An East Tennessee Democrat refuses to let a longtime senate Republican go unchallenged
In District 3, a campaign-trail wedding and the fight against a medical monopoly
State Senate District 3 Democratic nominee Kate Craig and Republican Sen. Rusty Crowe. (Craig photo, submitted; Crowe photo, Tennessee General Assembly)
On April 8, 2022, Kate Craig from Johnson City was getting engaged. The day before that was the deadline to file paperwork to run against District 3 Sen. Rusty Crowe. Up until April 7, Craig had been working hard, with little success, to recruit a Democrat to run against the longtime incumbent.
“At that point, my head was not thinking about running, my head was focused on getting engaged,” Craig said. “But then the filing deadline got extended to May 5.”
On April 6, the state’s legislative redistricting plan had been blocked by a three-judge panel in Davidson County Chancery Court, which also happened to push out the filing deadline statewide. The redistricting shifted District 3 away from the areas south of Johnson City like Erwin and up toward Doeville and Mountain City to the northeast.
By April 15, Craig had filed to run against Crowe. In early May, when the draft of the ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked, Craig and her fiance Kristin began to get nervous about what might come next.
“Justice Clarence Thomas had clearly signaled that birth control, that same sex marriage, that all of that is where they’re going next,” Craig, 41, said. “And the Tennessee legislature has tried time and again to define marriages between a man and a woman. And so we saw this and thought, you know, this might be our opportunity.”
They were married in June at the Washington County courthouse and then at a small ceremony at home in their backyard in Johnson City. And then it was back to work on the campaign.
“In terms of being a newlywed on the campaign trail, there wasn’t a honeymoon, there wasn’t any of that,” Craig said. “We’ll do that after and still have the big gathering in 2023, but it was really just we looked with the campaign calendar and the family calendar and kind of went, ‘OK, we’re doing it then.’”
On Oct. 19, at a forum hosted by Craig on the day early voting started, she addressed an audience of around 50. The event was also live streamed. The League of Women Voters and the Johnson City Press were initially planning to host the debate, but Crowe declined to participate.
“I think people deserve to be able to ask me questions, [we need] to give voters an opportunity to hear from both the candidates, which in my opinion is the bare minimum,” Craig said. “If you’re gonna run for office, you should show up and answer questions.”
Crowe did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
In a News Channel 11 questionnaire, 75-year-old Crowe wrote that his seniority and insight at the legislature will “keep our state strong and moving forward.” He notes his priorities as “dealing with the economy” and creating “tough-on-crime” policies. Crowe, who voted in favor Tennessee’s abortion trigger law, which automatically banned abortion when Roe v. Wade was overturned, wrote in the questionnaire that after having passed the restriction, the state should work on providing young mothers resources.
“Our focus needs now to be on giving young mothers the resources and assistance needed to keep their baby if they so choose; help them become self-sufficient and help them raise their baby in a healthy environment,” he wrote.
Crowe hasn’t faced a challenger since 2010.
In the August primary, where both candidates ran unopposed, Craig got just under 2,500 votes spread across Washington, Carter and Johnson Counties. Crowe gathered just more than 16,000 in an area he’s represented since 1990. Craig outraised Crowe in the third quarter by about $18,000, though Crowe came into the campaign ahead by more than $100,000.
Craig would like to see the state’s abortion trigger law pulled back, public schools fully funded and treated with more respect and would also like to see the state implement an hospital oversight board.
In 2018, Ballad Health was created when two regional healthcare systems merged — Crowe sponsored the bill that allowed it to happen. Craig said this has created an unfair healthcare monopoly, and she said it’s an issue that is not bound by politics.
“It is very easy to look at this area and go, ‘it’s a red area,’ especially when there hasn’t been somebody stepping up to run against him,” Craig said. “I’ve been in some of the most conservative areas, going to the Appalachian Fair or going into Johnson County at the Cranberry Festival, and I ask them how they feel about this monopoly, ask them how they feel about Ballad Health. And every single one of them will sit there and go, ‘Oh gosh, I hate it.’ It’s a unifying issue. It’s touched everybody’s life up here, and win or lose, that’s bigger than the district.”
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