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Understanding Sen. Stacey Campfield: Who keeps electing him, and why?

9:36 AM, Feb 18, 2013   |    comments
January 2012: State Senator Stacey Campfield makes national headlines after a comment during a radio interview where he claimed HIV was started in the homosexual community.
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By Heidi Hall and Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert is only the latest in a line of national figures to skewer state Sen. Stacey Campfield.

On a recent Thursday, the comedian took aim at Campfield's Classroom Protection Act, which would ban curricula on homosexuality in kindergarten through eighth grade. It's just like the version he proposed last year, only this time it adds a section widely seen as encouraging nurses and counselors to report gay children to their parents - providing a ripe target for Colbert's gag.

"It's gone from 'don't say gay' to GGGAAAYYY!" Colbert shrieked, pointing first at the camera and then at Campfield's portrait.

Then Colbert riffed on an interview Campfield did with TMZ.com, posted a week before. In one segment of that interview, after Campfield offered a graphic explanation of the dangers of sodomy, a TMZ reporter asked: "You are elected, correct? I just need to make sure that's clear, because I can't get my mind past that."

That question - who keeps electing Campfield? - has baffled critics inside and out of Tennessee. They've watched his public antics, unusual bills and outrageous statements about homosexuality draw national attention time and again.

The answer lies in an oddly shaped district in Knox County that encompasses both the University of Tennessee and wealthy, suburban Farragut. It was quite clear, in fact, the same night Colbert ripped the senator.

'Solidly conservative'

The monthly meeting of the Concord-Farragut Republican Club starts slowly, with folks eating their Frullati Cafe soup-and-sandwich combos mostly in silence, scattered across the restaurant.

Then their hero strides in, all wide smiles and firm handshakes and blue-eyed charm. They make their way over to chat about their new Knox County party chairwoman and grumble about Democrats and unions.

They describe Campfield, a native of New York state, with words like "reputable," "man of integrity" and - again and again - "conservative." To many in his base, Campfield's comments about AIDS coming from sex with monkeys and about poor children not trying in school aren't off-putting, they're speaking truth to power.

"This is a very conservative area - just look at our delegation," said Jacob Swisher, a club member who runs a Knoxville political consulting firm. "All our state Senate seats are Republican. Republicans have held the congressional seat since Reconstruction.

"The area doesn't agree with his style and how he tries to bring issues to the table - you hear that repeatedly - but it is very solidly conservative."

Campfield, in an interview, offers little help to those seeking to understand his motives.

He rushes through an account of his upbringing, and says there were no epiphanies that shaped his views on homosexuality. Raised Catholic, Campfield says he goes to Mass on occasion but dismisses any connection between his religious and political beliefs.

Whereas many politicians pull out relatives for photo opportunities and campaign ads, he waves reporters away from talking to his mother, father and two siblings.

He's single, no kids, but said he's not opposed to marriage or children if the right situation comes along. While he replied to several critical emails with the admonition that his senders should seek therapy and medication, he has never availed himself of either.

As for the gay jokes, Campfield notes an irony: For his critics, the biggest insult is to call him gay.

"If anybody speaks out against the lifestyle, they assume they must be a member of that lifestyle, to which I would say, 'How do you guys feel about pedophiles?' "

Campfield, a native of Vestal, N.Y., a suburb of Binghamton, made annual trips to East Tennessee, where his mother grew up. He says his political development began when his relatives would debate one another during family reunions at Big Ridge State Park, 30 miles north of Knoxville.

"Our family, like any other family, had different points of view," Campfield said. "I'd listen in and every once in a while, being a little kid, I'd throw in a little shot here and there.

"It really just developed into, this is what's working and this is what's not working. And clearly conservative, to me, always seemed to be what really works in society. Not what sounds good, but what really works."

Campfield took up karate as a teenager, eventually earning a first-degree black belt. After moving to Knoxville, he began to practice jiujitsu and judo, rising to third-degree black belt in those.

Campfield also wrestled competitively in high school and college. He said he was good enough to win all-Division I honors in high school but not to earn a full college scholarship. "If you want something, you've got to sacrifice," he said. "And you're not always going to win, so you have to be persistent."

Political grappler

Constituents, at least in most parts of Campfield's district, appear to adore his lead-with-the-chin attitude.

Cynthia McMillan said she's a retired pediatrician and likes Campfield primarily because he's pro-life. In 2009, as a state representative, he offered a bill seeking death certificates for aborted fetuses. It never made it out of committee.

"He is basically conservative, and he has got convictions, and he expresses them," McMillan said. "He says what he thinks."

