Over the last twenty months, numerous conservative politicians have fermented rebellions against authoritarian government responses to COVID, but District 14 State Representative Jason Zachary may be the only one in the country whose greatest ally is a professional wrestling legend. “It would have been such a challenge to walk through COVID with sanity from an elected-official perspective without Mayor [Glenn] Jacobs,” Zachary said of the WWE star better known as Kane who also serves as the mayor of Knox County. “I have been so thankful for him and his friendship and his leadership of our county.”
When Knox County’s Board of Health overruled Mayor Jacobs as well as the county’s sheriff and legal director in summer 2020 and imposed a mask mandate and service curfew on bars and restaurants, Zachary found himself at the nexus of a loophole in Governor Bill Lee’s pandemic executive orders and an obscure decades-old state law outlining the powers of a board of health in times of emergency. During the prolonged battle between duly elected officials and the Board of Health, which eventually led the Knox County Commission to dissolve the entity in March 2021, Zachary worked every angle to neutralize the orders from supporting numerous pieces of legislation that would dilute local boards of health to endless meetings with Jacobs and his team. Ultimately, Jacobs was able to wrest power away from Knox County Health Director Dr. Martha Buchanan minutes after Governor Lee ended public health orders in April 2021, which resulted in Buchanan’s resignation a few weeks later. It also led Zachary to fully embrace his status as a defender of individual rights in the face of COVID.
While Zachary represents a modest suburban portion of the East Tennessee county extending from Farragut and Bluegrass to Rocky Hill, he has quickly assumed the position as one of the state’s most fervent and effective voices against despotic overreach disguised as public-health interventions. Unlike Nashville, Knoxville sits in an ununified county that is 65% Republican. Consequently, the city’s left-leaning culture and its influence on bureaucratic entities such as the Board of Health are often at odds with county residents’ politics. What happened in Knox County forced Zachary to take a deep dive into COVID research that was largely ignored or suddenly faced charges of radicalism after years of acceptance, including work by leading scientists at Yale, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins. “If we had been in an area where there was complete agreement, I don’t know that I would have been as intense in my pursuit of evidence-based data and facts,” Zachary said.
When Zachary began his stint as a state representative in 2015, he had no idea that the district he represents would become the most egregious example of pandemic-era government abuses in the state. However, his experience serving as a barrier between his constituents and detached government bureaucracy has turned him from a productive member of the House who has sponsored a wide-range of bills dealing with issues as varied as education reform and telecommunications into the governing body’s fiercest protector of civil liberties. “As government officials, our primary role is to maintain a framework of ordered liberty,” said Zachary. Before the General Assembly began its first full session of the pandemic last January, Zachary wasted no time addressing COVID-related overreach, introducing H.B. 7 to give county mayors final authority over health decisions in the six counties with their own boards of health, a bill that passed the House. He also sponsored the now-enacted Business Fairness Act that both allows businesses to remain open during states of emergency and contains an explicit option for owners to follow state guidelines if local rules are more stringent, a section of the bill which takes direct aim at Knoxville and Nashville’s rogues’ galleries of overzealous authorities with their mask mandates, curfews, and closures. Through his success with these legislative efforts, Zachary became a leader of the movement to encourage the General Assembly to call for a special session to address COVID after Governor Lee refused. When the session began last October, the product of Zachary and his like-minded colleagues’ efforts became only the third of its kind that legislators have called in the state’s history.
As Zachary waited for the session to convene, he became a bit of a social-media celebrity by posting COVID numbers from Knoxville-based Children’s Hospital on his Facebook page, data that directly contradicted pushes for Tennessee schools to adopt mask mandates. “In twenty-one months, we are still at fifty children who had been hospitalized in Knox County with no deaths,” Zachary said of the county with nearly 500,000 residents. Of those children hospitalized, 80% had severe medical conditions ranging from diabetes to asthma and obesity that made them no strangers to hospital care. Though Zachary encouraged Knoxville media outlets to report his numbers amid their apocalyptic coverage of the delta surge, no one bit. “I believe the media has in general clung to a narrative of fear and misinformation. I put the information out, and no one wants to touch it. Nobody picks it up or wants to talk about it,” Zachary said. “As soon as they [Children’s Hospital] put the information out, then it all dies down. You can’t just spin a narrative. You can’t just throw out talking points when the facts are right in front of you.”
Local media coverage frustrated Zachary during most of the pandemic, but such sensationalism only intensified as the session began. Despite a deluge of media stories claiming that Ford (the company at the center of last October’s other special session) was trying to sway legislators to temper the language of the bill’s mask and vaccine passport bans, the company never contacted House members, including Speaker Cameron Sexton, or their counterparts in the Senate according to Zachary. Taken by surprise when he saw news reports about Ford’s supposed influence over the session during its first late night, Zachary believes media entities largely manufactured the controversy. “That took on a life of its own,” Zachary said. Likewise, Zachary and his House colleagues heard little from owners or employees of music venues. “On the House side, they didn’t talk to us about it,” Zachary said. “I think that was more on the Senate side.” In fact, the most confrontation Zachary experienced was on the House floor as Nashville Representative John Ray Clemmons histrionically accused him of hypocrisy for espousing a pro-business agenda but wanting to limit what safety policies a business could enact (he also accused Republicans of wanting to segregate disabled children in what was perhaps the session’s most desperate act of camera muggery). Though Zachary dismisses most of the exchange as customary of Clemmons’s theatrics, he defends the bill’s limitations on private entities by highlighting the balance necessary to protect the rights of employees and customers and maintain business owners’ livelihoods. “When a business tries to trample on the freedom, liberty, and inalienable rights granted to us by God, we as government have a constitutional sworn responsibility to step in and defend the people we represent,” Zachary said.
