18th District Showdown: State Rep. Martin Daniel Tangles With Three GOP Challengers

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James Corcoran

Job: Juvenile court attorney
Age: 36
Education: J.D., University of Tennessee
Prior political experience: None
Family: Wife, Anya; two children

Martin Daniel

Job: 18th District state House representative; majority owner, Elevation Outdoor Advertising
Age: 59
Education: University of Tennessee; J.D., University of Memphis
Prior political experience: Incumbent one-term 18th district House representative.
Family: Wife, Melissa; two children

Bryan Dodson

Job: Political consultant
Age: 55
Education: B.A. in History and Political Science, Union College
Prior political experience:  Political consultant; aide to former state Sen. Stacey Campfield
Family: Single

Steve Hall

Job: Former owner, Interior Finishing Corporation
Age: 60
Education: Associates degree in Construction Engineering Technology, State Technical Institute (now Pellissippi State)
Prior political experience: Eight years on Knoxville City Council; two terms as 18th District representative (2010-2014)
Family: Wife, Janet; five children

Martin Daniel says he’s learned at least one lesson during his first term in the state House of Representatives: Sometimes he should keep his mouth shut, or choose his words more carefully.

The freshman legislator, representing the 18th District and facing three opponents in the Aug. 4 GOP primary, has garnered plenty of local, state, and national attention with controversial comments he has made.

Challengers Steve Hall, James Corcoran, and Bryan Dodson hope the series of high-profile missteps may offer an opening for them to edge into the race, particularly Hall—considered a top contender—who had spent two terms representing the 18th District and narrowly lost his seat to Daniels in 2014.

Aside from Corcoran, who supports a state-level expansion of Medicaid and opposes school vouchers, there is little that separates the candidates, all of whom stick to fairly routine conservative talking points: They are for limited government and reduced taxes and are pro-life and support gun rights. They all agree with the repeal of the state Hall tax on interest and dividends.

Perhaps in the absence of marked policy differences, this is why Daniel’s indelicate remarks have provided the richest target for his opponents.


Among Daniel’s feather-ruffling actions was his widely distributed complaint to Knox County Schools condemning a “social justice” writing assignment at Sequoyah Elementary. There was his statement to a Democratic legislator that was cast as support for ISIS recruitment on the campus of the University of Tennessee. And then there were his tweeted comments upon the death of Muhammad Ali, referring to the Champ by his Christian name and essentially calling him a draft-dodger.

“As a new legislator, I failed to understand how my personal comments could be misconstrued,” and not separated from his legislative philosophies, Daniel says during an interview at his campaign headquarters on East Executive Park Drive in West Knoxville. He concedes, however, “I made a mistake in making that comment” about Ali.

As for the ISIS comment, made during a debate in Nashville on his “Tennessee Free Speech Protection Act” bill related to UT, he later followed up with a text saying: “I could have answered the question better. Of course I don’t support a terror organization on campus.”

And about that criticism of a lesson plan that basically offered a scenario in which black students had fewer resources than their white counterparts, he says: “We teach our kids to not see color in people. Most of my constituents were fine with it.”

He is defensive, though, saying in the interview at his headquarters: “People are trying to make issues about things that don’t really matter.”

Not exactly, say Hall and Corcoran, who are joined by Dodson in efforts to claim the 18th District GOP mantle. The winner will face Democrat Brandi Price, a Knox County Juvenile Court attorney, in the November general election.

“This is a very unusual election,” Hall says of the primary during a sit-down at a McDonald’s on Western Avenue.

Typically, there are the usual concerns—such as education, drug abuse, law enforcement, and transportation—voiced by the electorate or possible constituents, says Hall, who served eight years on Knoxville City Council and two terms in the House and was defeated by Daniel by 162 votes in the 2014 primary.

But this cycle, Hall says, as he goes about his campaign, people are “talking about Martin Daniel and the comments he has made. That’s predominantly the conversation. They just can’t believe that he made these kinds of comments.”

He hopes the ire generated by Daniel in some circles propels him over the top on Aug. 4.

“I really underestimated Martin Daniel,” Hall says of the 2014 primary, and says he was at a distinct financial advantage. Daniel spent about $150,000 on that race, which Hall says, “for around here, that’s an absurd amount to spend on a House seat.”

