Chairman John Crawford says local government experience gives him “leg up” on new leadership role

By Linda Bryant

Rep. John Crawford learned his skills as a public servant when he was working as a county commissioner for East Tennessee’s Sullivan County, where people’s primary concerns often revolve around basic necessities such as having clean water, safe streets and good schools.
In a short time, Crawford, who was elected to represent District 1 in 2016, has established himself as a leader at the state level. But he hasn’t left the nuts and bolts issues of local government behind. In fact, Crawford has a reputation of parlaying his support—and deeper knowledge of local issues—into tangible results that help at both the local and state level.
Recognizing Crawford’s experience and reputation, Speaker of the House Glen Casada recently tapped him to be chairman of the powerful House Local Government Committee. The influential 16-person committee is responsible for legislation addressing all forms of local government; matters dealing with local government employees and expenditures; ordinance issues, boundary lines, veterans affairs, public lands, preservation of historical landmarks, and other unique issues specific to cities and towns across the state.
“Representative Crawford has done an incredible job building strong partnerships with our local leaders throughout Tennessee, which has played a critical role in helping our General Assembly identify and create innovative solutions to better address the unique needs of our citizens,” Speaker Casada said at the time of Crawford’s appointment in January. “I know he will be an effective leader of the House Local Government Committee, and I appreciate his dedication to our state and his service on this important committee.”
Crawford owns two businesses in Kingsport, a printing company and an engraving and trophy business. He has also been involved in volunteer law enforcement for more than 20 years, and certainly has his hands full these days. He says he’s able to rise to the occasion and meet new challenges because of the support of his family and employees.
“I’m very blessed and fortunate to have the employees that I have,” Crawford said. “They are making it easier for me to come and serve the people. I don’t think anybody has been with me at the company for less than 18 years. My wife LeeAnn is there at the printing company, and she pretty much runs that portion of the business. My mother and father started the printing business about 50 years ago, and they are now running my custom engraving plaque and trophy business.”
Crawford says he and his wife are experiencing empty nest syndrome. Their daughter Jessica is a sophomore at the University of Tennessee studying special education with a minor in American Sign Language.
“I’m pretty much gone Sundays through Thursdays,” Crawford said. “We all manage to do a lot of FaceTiming and phone calling. And I have to give a lot of credit to my wife. She is a really special lady to put up with all of this so that I can make a difference.”

TT&C: Tell us about your background? Where did you grow up and go to school?
JC: I’m an East Tennessee boy, originally from Kingsport. I grew up in the mountains between Kingsport and Bristol in the Bloomingdale community. I’ve been there pretty much all of my life. I attended public school and then attended a private school, Kingsport Christian School. That’s where I graduated high school. From there I went to college at East Tennessee State University. I studied business and played football.

TT&C: Before being elected to the House in 2016 you served as a Sullivan County Commissioner for many years. Why did you get involved at that level and what were you interested in doing?
JC: I actually served for 10 years. I would have served 12 years but I decided to run for the state seat instead. They honored me by allowing my dad to carry out the last year-and-a-half of my county commissioner position.
That was in 2015- 2016.
As an entrepreneur and a small business owner, I was really concerned that they were not enough protections out there for the small business owners. Growing up in Kingsport, I paid a lot of attention to what was going on in our community and how it affected our businesses. So, I felt like being commissioner was an opportunity to give back. I’ve always been that type of person, even in high school. I also felt like I could do a better job than some of the other people. I knew I would give 100 percent and would work hard at it.

TT&C: Did you have certain issues in mind or how you wanted to make your mark in the community?
JC: I was interested in protection for small businesses and protection for my community—the Bloomingdale area. We were having infrastructure problems. Some people weren’t getting good, clean water. Our roads weren’t getting paved. When I was out talking to people, they didn’t feel like they were being served as they should be. I thought, “Who better than I to step up to the plate and try to make a difference?” I was really focused on what I could do to make my community a better place and to keep it from crumbling.

