He’s running for his third term in the Tennessee House, touting his record on state energy policy and trimming government. His challenger questions his record on representing the children and residents of the district, rather than special interests.
The two Republican candidates for the House seat in District 33, which includes most of Anderson County, are the incumbent, Representative John Ragan, and his GOP challenger, Caitlin Nolan. They will face off in the state Republican primary on Thursday.
It’s not clear who the winner will face in November. Misty Neergaard, the only candidate listed on the ballot in the state Democratic primary, has dropped out of the race, although she withdrew too late for her name to be taken off the ballot. There is a write-in candidate on the Democratic ticket, Leslie Agron of Oak Ridge.
During an interview last week, Ragan said legislators have eliminated 14 government organizations in the past two years, and a dozen legislative committees have been cut.
He said he’s helped to make state energy policy a top priority.
Asked about the challenge posed by Nolan, Ragan said: “It’s a race. My opponent is making me work hard, which is good for the voters even if it’s a strain on the candidates.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican, visited Oak Ridge on Friday to lend support to Ragan. She said he’s the only member of the House that completely understands energy policy, which is important to District 33 and Oak Ridge, home to several U.S. Department of Energy facilities.
“I support him 100 percent,” Harwell said. She said Ragan is a “man of conviction” and a good conservative who reads and understands the bills proposed in the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville.
But critics, including Nolan and her supporters, as well as Neergaard, have criticized Ragan for his controversial stances on a few bills related to children. They have suggested he hasn’t done enough to protect victims of child abuse or bullying.
One of the bills in question was called the Classroom Protection Act. Critics have said it was a revised version of a controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill and could have led to more bullying of school children.
But on Friday, Ragan, a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, said it did the opposite. Citing his belief in the principle of small government, Ragan said the bill gave more control to teachers and administrators.
Opposing the bill, Marcel Neergaard—who is Misty Neergaard’s son and had been bullied—helped start a petition last year that was signed by 56,000 people. A “Reformer of the Year” award that Ragan had received from StudentsFirst was then rescinded, Nolan said.
“He embarrassed the people of the district,” she said, referring to the legislator.
But Ragan has said he “will always fight to protect our kids from bullying and discrimination in our schools.”
When she announced her campaign this spring, Neergaard said her son’s actions on the petition drive had inspired her to run for office for the first time. It’s not clear why she dropped out. Oak Ridge Today was unable to reach Neergaard for comment on Tuesday or Wednesday.
In an interview last week, Nolan also cited Ragan’s lone vote on a House bill that passed 94-1 in April 2011 and allows a court to prohibit anyone convicted of child abuse or aggravated child abuse from contacting a victim if the convict doesn’t have parental rights.
The representative should stand up for children every time, said Nolan, a 2008 graduate of Oak Ridge High School. She touted her own anti-bullying efforts, including while still in high school, work that gained her national attention.
Asked about the 2011 bill, Ragan has said he campaigned for a smaller government, and there are already two laws in place that do what the legislation did, as well as two court decisions.
“It was a feel-good bill,” Ragan said Friday. He said he would vote the same way again today.
Ragan has been attacked in two successive campaigns over that bill, including in 2012, when he beat former Rep. Jim Hackworth.
Nolan said the legislator’s campaign has been helped by funding from outside groups, citing fliers mailed out by Americans for Prosperity, a group affiliated with billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. She took aim at what she called Ragan’s representation of special interests, particularly for unlimited school vouchers.
“John Ragan is out of touch with our values,” Nolan said. “I don’t understand how you take money out of our public school system and improve it. I have some real reservations.”
Ragan said Americans for Prosperity has branches in every state, and he supports government vouchers for failing students and failing schools. He said K-12 education spending has increased 200 percent since 1956 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while performance has gone down. He cited the GI Bill as an example of a system that works.
“I’m a pragmatist,” Ragan said.
If re-elected, the incumbent said, he wants to focus on “tech” and skilled jobs; making government smaller and more efficient, but without cutting services; and completing the energy policy. He said Tennessee is one of 11 states that don’t have an energy policy.
“If nothing else, I want to get something out there,” he said.
Ragan said Nolan is well-intentioned and ambitious, but “she lacks the experience and the judgement needed.”