But other candidates, as well as former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, now a political commentator, point to a couple of things that might have sealed Hall’s fate in that primary, if only to the tune of 165 votes. For instance, there was Hall’s endorsement of controversial state Sen. Stacey Campfield, who also lost his primary race in 2014—by a landslide. Ashe also says the infamous Senate Bill 1243, which called for the sale of Lakeshore Park and was carried in the 2013-2014 session by Hall in the House and Campfield in the Senate, contributed to Hall’s defeat.

Daniel has made that a talking point in this year’s campaign, and Corcoran says he voted for Daniel in 2014 because of Hall’s endorsement of Campfield. But Daniel’s luster has faded dramatically, he says.

Corcoran says that when he points out Daniel’s less-tempered comments, “the reaction I get most frequently is, ‘That’s my representative?’”


Hall says Daniel’s support of successful efforts to defund UT’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion and other legislative fiats related to the state’s land-grant university suggest he “seems to have a vendetta against the University of Tennessee.”

Not so, says Daniel, who received undergraduate and graduate degrees at UT before getting his JD at the University of Memphis. He says he merely represents the will of the people of the 18th District, citing town-hall meetings and constituent surveys that consistently raised concerns about UT diversity efforts. He also says that he is “big on oversight of government agencies,” and that would be again reflected in his next term, should he prevail in the primary.

“I’d like to prevent them from making mistakes,” he says of UT, and plans to push for an independent audit of the university system if reelected.

Misty Anderson, the UT professor who recently took Daniel to task in a Huffington Post column, says the legislator’s disdain for government oversight—blasted on billboards across the county—doesn’t jibe with his actions regarding the university.

“It was my 14-year-old son who first noticed the ‘Lesser Government’ billboard and said, ‘Mom, that is just wrong!’” Anderson wrote in an email after a request for comment.

“Grammatically, it is wrong, but I also find it misleading. Daniel has pushed legislation to overturn UT regulations that banned guns in classrooms and offices on campus, legislation that is against the will of the vast majority of faculty, the UTPD, and the KPD.

“He’s voted for new laws that micromanage the university’s business in ways I haven’t seen in my 20 years there. He’s even suggested that the Legislature might override UT’s traditional governance structure by dismissing the Board of Trustees. That seems like a whole lot more government to me.”

Hall says UT is a “tremendous asset to us in Knoxville and to the state,” and Daniel’s pushback and “all the negative publicity” hurts recruiting and student retention.

Hall paints himself as more approachable than Daniel and able to help navigate constituents through the maze of state agencies. He cites a law making it a misdemeanor to knowingly infect someone with hepatitis and revisions to annexation law as his main legislative successes.

Extremes Rule the Day

Corcoran says Daniel’s hard-right crusades could ultimately reflect negatively on the state. But the back-and-forth between Daniel and the media and accompanying liberal condemnation reflects the state of American politics as a whole.

“Everyone just sits around telling each other how right they are,” says Corcoran, a juvenile court attorney, during an interview at his Central Avenue law office.

Extremes rule the day, he says. “I’d like to be considered as someone who can at least respect all viewpoints.”

Indeed, Corcoran played a little rope-a-dope with Daniel’s comments on Ali. He posted the entirety of Ali’s famous “handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail” quote on his Facebook page following Daniel’s comments.

“West Knoxville, in particular, is very weary of that manner of politics,” Corcoran says.

But Dodson, a political consultant, describes the 18th “as a very conservative district,” though he doesn’t want to weigh in on Daniel’s seemingly inflammatory rhetoric. “The rank and file there who vote are very conservative people,” he says during an interview at his apartment off Lonas Drive in West Knoxville.

Dodson, who freely cites his fight against the alcoholism that led to a restraining order filed by his estranged wife in 2009, garnered headlines for his dismissal from Campfield’s legislative team.

“I’m not running from my past,” says Dodson, a pro-life evangelical Christian. He advocates “limited federal powers,” and such conservative chestnuts as gun rights, eliminating the federal education departments, and cutting corporate taxes.

Dodson says he considers Hall and Daniel the top contenders, and Daniel feels the heat of “the sparks that have flown in that direction.”

Ashe says Corcoran is a “dark horse” who could dilute the vote for his opponents and pull off a win, especially if he can raise money and stays “above the fray” of hard-hitting attacks between Hall and Daniel.

“Frankly, Martin Daniel’s Twitter account gave me plenty of free advertising,” Corcoran says in a follow-up message after his interview. “For example, my Facebook page had 5,000 views on the day of his Ali comments. With the base of my pre-existing network from my law practice, and now that I’m focusing on paid advertising in the West Knox area, I’m looking at averaging about 17,000 post views per week.” 

