One in Legislator series:

Dan Howell focuses on education, infrastructure

By KAITLIN GEBBY
Posted 2/25/20

In August, state Rep. Dan Howell will have served the 22nd District as its representative in the Tennessee Legislature for six years. He has focused his efforts on infrastructure and education. He …

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One in Legislator series:

Dan Howell focuses on education, infrastructure

Posted

In August, state Rep. Dan Howell will have served the 22nd District as its representative in the Tennessee Legislature for six years.

 

 

He has focused his efforts on infrastructure and education. He said he wouldn’t have thought he’d become a politician, but his roots in community and connections to Tennessee have led him to represent the 22nd District. 

Howell was born in Arkansas, something he jokingly says he has a hard time forgiving his parents for. He was the only non-Tennessee-born member of his family. His father, a sharecropper, moved the family to southeast Arkansas when it came time for Howell to be born and the future representative grew up in the presence of cotton fields and gumbo. 

“I was actually born in the sharecroppers house in the middle of a cotton field,” Howell commented. “It’s about as country as it gets, but I tell people I got  to Tennessee as quickly as I could.” 

Howell’s family is scattered across the Volunteer State. He noted he has relatives buried in a small unincorporated town called Piney Grove in west Tennessee, and his grandfather R.C Howell, fought in the Battle of Chickamauga in Chattanooga. 

“My roots in Tennessee run deep,” he said, as deep as his roots in community. 

After the back-breaking work of running a farm and raising cattle in his teens, Howell attended a trade school in Kansas City, the Radio Engineering Institute. He said there were a number of ways to study communication and broadcasting at the time, but Howell was only interested in becoming an engineer. 

Fascinated by broadcasting, but lacking in “the gift of gab,” Howell became a licensed engineer, something the FCC required of radio stations at the time. They were charged with physically running the electronics at the radio station, checking the transmitter, controlling the frequency of the station to maintain a clean signal, and sometimes even climb the transmission towers. 

“Almost immediately,” after graduating, Howell landed a job at a large radio station in Kansas City known then for its easy listening. Maybe it was the tower climbing that got to him, something he said he’d never do again. After a few months as a radio engineer, he said it “just wasn’t doing it for me.” 

“It was not what I wanted to do in life,” he said. His attention was now drawing to broadcasting in a different way. 

“I wanted to be someone who disseminated information. Someone who gathered information and spoke to the public, you know? Trying to help, do something good for my community. And I couldn't see  I was doing that as an engineer, and engineering actually became boring to me after a while,” he said. 

He marched to his general manager at the station and told him of his change of heart. The manager agreed to let him audition. 

He was rejected. 

“He said, ‘I'm sorry, you just can't  be on the air,’” Howell remembered. “I had a horrible voice.” 

Howell’s Southern roots and accent to match made him stick out like a sore thumb on Midwestern radio. The nondescript accent so many radio hosts had at the time starkly contrasted with Howell’s voice, which he described as a “high tenor.” 

“Kansas City especially had some really top of the line broadcast people. I was straight out of the South,” he said. “My voice was extremely high pitched. In fact, I sang a little bit in church and I had a high tenor voice. And so you can couple that with, back in that day, the idea was to have a medium-range voice with a Midwestern, nondescript accent. I didn't have it.” 

His new dream of becoming a voice on the American frequency was wounded, but still had a pulse. Whether it was his own stubbornness or the work ethic instilled in him from his farm-raised childhood, Howell said he wasn’t ready to give up. 

Rather than quitting, he got upset and bought a cassette recorder. After working the first shift at the radio station, which started around 4:30 a.m., he would drive home and listen closely to some of the best voices Kansas City had to offer. 

“I would listen to how they turned phrase, how they use words, how they used inflection to communicate, which is so important. And then I would go home and get the newspaper. Before the kids came home from school, because they were tiny then, I would sit for an hour and read the newspaper into that cassette recorder and play it back and critique it,” he said. 

Eventually, a natural voice came through and he was on the air within a year. He transferred to Wichita, Kansas, where he became the production manager and morning radio host. That led to an offer in the Chattanooga area, and that led him home. 

