Tennessee 1st District
Between the corduroy-like ridges of the Appalachian chains, as they bend west and then south, the valley of Virginia extends far into northeastern Tennessee. The communities of this region are a hilly patchwork of industrial centers, small farms and federal land. The land rush immediately after the Revolutionary War populated the area. In tiny Jonesborough, the early settlers established the free state of Franklin in 1784, and many pioneer cabins, federal mansions and Greek Revival churches are lovingly preserved. It was the building of the railroads in the 1850s, however, that determined the winners and losers. Other Appalachian areas were cut off from the rest of America, with tracks running only to the coal mines. The small industrial cities that developed—Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, now collectively known as the Tri-Cities—were on the main lines of national commerce before the Civil War. As president, Abraham Lincoln talked about building a 150-mile railroad through these hills, partly as a political gesture to Union supporters. The Civil War had a different political effect here than in most of the South: Northeast Tennessee, the home of wartime Gov. and then Vice President Andrew Johnson, had few slaves, and with its connection to northern industry, was Union territory. It remains heavily Republican to this day.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The political continuity may be surprising because this area had decades of continuous economic growth and developed the sort of industrial economy that produced unions and Democrats in the North. Its growth was helped by a skilled labor force, low electric power rates because of the Tennessee Valley Authority and good transportation routes (rail lines and now Interstate 81). Its small cities used to boast major paper and printing plants, but most of those industries are gone. One of the largest employers is Eastman Kodak in Kingsport. At one time, the company’s plant in Sullivan County plant employed more than 6,000, but in April 2009, the recession took a toll and the facility announced it was laying off 200 people. There has been some economic growth in Sevier County near Knoxville, where Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (home of Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park) have more than 10,000 hotel rooms at the entry point to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation’s most-visited national park. The area surrounding the park suffers from heavy acid rain and ozone pollution from nearby power plants and factories. Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town, is home to the International Storytelling Center where every October more than 8,000 people gather to hear two dozen storytellers spin yarns at the National Storytelling Festival.
The 1st Congressional District takes in the far northeastern end of Tennessee, a district so heavily Republican that it has not elected a Democrat to the House for more than 100 years. Nonetheless, it has had turbulent politics on occasion. For almost 40 years, the seat was held by B. Carroll Reece (1921-61, with one four-year and one two-year hiatus), a fierce mountain politician who was Republican national chairman from 1946 to 1948. After Reece died in 1961, and his widow was elected to fill out his term, there was a hotly contested primary. The winner, Republican Jimmy Quillen, a bread-and-butter politician, homebuilder and former owner of the Johnson City Times, represented the district for the next 34 years, a record tenure for the Tennessee congressional delegation. True to its roots, the district gave GOP nominee John McCain his highest percentage in Tennessee, 70%, in 2008.