(a rainy day knocking on doors in the Sterchi Hills neighborhood)
“Free hot dogs, no speeches,” a phrase I tweeted, facebooked, and typed countless times over the past year as campaign manager for the Tim Burchett for Congress campaign. This phrase in many ways embodies the spirit of our unorthodox campaign, and in a broader sense our community. We spent the last year traveling around Tennessee’s second congressional district, and getting to know the humble Appalachian people that comprise it. As a 22 year old recent college graduate, it was an experience rich in adrenaline, hardship, new discoveries and ultimately fulfillment.
East Tennessee is one of the greatest places to live in the entire world, due largely to the people that inhabit the area. I met a lot of unique characters, formidable opponents and lifelong friends along this journey.
One of those friends is Charles “Squirrel” Cameron. When I first met Squirrel, he told me, “Some know me as Charles, Some know me as Cameron, all know me as Squirrel.” Squirrel is a longtime member of the Alcoa Board of Education. You cannot go anywhere in Blount County without finding someone who knows (and loves) Squirrel. I jokingly call him the Godfather of Alcoa.
Squirrel doesn’t own a cellphone, so we often had long games of phone tag. This resulted in numerous voicemails from Squirrel, that always began with a sing-song chorus of, “Burchett ’18!” These messages often came just as I needed them. Weekly I checked my voicemail box for Squirrel’s unsolicited exhortations, reminding me to “keep my head up,” and to “stay on the high road.”
It’s people like Squirrel that often met us at their doorsteps with bottled water in the July heat, and opened their homes to us with a distinct Appalachian courtesy. These are the people that make this region so special.
On the campaign trail, we encountered an absolute glut of snakes, reptilian and otherwise. Tim and I came across no fewer than four black snakes knocking on doors in July. Tim caught each of them, making for some great social media content.
Unfortunately, we came across a fair amount of slippery characters that didn’t crawl on their bellies. Everyone knows that politics is a dirty business, but nothing could’ve prepared me for what pundits came to call, “the dirtiest race in recent memory.” Anonymous emails, illegal robocalls, double agents, pornographic mail pieces, and salacious headlines abounded. Open hostility from some of our opponents became the norm. Civility was tossed out with the bathwater.
This only motivated us to work that much harder, and made victory that much sweeter. Ronald Reagan had it right. Voters are a lot smarter than the big shots give them credit for, and they saw through hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of deception.
A few months ago, a friend approached me with doubts about Tim’s ability to win. He cited the fact that we chose not to accept or seek out endorsements, our loose “free hot dogs, no speeches” style, and the fact that no one in Tennessee has won a republican congressional primary without raising at least a million dollars in over a decade. He posed the question to me, “so are you going to lose, or is Tim an anomaly, a unicorn?” I pointed out that BigFoot was the more fitting mythical creature for the analogy, and doubled down on my belief.
In many campaigns, supporters and volunteers coalesce behind a vision, or an idea. In this race, the nearly one hundred key volunteers we came to rely on united behind a man. They did this because they’ve seen him cross two lanes of traffic in driving rain to save an injured box turtle. They’ve seen him buy lunch for the starving stranger at Bojangles. They’ve seen him stop to change countless flat tires in his suit. They’ve seen this not because he boasts of it, but because that is who is. It is his humility that makes him so uniquely qualified to do this job.
There were many lessons, trials and rewards over the last year on the campaign trail. Ultimately, I can rest, gratified that our yearlong effort resulted in the nomination of the most qualified candidate East Tennessee has seen in decades.