Health-Care Reform

While Corcoran appears the more moderate of the four candidates, he still offers conservative bona fides. He describes himself as an “’80s Republican,” and is pro-life. But unlike his opponents, Corcoran supports wide-ranging health-care reform along the lines of the now-defunct Insure Tennessee, which would have expanded Medicaid within the state.

Corcoran, in fact, says he was motivated to run by the opioid abuse that has become prevalent in East Tennessee. Its impact on families “is something I see every day” in his role as a juvenile court attorney, he says. He says this led to his endorsement by the Knox County Political Action Committee for Education, though he also opposes vouchers, anathema to public educators.

Hall agrees with the need to expand the health-care safety net, but for now defers to the proposal from the GOP-empaneled “3-Star Healthy Project” task force, which in late June proposed a priority on expanding Tenncare to veterans and those with behavioral health issues.

“The task-force recommendations seem like a step in the right direction, and given the overall climate in the Legislature, it may be the plan with the most realistic chance of success,” Corcoran says. “It does seem to still leave a significant coverage gap, which concerns me.” 

Dodson also deferred to the findings of the task force, but says options for improving health coverage include allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, as did Hall.

Daniel says expanding TennCare was distasteful as it was “an integral part of Obamacare,” and could have placed a “financial burden on the state.” He says he would examine the findings of the legislative task force, but agreed with its emphasis on preventative care and providing a “fiscally sound, conservative solution to providing health care to those people in that gap.”

He says citizens should be leery of expansive government policies, and cites the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs as examples of government mismanagement.

‘Turn out their Voters’

Daniel says his priorities if reelected would include additional efforts to limit civil forfeitures and a review of state transportation funding and an examination of the current state fuel tax, though he adds that he’s “philosophically against any kind of tax increase.”

Knox County Democratic Chairman Cameron Brooks says Daniel’s indelicate statements don’t necessarily put the county and city in a poor light, rather, “I think it reflects poorly on him.” It will be up to an expected light turnout of some 4,500 GOP primary voters to repudiate him, he says.

Despite the slings and arrows of this campaign cycle, Daniel points to his successes in the Legislature: He was the primary sponsor of 14 pieces of legislation passed in the two sessions he has held the seat.

The Tennessee chapter of the National Federation of Small Businesses, typically a conservative stalwart, awarded Daniel its Guardian of Small Business award for his work during the last legislative session. He was also deemed a “taxpayer” hero by the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Prosperity, founded by the conservative Koch brothers, and described by the Center for Media and Democracy as being opposed to “labor unions, health care reform, stimulus spending, and any effort to combat climate change including President Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan.”

But Knox County voters will be the final arbiters of this race on Aug. 4, with the winner going on to the Nov. 8 general election.

18th District House Primary: Financial Disclosures

State Rep. Martin Daniel owes himself a lot of money.

The 18th District representative, facing challengers from three directions in the Aug. 4 GOP primary race, has outstanding “self-endorsed” loans totaling $184,600, according to second-quarter state campaign financial disclosure statements. The deadline to file was Monday. Daniel has outspent the second-highest spending candidate by nearly 10 times.

Former Knoxville councilman and previous 18th district representative Steve Hall has $10,000 in loans owed to him by his campaign.

Hall joins attorney James Corcoran and political consultant Bryan Dodson in seeking to unseat Daniel, the owner of an outdoor advertising firm who squeaked by Hall by less than 200 votes in the 2014 primary.

Daniel, who loaned his campaign $35,000 last quarter and raised $40,000 in itemized contributions, led the pack in political spending in the quarter. His campaign listed $72,330 in expenditures. His loan total includes a $75,500 loan issued to his campaign in the narrow 2014 primary race.

Hall, who had the most money to begin the quarter—$42,00 —has spent $8,475. He raised $11,445 in itemized contributions, including a total of $6,500 from the Haslam family for both primary and general election purposes.

Corcoran raised $3,625 in itemized contributions last quarter and loaned his campaign $2,087 in the second quarter and $2,529 in the first quarter. He has spent $4,941 but planned to up his spending before the primary with the $5,070 left in his war chest.

Dodson, who said it would be a point of honor to spend the least of any of the candidates, did not file a disclosure form, and said he would spend less than $1,000 on the race.

Go to tn.gov for the full reports.


Knox County-based journalist Thomas Fraser is a native of Charleston, S.C. who grew up in Oak Ridge and Knoxville. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and has worked as an editor and reporter for daily newspapers and websites in Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia.

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