Curtis Johnson: Victory in the Face of Tragedy

Curtis and Marsha Johnson

Political campaigns are a lot like sports. It is a competition. I like the gamesmanship. This game we play — it’s fun. And I love beating Democrats. But sometimes the outcome matters to you on a personal level. Politics, after all, is about people. And when you care about the people involved, when you become deeply invested in their lives, it’s about more than putting points on the board and getting the win. It becomes more than a game. It becomes a mission.

That’s what this story is about. It’s about a bad thing happening to a good man and a good family. It’s about finding a way to triumph in the face of tragedy.

In 2003, Curtis Johnson came to see me to talk about running for the State House against Tommy Head, the sponsor of the failed state income tax bill and the very, very powerful Chairman of the Finance Committee. He was also the brother of the most popular woman — perhaps the most popular person — in Tennessee: legendary Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Head Summitt. Everyone thought Tommy was unbeatable.

The first time I met Curtis it was clear he had done his homework. He came in with spreadsheets, paperwork and vote totals. He knew what he was talking about. He also had the stature to take Tommy out. Curtis was already vice mayor of Clarksville, a businessman and a bank board member. To top things off, this guy had good political instincts.

We talked for about an hour and then Curtis said to me, “What do you think?”

I said, “I think we can do this.”

The two of us became good friends after that. We talked on a daily basis. But it wasn’t just business. We would hang out. At one point, my wife Lei Ann and I joined him and his son Daniel at a Tennessee Titans game. Daniel was graduating high school and getting ready for his first year of college. Curtis had a great family and we all just hit it off.

But late in August, I got a call that rocked me to the core. On his way home from putting up yard signs for his father’s campaign, Daniel was killed in a car accident.

It’s been many years since that happened, and even now it is tough to relive it. It was devastating — one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. Certainly the worst relating to any campaign I’ve been a part of.

If you’ve ever gone through a tragedy, you know that inevitably your mind will return to the practical questions of life, and it becomes very hard to deal with, because you almost feel guilty about it. Who can think of something like thatat a time like this? But I admit it crossed my mind: Curtis might not want to continue the campaign. It was something I could totally understand. Who could blame him?

Two days after the funeral, Curtis called me. “Well, I just want to let you know,” he said, “I’m not dropping out.” He went on to add: “I’m not going to be able to run the kind of campaign we talked about running. I’ve got to spend time with my other boys. I’ve got to spend time with my wife. I’m just not going to be able to put near as much time into it.”

I told him that I understood and that I was going to do whatever it took to help him win.

I meant it. You feel helpless when a friend is going through a time like that. My attitude was: winning this race might not do much to comfort him, but it’s something I can help him do.

Victory became my absolute obsession. Our team at the Tennessee Republican Party did a lot of fundraising and helped send money Curtis’ way, which is something the candidate traditionally is responsible for. We did a ton of direct mail. We knocked on a ton of doors. We made a ton of phone calls. We did everything we could think to do to help him win.

It turned out that by the fall Curtis was able to re-engage in the race. He campaigned hard. He was going door-to-door, he was at the headquarters making voter calls, he was going to events. He knew, as we all did, it was going to be a tough race. Tommy Head was spending an unprecedented amount of money on advertising, especially television, which we couldn’t match. But Curtis was not going to back down.

Head was in a tough position. After such a public tragedy, his team did not want to go negative against Curtis. Although in the end, they did. My sense is they simply didn’t know what else to do.

Our main line of attack was to say that Tommy had been around so long that he had lost touch with the voters. Our money line was, “It’s time for Tommy to Head home.” Tommy had essentially “gone Nashville,” in the same way that so many national politicians “go Washington.”

We also did a radio ad that talked about Head voting to raise his own pay, which we had recorded by this great voice guy, Jack Parnell, whose son Chris Parnell had been on Saturday Night Live. We sent our script off to Jack and the next day he sent us this terrific thirty second clip. We ran that thing constantly. You couldn’t take a car ride in Clarksville without hearing it.

We started seeing signs that our efforts were working — literally. People started defacing Tommy Head’s signs. On one of the larger ones, some genius added the word “gives” between his first and last name, and also drew an object — I’ll leave what it was to your imagination — pointing toward the picture of Tommy’s face.

Meanwhile, you couldn’t drive anywhere without seeing signs for Curtis. On Memorial Drive, a well-traveled road in the area, just about every house had a Curtis Johnson sign in the front yard. The talk was shifting in our favor and the Democrats were running scared.

Still, all I could think about was Head’s TV advantage. So election night came, and I was pensive. The polls we had seen looked pretty good, but when it comes time to show your cards, you can never fully trust the polls. Anything could happen.

But we had reason to be hopeful. It was raining on election day, but we nevertheless had people at virtually every polling station wearing t-shirts and holding up signs for Curtis. Tommy Head didn’t have anyone. At headquarters, it was a zoo. You simply couldn’t move in the place. Curtis’friends were really pulling for them. Pretty much everyone who knew him came out and stuffed themselves in that concrete building to show their support.

When the results came in, it wasn’t even close. Curtis Johnson had whipped Tommy Head by a full ten points. Then came one of the best moments of my career to that point.

Campaign work is in many ways a thankless job. If you lose, you take the blame. If you win, you did what was expected of you. But that wasn’t Curtis. He said, “I just wanted to thank you and say that I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Here was a guy who had just gone through the worst tragedy imaginable, the loss of his son, and his first reaction upon winning was to take a moment to say “thank you.” Pure class. That’s Curtis Johnson.

Since then, Curtis has remained in the State House, and is now the Speaker Pro Tempore, the second most powerful leadership position in the House. He’s really made an impact, and knowing I played a small part in that gives me a deep sense of satisfaction.

Although Curtis’ victory was the highlight of my night, it was far from the only good news. That was the year the Republicans won the State Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. Democrat lobbyists all across the state were weeping. It was fantastic.

But in the end, what mattered most to me is that I had made a promise to help my friend win, and I kept that promise.

Johnson presiding over the chamber as Speaker Pro Tempore in 2018