TT&C: How has that area changed over the past 15 years? Were you able to get some of those needs addressed?
JC: In the Bloomingdale area we finally got all the water lines put in, and people are receiving good, clean water. We did a lot of that with grants that we received through the state. When I was county commissioner, I put in the hard work for a million-dollar grant to get our roads worked on. That included guardrails and signage. We also got new school zones needed to keep our kids safer.

TT&C: You have a lot of experience working on the local level dealing with those nuts and bolts issues. Now in the legislature you are working at a much different level. How do you view the interplay of local and state government? How do you plan to work as a bridge between the two?
JC: Each plays a different—but major—role in how things get done. At the local level you touch your community in a closer way than at the state level. Things that are passed at the county commission or at the municipal level affect people on a daily basis a lot more than what we do here at the state. Coming from that perspective—and understanding how things work on the local level—gave me an advantage when I was elected to state. That’s because I already knew a lot of the needs and where we were lacking. I knew the unfunded mandates that were being sent down to us and how it really affected our community, especially from the school system side of things. We were working hard to move the school systems forward. But there were mandates that came down, and we just didn’t have the funding to do those particular things. It put a real burden on the county. I understand that side of things, and I think that’s why I have an advantage at the state level. I know how important it was to receive those state grants and to receive state funding. We were able to do so much with it. I also understood how unfunded mandates would negatively affect us. Anytime you can give the power back to people at the local level it’s better because you’re giving power to that community. They usually have a better grasp on how money needs to be spent to affect their community in a positive way.

TT&C: House Speaker Glen Casada recently named you chairman of the House Local Government Committee, a powerful committee responsible for local issues specific to cities and counties across our state. How do you plan to approach your new role?
JC: I am honored that the Speaker would have that kind of confidence in me. I think he understands the importance of having someone there that has experience in local government. When you include the subcommittee chairmen, three out of four of us have served on a county commission or city council. I think we can move forward in a way that is beneficial to local government. My approach is to present things fairly and really focus on what’s best for Tennessee and what’s best for our communities. If it’s bad, we’re not going to let it happen.

TT&C: What does your new role entail?
JC: I have three subcommittees underneath me and each one of those subcommittees is chaired by another representative. So, my job is to not only to run the full committee and perform the job of a chairman, but to also ensure the chairmen of the local government subcommittees running their committees in a fair and proper manner. The manager role—making sure that things happen on time and that things are being done properly—is very important.

TT&C: How will bills be assigned to the various subcommittees?
JC: The Speaker’s office will determine where the bills go with an emphasis on trying to avoid any double referrals. The vetting and the heavy lifting will be done in the subcommittees.

TT&C: Are there specific pieces of legislation that you are the most proud of?
JC: I’ve sponsored several pieces of legislation but if I had to pick one it would be House Bill 2384 simply because of the work that was involved. It’s commonly known as the Event Tourism Act. [This legislation supports sporting venues across the state in their efforts to land events by reimbursing host counties, local municipalities and the event venue for certain qualified event-related expenses. The monies come from an event tourism fund, backed by a percentage of the sales tax revenues generated by certain services provided at the event.]
Back home, this bill helped Bristol Motor Speedway, but it also helps places like Nissan Stadium and Bridgestone Arena –– places that affect the whole state. It helps investors bring bigger events back into our communities. This bill played a huge role in getting the NFL Draft to come here. [The 2019 NFL Draft will take place April 25-27 in Nashville’s downtown district.] Having money available to bring these big events into our communities not only helps the big communities, but the smaller communities as well. We wanted to go after events like a NASCAR, monster truck rallies or even the opportunity to go after a Super Bowl. It offsets the costs to bring in these major events, which in turn affect our restaurants, our hotels and our businesses in a positive way.

