News Transparency and Elections

Strong State Senate Flavor in 6th Dist. U.S. House Race

Republican Tennessee Sens. Diane Black and Jim Tracy are far from the only ones seeking to replace Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, but their head-to-head face off is at the center of this battle for an open congressional seat.

Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, sit just a few feet apart on the floor of the state Senate, so it might seem a bit awkward for them to do state business as they run against each other for Congress in the 6th District.

But there is no such awkwardness, no friction, they say.

The formalities of the Senate floor erase any spirit of competition other than the normal debate of the General Assembly, not that the two Republicans have much to disagree about anyway. While Black and Tracy are far from the only ones seeking to replace Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, who is retiring from the seat, the circumstance does give the 6th District race a strong flavor of state government in the field.

When asked about their proximity on the Senate floor, Tracy immediately said, “It has no effect. If you remember, I refereed basketball for 25 years, so I’m used to just concentrating on what I need to do. We go in there to do a job, and that’s how I look at it.”

Black concurs.

“It’s not awkward for me,” she said. “It’s just the way we do things.”

The 6th District race has gotten national attention, foremost because of the exit of Gordon, who was first elected to the seat in 1984. The district itself has changed politically. It has seen many decades of Democratic dominance, but that has changed dramatically.

The change has been so pronounced there is now a general assumption that the 6th District will go to the Republican primary winner, and it has left many political observers to conclude that Gordon’s departure has as much to do with the change in his district as with the change in his personal ambitions. Democrats have struggled to find a strong candidate for the race.

The seat has been held in the past by the likes of James K. Polk and Al Gore Jr. But it has been part of a massive shift in political persuasion in recent years, moving from the conservative Blue Dog Democrat mold and now on to what is being viewed as an almost certain Republican pickup. The race gained notice the moment Gordon made his announcement.

Black and Tracy look like natural fits for the district. But that in no way suggests either one is sure to win. Lou Ann Zelenik, who built a successful business and is a former head of the Rutherford County Republican Party, is also seen as a serious contender for the seat. Other candidates include businessman Kerry Roberts, real estate agent Gary Mann and retired major general Dave Evans.

“I have looked at this seat for a number of years,” said Black, who is chair of the Senate Republican Caucus. “As a matter of fact, I had a meeting several years ago in Washington with some people who considered me a potentially good candidate.

“I looked at the seat several times, and I just didn’t think the timing was right. But we do feel now the timing is right.”

Neither is likely to underestimate Zelenik, who has the financial wherewithal to top the field and has already hit the radio airwaves. Zelenik said it is an advantage not to be in public office right now, given voter disgruntlement with government.

Black was asked if she would have run against Gordon had he decided to run for re-election.

“I don’t know I can say for sure about that decision,” Black said. “You wait until you see what is happening with the whole mood in the country, and obviously we’re moving in a direction where the country is very upset. As a candidate you always look at timing.”

Tracy and Black have similar views about what’s happening in Washington and certainly hear similar issues from the people they would represent. The health care debate is the most prominent example.

“I’ve never seen people this upset,” Tracy said. “I’ve had many phone calls from people wanting to know what to do. ‘Do I buy insurance? Do I not buy insurance?’ It has been from small businesses and individuals.”

The health care issue is such a dominant topic it’s still being debated, even as the bill has been passed and signed by the president.

“I don’t think health care is fixed,” Black said. “There are a lot of needed reforms.”

Tracy says he feels well-suited for the district. His background includes education, including a seat on the Senate Education Committee, and agriculture. Both are important issues in the district.

Black says she’s ready to fight “reckless spending” in Washington.

“You can count on me,” she says, “unlike Bart Gordon, who went there saying one thing and did another.”

Tracy tells voters he is “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small business and a solid conservative.”

He makes a basketball analogy.

“I’m an old basketball official, and I’m going to call a technical on Nancy Pelosi and throw her out of the speakership,” he said.

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