HUNTSVILLE — If it hadn’t been for Scott County, former Congressman Jimmy Duncan said here Tuesday, neither he or his father, John Duncan Sr., would have ever been elected to the U.S. Congress.
Duncan reminisced on Scott County’s importance to the 1964 campaign of his father during a Dr. Manny Sethi town hall meeting in Huntsville Tuesday afternoon. Duncan accompanied Sethi to Scott County — and to the hometown of the late U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. — to formally endorse Sethi for the Senate seat being vacated by Lamar Alexander.
Duncan, who retired from the U.S. House of Representatives last year after 30 years in Congress, never represented Scott County; the districts were realigned before he succeeded his father in office in 1989. But he nevertheless has strong ties to Scott County; John Duncan was born and raised in Huntsville.
The sixth of 10 children of Cassie Lee and Flem Baird Duncan, John Duncan famously hiked to Knoxville to attend school at the University of Tennessee after winning a $25 Sears-Roebuck scholarship. He made the trip with $5 in his pocket, pledging that he would one day be elected mayor of Knoxville.
Jimmy Duncan recounted that story to an audience at the Scott County Office Building on Tuesday.
“Neither my dad nor me would have ever been in Congress if not for Scott County,” Duncan said. After three terms as Knoxville’s mayor — he didn’t lose a single precinct in any of his three mayoral campaigns, and was credited with helping Knoxville avoid much of the racial violence that saddled other Southern cities during the Civil Rights era — John Duncan decided to run for Congress in 1964. He won, replacing Irene Baker, who had served in an interim role following the death of her husband, Congressman Howard Baker Sr. It was the only close race he ever had; in 11 re-election bids, he generally won by wide margins, before his untimely death in the summer of 1988, at the age of 69.
John Duncan might have lost that first race, a hard-fought campaign against Democrat Willard Yarborough, if not for Scott County. It has been told that his mother, Cassie Duncan, an educator, campaigned door-to-door to make sure her fellow Scott Countians voted for her son. He carried Scott County by a 2,000-to-200 margin, enough to lift him over the top — just barely. He defeated Yarborough by just under 10 percentage points, the narrowest race in the district since Baker’s first run in 1950.
“His winning margin came in Scott County,” Jimmy Duncan said. “I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for Scott County.”
“Momma and Poppa Duncan had an outhouse and 10 children and not a whole lot more,” Duncan said of his grandparents, whose farm was located near where Tennier Industries now stands. “But Momma Duncan was a fierce campaigner.
“Poppa Duncan used to say you couldn’t not make it to heaven if you weren’t a Presbyterian and a Republican, but if you were it sure gave you a leg up,” Duncan added.
Duncan said that he had been a loyal Republican most of his life. He donated his first check as a grocery bagboy — “Nineteen dollars and some odd cents” — to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. He later campaigned for Richard Nixon and “supported Republicans all the way down the line.” He was one of the earliest Republicans in Congress to endorse Mitt Romney for president in the former Massachusetts governor’s bid to run against Barack Obama in 2012. But in hindsight, he said, he regretted his support for Romney, who has been a staunch critic of President Donald Trump and has spoken in support of Black Lives Matter.
Romney’s stances on BLM and President Trump were Duncan’s lead-in to endorse Sethi over his opponent, Bill Hagerty, who was Romney’s national finance chairman in the 2012 presidential campaign.
“Knowing you people like I do, I bet you’re fed up with this political correctness,” Duncan said, adding that people “have been brainwashed by liberal political professors into thinking this is a racist nation, even though it’s a nation that’s done more for minorities than any other country in the world.”
As for BLM, Duncan said it is a “left-wing, Marxist organization.” And Hagerty? “He has spent most of his career with Mitt Romney.”
Trump has endorsed Hagerty in the Republican primary, but Duncan said he doesn’t believe Trump realizes that Sethi’s views align more closely with the president’s than Hagerty’s do.
“He can be one of the stars of the Republican Party if he can win this race,” Duncan said.
Sethi, a trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, is considered an underdog to Hagerty, but seems to be gaining momentum as the primary campaign nears the finish line.
At Tuesday’s town hall in Huntsville, Sethi said it “means a lot to get Jimmy Duncan’s endorsement in Howard Baker’s hometown.” Like Duncan, he sharply criticized the recent race riots, though he singled out Antifa — the extreme-left political movement that sometimes advocates for violent political demonstrations — rather than the national Black Lives Matter organization.
“This mob is burning, rioting, looting in the streets. If anybody says anything, they call you a racist,” Sethi said. “And these weak-kneed Republicans in Washington, they won’t take them on. If I am your U.S. Senator, we will take them on,” he added to a round of applause.
Sethi later said of Antifa that the movement is “trying to create a race war in this country. They’re trying to tear the soul of this country apart.”
“We cannot give them an inch. Not one inch,” he added.