TT&C: Can you preview things coming up during this legislative session? What do you see on the horizon?
JC: Yes, I have a sense of it. We can look at the legislation that’s been filed to get an idea of what’s coming. You never know if it’s going to be move—or just sit there. Creating more jobs will be a big focus and improving the economy. We are looking at reforms for the criminal justice system including working with non-violent offenders. Gov. Lee has put a real emphasis on vocational training.

TT&C: The Legislature seems to be more focused on addressing mental health issues than in the past. Can you comment on this?
JC: We haven’t really focused on mental health issues in the past 20 years. But I hope we can solve some of the mental health problems we are having. That includes not only mental health, but also drug addiction and addressing the opioid crisis. I think a lot of people fall into this addiction because they feel hopeless or have mental health issues. It’s a tough job, and mental health is a big issue. But we really have to address that and make things better for those that are sick or suffering.

TT&C: Do you think there’s a way to address some of the state’s serious healthcare challenges without spending a lot of money?
JC: Rep. Timothy Hill is carrying some of the legislation that would work on block grants, and I know that’s a big focus for Gov. Lee and Speaker Casada. We are all looking at ways to improve the health care system. We will know more once we have put the budget together.

TT&C: You have quite a distinguished history in public safety and law enforcement, which includes serving as a reserve police officer for 18 years and being captain of the Kingsport Police Department reserve program. In 2018, Tennessee’s 31 attorney generals honored you with their Public Safety Advocate Award. Can you tell us a little more about his aspect of your life?
JC: Yes, I was a reserve officer. I started on that road back in 1998. I’ve always been a person who wants to give back. We had to go through the same rigorous training that a full-time officer does. I had the opportunity to do that throughout my county. I started as an officer and made it to captain over all of the reserves. I had to supervise those guys, make sure everything was recorded and done properly. I was on duty just like a regular officer. There were times when we were doing the exact same job as a full-time officer. Sometimes I wonder if that was the smartest thing to do, but I wanted to make a difference in my community. There were times where the full-time officers were so busy that they needed us to work in the jails or work football games or car accidents.

TT&C: Can you think of an important lesson you learned from your public safety work?
JC: I think it does take a certain kind of person to do that job. You wake up and put on a bulletproof vest and strap on a gun. It just amazes me the quality of individuals we have doing that job, especially considering the amount of pay they get. They put their lives on the line every day. The individuals who do this type of job do it because they love the work. They don’t do it for the money; they do it because they have a calling to do it.

TT&C: What are the biggest challenges local and state governments are facing?
JC: The biggest issue that local government is facing is funding. Most of their funding is based on what they get from the state or federal government and property taxes. We have to look at ways that we can bring in more funding through things like tourism and economic development and quit running the counties off the backs of the taxpayers. At the state level, I think we are in very good shape. It’s just important that we keep moving forward. We have so many positive things happening. We have our AAA Bond rating and a sound rainy-day fund. The big thing is for us to continue to be responsible as we have done over the last eight years.

TT&C: Who has influenced you the most?
JC: When I get asked that question, I like to tell people a little story. I had a good friend, Daryl Rice, who was an older gentleman I met when I was in high school. He was a mentor of mine. He was very involved with the community at the city and county level. He gave me an opportunity while I was still in high school. We had an airshow at our local airport, and he gave me the responsibility of taking care of all the parking.
It was a huge thing for a 17-year-old. Daryl was retired at the time but he had a little business card that he passed out. The card had a turtle sitting on a fence post. He told me the story about how the turtle was on top of his world when he was sitting on that fence post but there was no way that he could climb that fence post alone. He had to have someone help him get to the top. I’ve always clung to that story and still try to use it in my own life. Daryl Rice was a great mentor and because of him I got involved in the community. He encouraged me to join a local Kiwanis Club. He was just a wonderful man, and I miss him.
My mom and dad, Larry and Jane Crawford, are big influences. They are good people. They raised me right. I am grateful that they are still in my life since a lot of people don’t have their parents around.