When U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, R-Knoxville, retires as the 115th Congress ends next year, the end of an era will be marked.
Duncan, who announced yesterday that he will not seek re-election in 2018, will ride off into the congressional sunset with 30 years of leadership in Tennessee’s 2nd District under his belt. Voters of the greater Knoxville area sent him to Washington in 1988 after a special election to replace his father, John J. Duncan Sr., who was battling cancer. John Duncan served 23 years in Congress. Together, father and son represented the 2nd District for 52 years. The Duncans’ half-century tenure of congressional representation will end next year; Duncan’s sister, State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, has already told the Knoxville News Sentinel that she is not interested in running for her brother’s seat.
Duncan may have spent much of his life in Knoxville, but he has strong Scott County ties. John Duncan was a native Scott Countian, one of 10 children born to Flem and Cassie Duncan of Helenwood. Among his siblings was Joe Duncan, who enjoyed a highly respected career in the judiciary that began as a criminal court judge in Knoxville. Most of Jimmy Duncan’s close relatives are gone from Scott County these days (his closest is first cousin Duane Limburg, of Oneida), but several of the Duncans in Scott County have family ties with the descendants of Flem and Cassie Duncan. The Duncan family cemetery is in Huntsville, just off Baker Highway next to United Cumberland Bank.
John Duncan’s rise to stardom was well documented. From his humble start in Scott County, he hitchhiked to Knoxville with five dollars in his pocket to attend the University of Tennessee. He was elected mayor of Knoxville during tumultuous times and was credited with helping stave off race riots during the civil rights movement. In fact, the reason history books don’t contain stories of racial strife in Knoxville in the 1960s — like the violence that impacted other Southern cities, like Atlanta and Birmingham — was largely because of Duncan’s leadership. He worked to end segregation in Knoxville and was a popular figure among the city’s black population until his death.
John Duncan was elected to Congress in 1965, taking the place of Scott County’s Irene Baker. Baker had succeeded her husband, Howard H. Baker Sr., who died after 13 years in Congress. Scott County has long since been removed from the 2nd District, but the 2nd District seat has been held by someone with Scott County ties since 1951. That will change next year.
When John Duncan died in 1988, it was almost a given that his son would take his place. And in the three decades since, Jimmy Duncan has never faced a serious challenge for the seat, winning re-election every two years without much of a fight. In fact, there were several consecutive terms in the 1990s when Duncan didn’t even face opposition from a Democrat on the ballot, which spoke to his popularity — and, of course, Knoxville’s deeply red political persuasion.
In a statement on Monday, Duncan said that it is time for him to move on, and that he has contemplated retirement since before the 2016 election.
“Since then, in part, because people knew or assumed that I might be thinking about retiring, I have never had so many people urging me to run again,” Duncan said. “Also, because of the recent attacks against me from the far left, my support among the conservative base has never been more enthusiastic.”
To be fair, a great deal of the recent scrutiny facing Duncan resulted from a critical story in the Nashville Post on July 7, which examined Duncan’s use of campaign funds. The Post is a left-leaning paper and can hardly be considered without journalistic bias. After all, writer Cari Wade Gervin ended the report with this sentence: “Constituents and donors may finally decide that 54 years of all in the Duncan family is enough.” Most self-respecting journalists writing an investigative report wouldn’t even consider such a partisan statement, let alone have the audacity to think it would make it past their editors.
Still, the questions raised by the Post’s report were fair, and questions that would deserve asking of any politician, regardless of whether the letter after their name is an “R” or a “D”.
But it’s almost unthinkable that the Post’s report would have played a role in Duncan’s decision to retire; it was published little more than three weeks ago. And other aspects of the criticism Duncan has faced in recent months have been initiated by the far left — such as Indivisible East Tennessee, a branch of a national movement to introduce civil unrest at conservative politicians’ town hall-style meetings.
Those attacks seemed to take their toll on Duncan’s patience. The normally genial congressman responded with a letter that read, in part: “I do not intend to give more publicity to those on the far left who have so much hatred, anger and frustration in them. I have never seen so many sore losers as there are today.”
Duncan also feuded with the Washington Post this year. Himself a former journalist and journalism instructor, Duncan lashed out st one of the Post’s writers — Philip Rucker — by calling him a “left-wing hack” on the House floor.
While Duncan’s statements were widely criticized, they didn’t seem to be too irrational. As part of his prepared remarks, Duncan said there was a time when there was “a clear separation between the front page and the editorial page.” The Post article he was referring to appeared on the front page of the Post, bearing the headline, “Trump reacts to London terror by stoking fear and renewing feud with mayor,” hardly a nonpartisan or unbiased approach by a newspaper that has essentially been at war with the Trump administration.
Given that Duncan, who just turned 70, already seemed a bit weary when his current term started (Knoxville News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy penned a column in January speculating that this might be Duncan’s final term), it’s likely little surprise that he has decided to step aside. There had even been rumors that term-limited Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett might oppose Duncan in next year’s Republican primary. While Burchett has openly speculated that he might run for either the House of Representatives or the Senate, he said Monday — just hours before Duncan announced his retirement — that he will make a public announcement about his future plans on Saturday. The timing of that announcement seems to indicate that Burchett had advance knowledge of Duncan’s pending retirement, and perhaps that he will seek Duncan’s seat with the congressman’s blessing. In a statement Monday evening, Burchett called Duncan “a friend,” and said “few families have made a bigger impact in East Tennessee than the Duncan family.”
When Duncan bids Congress farewell next year, he will exit as a conservative stalwart. But he also blazed his own trail in some aspects, and will retire as the last of a dying breed of statesmen.
Like his father before him, Duncan was well noted for his accessibility. John Duncan kept an open-door policy for the duration of his time in Washington and was known to always attend the Knox County Fair and give away free ice water. Jimmy Duncan, too, was known for keeping in touch with his constituents, which made last winter’s attacks by the Indivisible East Tennessee group perhaps a bit ironic.
Typically a reliable “aye” vote for conservative issues, Duncan also wasn’t afraid to occasionally stand against his party. An early supporter of Donald Trump, Duncan generated headlines earlier this year when he criticized the president for calling the press an enemy of the people, and said Trump is “bringing some of his problems on himself.” He is a member of the Liberty Caucus, a small group of libertarian-minded Republicans.
Perhaps most notably, Duncan was one of just six Republicans to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq. Four years later, he again stood against the Bush administration by voting against a resolution in support of the war.
Duncan later explained the difficulty of that decision. “I have a very conservative Republican district,” he said. “My Uncle Joe is one of the most respected judges in Tennessee. When I get in a really serious bind I go to him for advice. I had breakfast with him and my two closest friends and all three told me that I had to vote for the war. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve ever gone against my Uncle Joe’s advice. When I pushed that button to vote against the war back in 2002, I thought I might be ending my political career.”
As Duncan prepares for retirement, he will be remembered by his colleagues — certainly the Republicans, and perhaps even a few Democrats — for his gentlemanly approach to politics.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker said Monday, “I appreciate his no-nonsense, principled approach to public service and will sincerely miss his leadership and voice as a member of our delegation.” Added U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, “I am proud that Jimmy Duncan has served Tennessee’s 2nd District and been my congressman for nearly three decades — and has been recognized as the most conservative member of the House for about that long. No one has done a better job of staying in touch with his constituents than Jimmy has.” And, finally, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam remarked, “As governor, and as a constituent of his district, I am very grateful for his service to our state and our country.”