Rep. Phil Roe (R)
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.
Rep. Phil Roe (R)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: July 21, 1945, Clarksville .
Home: Johnson City.
Education: Austin Peay St. U., B.S. 1967; U. of TN, M.D. 1970.
Family: Married (Pam); 3 children.
Military career: Army, 1973-74.
Elected office: Johnson City Commission, 2003-09, Vice mayor, 2005-07, Mayor, 2007-09.
Professional Career: Obstetrician/gynecologist, 1970-2008.
The new congressman from the 1st District is Phil Roe, a Republican elected in 2008. Roe grew up in Clarksville and attended a one-room schoolhouse with no running water. He went on to receive degrees from Austin Peay State University and a medical degree from the University of Tennessee. He served in the Army Medical Corps and then relocated to Johnson City, setting up practice as an obstetrician/gynecologist and delivering babies for 30 years. In 2003, the political bug bit Roe, and he ran successfully for the Johnson City Commission. Roe was chosen by commission members to be vice mayor in 2005 and mayor 2007. When five-term U.S. Rep. Bill Jenkins retired in 2006, Roe competed in a crowded GOP primary but finished fourth with 17% of the vote, behind health care business owner David Davis, who went on to win the seat in the general election.
|Phil Roe (R)||168,343||(72%)||($717,171)|
|Rob Russell (D)||57,525||(25%)||($10,354)|
|Phil Roe (R)||25,993||(50%)|
|David Davis (R)||25,511||(49%)|
In his first term in the House, Davis quickly gained a reputation as a combative partisan and was criticized in the local press for securing earmarks for companies with political action committees that contributed to his campaign. Roe decided to challenge Davis when he sought re-election in 2008, and embarked on a grass-roots campaign, personally visiting each county multiple times, talking to voters, stumping in restaurants and waving signs at busy intersections. In ads featuring an elderly grandmother trying to fill up her car with gas, Roe criticized Davis for accepting money from oil companies, attacks that resonated as gas prices spiked. Davis led in fundraising, pulling in $400,000 more than Roe and outspending his challenger 3-to-1. But two years after finishing fourth behind Davis in a crowded Republican field, Roe rebounded to narrowly upset the one-term Davis, becoming the first challenger in more than 40 years to defeat an incumbent representative in Tennessee.
Roe’s challenge to Davis was barely on the national radar, and his win surprised Davis as well, leading to one of the more unusual escapades of the congressional election season. As vote tallies trickled in from precincts across the rural eastern Tennessee district, Davis refused to emerge from his hotel room to greet supporters. With the unofficial vote tally the next morning at roughly 500 votes in Roe’s favor, Davis refused to concede, despite winning the 2006 primary by only 573 votes himself. Instead, Davis tried to raise doubt on the validity of the outcome, issuing a statement saying Democrats had conspired to throw the election by voting in the Republican primary. The charge gained little traction considering Tennessee has an open primary system that does not require registration by party. Davis conceded a week later. Roe’s margin of victory was 482 votes. He won the district’s two largest counties, Washington and Sullivan, while Davis was strong along the western edge of the district, winning Sevier and Hawkins counties. In November, Roe easily beat Democrat Robert Russell with 72% of the vote.
Roe’s positions are similar to Davis’, mirroring the conservative bent of the district. He’s anti-abortion rights and pro-gun ownership. He opposes any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants. As a doctor, Roe says he is committed to reforming the medical insurance system, but opposes government-run health care. And he says his experience as a physician and as a mayor taught him the need for bipartisanship. “What we get separated on are the little issues that get all the noise,” he said.
Roe was appointed to the Agriculture, Education and Labor and Veterans’ Affairs committees. Davis said in March 2009 that he hadn’t ruled out trying to get the seat back in 2010, and was continuing to push for a bill in the Tennessee Legislature to require voters to register by party for primaries.