes and the fiscal posture of the state obscures a full assessment of the complete health of the state when it comes to issues like drugs and crime.
Apparently drawing a contrast between the other candidates, Fritts said of his first 100 days in the state legislature, “It’s going to be important not to get coffee for those that we meet there and not just pal around with the good old boys and good old girls.” He stressed the importance of a confident stance on issues and that “genuine leaders are not searchers of consensus, but molders of consensus.”
Fritts raised the issue of a responsive electrical supply that doesn’t just barely produce the resources consumed each day, a practice that will cause industry to diminish. Fritts pointed out the inconsistent messaging of utility providers saying to raise thermostats while others advise the public to buy an electric Hummer.
Fritts said in his first 100 days he would work to repeal T.C.A. 58-2-107, the state’s Emergency Powers Act, which he said is in direct contradiction to Section I and II of the state constitution, elements which call for three government departments with separate and distinct powers. He called the delegation of powers to the governor to decree law and shut down business “unconscionable,” and said that during COVID it was what allowed the governor to deem Tennesseans as “non-essential.”
Fritts was hard-hitting when he listed a variety of issues, including substance abuse and how it relates to the open southern border and the failure of the Tennessee General Assembly to harden Tennessee to prevent the infusion of crime and drugs; the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) Act, which encourages K-3 teachers to instruct on sexual and gender topics widely considered inappropriate; and anti-Americanism, including elderly folks dying alone in hospitals and nursing homes.
Drawing the distinction between a public servant and a politician who develops relationships, gets absorbed into the system and become part of a corrupt and broken system that is taking your money and violates rights, Fritts said he’d be a fighter.
“I think your choice is clear. If you want someone to stand up for your rights, pick someone that has proven that he will do that. If you’re okay with the status quo politicians, if you’re okay with the way things are going right now in the state of Tennessee and these United States of America, I’m probably not your person,” said Fritts bluntly, as he asked to be hired because he is volunteering to serve.
Fritts, the only one of the House District 32 candidates to respond, received a score of 23 of 23 on the Tennessee Firearms Association legislative survey.
Donnie Hall, who left Roane County for a period of time, was in the military for 10 years, operates with his wife Three Rivers Theatre acting studio, and is a coach for Roane State Community College athletics.
Hall, positive on the state being in “fine hands,” pointed to Tennessee being the least-taxed per capita in the nation, having the largest rainy-day fund in history and $300 million being given back to taxpayers this year, said he wants to be sure the state keeps going in the right direction.
In his first 100 days, Hall said the biggest thing is to create relationships, something he has already been doing with, for example, State Representative Sam Whitson (R-Franklin) from Williamson County on in-state tuition at University of Tennessee for the children of an active-duty military person, and House Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), as well as maintaining a 40-year relationship with State Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston).
Hall has received the endorsement of the Tennessee Education Association, a state affiliate of the National Education Association teachers’ union that passed a nearly 400 resolutions in a 115-page document for 2021-2022. These included statements or concepts regarding the opposition to home schooling, students having access to gender-affirming healthcare, transgender use of the bathroom or locker room of their choice, social emotional learning, statehood for the District of Columbia, and freedom from religion and global climate change, among numerous others.
Hall said common core and CRT are “gone,” and with the state’s new education funding plan going into effect in 2024, there is still opportunity to tweak it. Hall said that Tennessee is $1 billion behind Kentucky and Alabama in education funding and, with kids deserving more and better than what they’re currently getting, the funding has to be fixed immediately.
Hall said that there are a lot of infrastructure needs in Roane County and he will make sure that funding gets to the 32nd district.
“Red meat issues” he gets asked about a lot are national issues that Hall said won’t be dealt with at the state level, as he mentioned the Second Amendment, border security and his pastor brother’s church 63 miles from the border where parishioners pack weapons to worship God, and economic woes including $5 a gallon gas.
When voters get in the booth, Hall said they should ask themselves which candidate is going to be able to represent the district best, have alliances in place, and talk with people in the county and city governments to represent and lead the 32nd district.
Teresa Kirkham, having what she said is a calling for public service, has spent 38 years in Roane County government, including nearly 20 years as the assessor of property, a role that, as it came to a close, was reportedly surrounded with accusations within the office. Over that time, Kirkham said she listened to complaints, wants, and needs, and that she feels like it is her time to step up to help do something about the issues that face Roane County.
Her top category of the four is economic development, in that she worked closely with Roane County government and Washington congressman in a PILOT program, which she said worked well. PILOT programs, TIF (tax increment financing) and economic development, Kirkham said, are very important to her.
Kirkham emphasized she would do a lot of listening, learning, collaborating, and relationship-building in the district and at the legislature.
Jan Hahn, a practicing family physician of 42 years, talked about the host venue, the O’Brien Theater, being named after his wife’s stepmother, with whom he had many long conversations. As his field of expertise, Hahn said that the healthcare system is “disjointed, disconnected, dysfunctional, and does not deliver.” Of the four primary topics, Hahn addressed the addiction issue in East Tennessee, saying that selling drugs is a crime but using is an illness. He talked about the “toolbox” needed for tailored treatment and that underlying all of it is ongoing mental health care.
From the words of Annabelle O’Brien, Hahn said politics is a beautiful word and that politicians should give voice to the healthiest of aspirations of its citizens and by their words and deeds inspire the better angels of our souls to unite and solve common problems.
“Let us dedicate ourselves to that vision and engage anew in this most noble of professions,” Hahn said in conclusion.
The National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund (NRA-PVF) graded all five of the Republican candidates for Tennessee House District 32.
Monty Fritts and Teresa Kirkham received an AQ grade, “A pro-gun candidate whose rating is based solely on the candidate’s responses to the NRA-PVF candidate questionnaire and who does not have a voting record on Second Amendment issues.”
Donnie Hall received a D grade, for being “an anti-gun candidate who usually supports restrictive gun control legislation and opposes pro-gun reforms. Regardless of public statements, [Hall] can usually be counted on to vote wrong on key issues.”
Keaton Bowman and Randy Childs received a “?,” which is defined as “refused to answer NRA-PVF candidate questionnaire or a candidate who has made contradictory statements or taken positions that are inconsistent with the candidate’s answers to the NRA-PVF candidate questionnaire or previous record. A rating of ‘?’ often indicates indifference, if not outright hostility, to gun owners’ and sportsmen’s rights.”
The video of the Roane County Chamber of Commerce 2022 Voter Forum can be viewed here, with the session including Tennessee House District 32 candidates starting at 1:45.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network, where she covers stories for The Tennessee Star.
Photo “Candidates” by BBB Communications.