Painting contractor John Gabriel cited Campfield's conservative credentials, then added, "Whether you agree with what he says or not, he's true to his word and believes what he says."

Campfield's outspokenness became apparent in his first Republican primary, one he lost in 2002 to state Rep. Steven Buttry.

That October, he would be thrown out of a barbecue hosted by U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. for an altercation with another guest that started when he trailed Phil Bredesen, at the time the Democratic nominee for governor, around with a bumper sticker that read "Tax 'n' Spend Governor."

When Buttry opted not to run again two years later, Campfield won a tight contest over David Wright, the candidate favored by the Republican establishment in Knox County. He has faced Republican opposition - often better-funded - in every election since, but each time he has prevailed.

Campfield decided to take a crack at the Senate in 2010 when state Sen. Tim Burchett decided to run for county mayor. Campfield took 40 percent of the vote in a four-way Republican primary. He went on to defeat Democrat Randy Walker and independent Chuck Williams with more than 57 percent of the vote.

Campfield stays in campaign mode constantly. He works his district hard, setting a goal of knocking on the door of every likely Republican voter three or four times per campaign. He frequently appears on local political programs and rarely turns down an interview request. He blankets communities with yard signs during election season and continuously holds and attends events where he can speak to voters one-on-one.

On his personal blog, he dispenses jokes and views unfiltered. His lack of caution led a Democratic candidate to sue him for libel when Campfield claimed falsely that he had a criminal record.

Confrontational nature

Campfield rarely breaks from his relaxed demeanor, but he seems to go out of his way to provoke confrontation.

One of his first acts when he joined the General Assembly in 2005 was to attempt to join the Black Caucus. When members gave him a cold shoulder, he compared them to the Ku Klux Klan.

In 2009 he was thrown out of a University of Tennessee football game for not removing a wrestling mask when asked by a police officer.

But conflict finds him, too. Last year, his high school in upstate New York briefly debated removing his picture from its Wall of Fame, mainly because of his "Don't Say Gay" legislation. A Knoxville restaurant denied him service for the same reason.

"That's the tolerance and open-minded acceptance of diversity of points of view of the liberal left," he said. "That's how they express tolerance."

But just when one might peg him as an unapologetic far right-winger, he opposed measures that would have limited the number of foreign workers at charter schools and given the governor the right to label terrorist groups - both supported by critics of Islam.

He also dismisses theories that he puts bills forward just to get name recognition, invaluable in his line of work. He won't admit to any higher political aspirations and says if he lost his office tomorrow, he'd be fine.

"I've never done a single press report, a single press release, never called a reporter and said, 'You guys need to do a story on me or this legislation or this bill,' " he said.

It's true: State reporters have learned to keep an eye out for his bills, and national reporters pick up on those accounts.

A familiar name

For Campfield, there might be a residual benefit to leading with his chin. Along with the core support from the true believers, he also wins votes from people who remember his name but aren't sure why.

On the UT campus, for example, students generally say they've heard of him, but it takes a minute to remember who he is.

"Can I research him and read a couple of things and then talk?" honors student Philip Bent asked.

The 20-year-old finance major from Brentwood pulled up Google on his laptop. His demeanor changed from placid to surprised to amused.

"I'm surprised, but at the same time, it's stereotypical Tennessee," said Bent, who identifies himself as Republican. "If I didn't live in Tennessee and didn't know a lot of people, I would think Tennesseans thought that way."

Some of Bent's fellow honors students knew Campfield immediately and were less charitable. "I think anyone who proposes a bill without considering the consequences to the people involved should not be in the position to ever propose a bill," said Jacob Dean, a physics major.

Up Central Street, in an urban section of Campfield's district nicknamed Happy Holler, Knoxville native Kim Webber is working on a letter to Campfield. It's critical of his don't-say-gay and grades-for-welfare bills, but the tone is academic, measured.

She doesn't want him to be able to tell her she needs therapy or medication, said Webber, a public relations expert and political activist.

Multiple sclerosis makes everything more difficult for her, but Webber thinks making Campfield understand how he can hurt people is worth the effort.

Campfield worked hard in that part of the district, she said, knocking on every door of her street and trying to get his signs in people's yards. Webber doesn't remember anyone taking a sign.

After years of studying Campfield, understanding him escapes her.

"I think he knows what he's doing. I think he goes out on a limb. I don't know why," she said. "He hasn't shared with us the reason why all this is necessary.

"I want to ask: 'Are there some things you can do that would be good for the entire community? Would you do them?' "

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