While Zachary took to social media to declare the special session a success, many conservative groups such as Tennessee Stands lambasted the General Assembly for watering the bill down, especially its vaccine passport exceptions and lack of an outright ban on private mask requirements. Yet, for Zachary, the bill—which was the first of its kind in the nation—is best understood as the product of compromise amid a diverse contingent of lawmakers even within the Republican party. “Could we have held a harder line? Absolutely. But what most people don’t think about is the fact that it requires the House and Senate to agree to get it to the governor” Zachary said. “You’ve got three distinct branches in the Republican Party and we don’t all agree.” Still, Zachary does wish the bill went further to address the concerns with which groups such as Tennessee Stands take issue even though it has proven more popular with his constituents than any other legislative effort of his career. “The feedback has been phenomenal,” Zachary said. “When we do good things, you’ll get an 'atta boy' or two and some people will email thanks. I have gotten so many emails and phone calls and texts from people from all over the place with a true appreciation. Even today, every day I get emails from people around the state.”
Zachary acknowledges the law’s shortcomings, but wants to make sure that Tennesseans know exactly what protections it offers that were murky at best before the session. The impending SCOTUS endgame for President Biden’s OSHA-enforced business mandate notwithstanding, the COVID Omnibus Bill makes it illegal for Tennessee employers to ask about an employee’s vaccination status for any purpose, including election of benefits such as health insurance. Consequently, it prevents employers from taking punitive action against unvaccinated employees whether such measures come in the form of dismissal or asking the unvaccinated to pay for COVID tests. Though companies like Kroger recently announced they would add health surcharges for unvaccinated employees, they cannot enact such policies at Tennessee locations, a result of the law Zachary said he and his office had made clear to the Ohio-based grocery chain as well as other companies with national presences such as Target and Citigroup. “The most important aspect of the bill is protecting the personal health information of every Tennessean,” Zachary said. “If an employer can’t require proof of vaccination, then how the heck can they hit you with an extra fine?”
Last September, Zachary’s county again became the site of authoritarian overreach when District Court Judge Ronnie Greer blocked Governor Lee’s opt-out order for masks and required the Knox County Schoolboard to enforce a mandate under the guise of ADA compliance. Zachary immediately went to work, speaking directly to constituents on Facebook and seeking help from attorneys as well as the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation. “This is the height of judicial activism and overreach,” Zachary said. “This judge is ruling Knox County as a dictator and an oligarch. What is happening right now is everything wrong with the imbalance in our three branches of government. Who in their right mind thinks Congress would give that kind of authority to a lone federal judge in Greene County, Tennessee, to overrule an elected school board who voted twice against masks and an elected governor who provided parents an opt out? This judge is accountable to no one…We could be like this forever.”
Though Zachary plans to remain vigilant about COVID-policy overreach as omicron mania takes root this winter, he does not believe that the General Assembly will revisit the portions of the bill lawmakers axed in their negotiations during the upcoming session. According to Zachary, legislators worked hard to craft a general ban on mask mandates, but realized that they would have to carve out so many exceptions for industries that require face coverings for policies unrelated to COVID such as meat packing and chemical work that the final result would be too unwieldy—especially since most businesses have already done away with mask policies barring metropolitan cultural institutions catering to the Blue Oasis demographic. The same goes for the semantic shift that blocks music venues from requiring proof of vaccination, but still allows them to accept it in lieu of a negative COVID test for entry, a policy Zachary says most venues in Knoxville have entirely abandoned and larger entities like Bridgestone Arena enact only at the request of performers.
Zachary has amassed an impressive record defending civil liberties against irrational COVID policy, but he frames his legislative service as more the result of his dedication to sharing his faith than his status as a policy wonk. “What I am most thankful for is the platform the title has given me to advance the kingdom and further the gospel,” Zachary said. Given the role faith plays in his life, Zachary had no real interest in politics until he felt called to primary 26-year Republican incumbent Jimmy Duncan, Jr. in the 2014 congressional race during which he amassed an impressive 40% of the vote as a complete unknown. Though he once vied for that federal office, he also admits that he has no concrete plans to use his current position as a stepping stone. “I’ve probably got a couple more terms in me and then we will see what the Lord does after that,” Zachary said. Until then, he remains dedicated to opposing Judge Greer’s mask mandate for his district’s schools and the Biden administration’s federal overreach, hoping, like many of his constituents, that the general public realizes the epidemics of paranoia and authoritarianism COVID wrought are as much if not more of a threat than the virus. “There is no ripcord in the Constitution,” Zachary said, a quote his friend Mayor Jacobs repeats often as they continue the fight to maintain liberty amid the latest pandemic power grab.