“We loved Cleveland so much, we never left,” he said. “The people of Tennessee are some of the best in the world. It felt like coming home.” 

He served as a senior anchor and managing editor at the Fox Chattanooga station for a number of years before scaling back his airtime until he finally retired in 2010. 

Soon after, the county mayor asked Howell to be his executive assistant. 

“I decided I’d give it a try. I’d never been in politics. I covered politics all throughout my career, but I’d never been in them,” he said. 

He worked as the assistant to the county mayor for five years, at which point he decided he’d retire “again.” 

As soon as he did, several people with the Republican Party encouraged him to run for state representative. Starting his service to District 22 in August 2014, he said it has been one of the greatest privileges.  

“I thoroughly enjoy serving the people of District 22,” he said. “It’s been one of the highest honors of my life. To be selected by people in your community to represent them in the House of Representatives in Nashville, where there’s so much history. Not just state history, but national history. I mean, that’s where the final vote was taken to give women the right to vote. I serve in that house. How’d I get there?” 

He mentioned other historic items  of the Tennessee’s Legislature, naming Davy Crockett and Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the first admiral of the U.S. Navy, as some of the greats whose minds have molded the state of Tennessee within the walls of the House he now serves. 

He  feels his lengthy service in the communications and broadcasting industry helped him foster a deep love for his community. As a reporter, he said he came to know each and every facet of Cleveland, a knowledge he continued to build as executive assistant to the county mayor.

Now, as a state representative, he said his “country boy” work ethic and work experience combine to help him properly serve his district. 

“I've always had a desire to serve. That's why I left engineering and went into radio, instead of being behind the mic, I was in front of the mic. And in TV, instead of being behind the camera, I wanted to be in front of the camera,” he said. “I've always had a desire to serve and communicate with people as best I could and keep them informed.” 

That desire to serve and provide himself as a valuable resource to the community helped him during his freshman year in Nashville’s House of Representatives, when he said he was “green as a gourd.” 

When asked about his most satisfying experience as a representative, he recalled a man he helped at a time when he was desperate and Howell seemed to be his last resort. 

He said a constituent called him, desperate for help. He had left his profession in finance to go into pastoral ministry, transferring his family’s health insurance with his change in careers. He continued to pay his premiums, but a few months after the change he received a letter stating his insurance was going to be cancelled “due to lack of payment.” 

His payments were scheduled to come out automatically, “and he’s a finance guy, he knew how to set up auto drafts,” Howell explained during an interview. 

“When he called me, he was desperate. And he was just a day or two from getting cancelled. And when you get canceled in today's climate, when you get cancelled from your health insurance, you can’t get health insurance without paying $1,000 to $1,500 a month. It's just outrageous,” Howell said. “So, he was desperate.  He had called this insurance company. He had talked to attorneys. He got as far as it can go, almost to the top of the insurance agency. But with each answer, they were always saying, ‘Well, you didn't pay your in a premium. So, I'm sorry. We're going to cancel you.’ So when he called me, he said I was his last resort.” 

Howell said “the average constituent doesn't know how to navigate the red tape,” of the bureaucratic system that many companies have adopted. After he heard his story,” I just felt so bad. And I thought there must be somebody I could call.” 

He thought to call their legislative liaison, reasoning that most major companies appoint someone to monitor their state legislature nowadays. 

“I told him the situation and explained that this guy is a sharp guy. He knows what he’s doing,” Howell recalled. “I said, ‘Somewhere along the line, the ball has been dropped.’ I said that I wasn’t looking to place blame, just to get it fixed.” 

Within 24 hours, Howell heard back that it was, in fact, the company’s fault and the man had been reinstated. 

“I got a call from him and he was almost in tears,” Howell said. 

He said that experience helped him see the many ways he can help the people of his district. It serves as a reminder “that we’re here to serve the people of Tennessee.” 

In District 22, which serves Meigs, Polk counties and portions of Bradley County, Howell said there is room for improvement in infrastructure. The representative chairs the Transportation Committee and is a member of several other subcommittees dealing in safety and infrastructure as well. 

“Infrastructure and education, I believe, are the two driving forces that underscore a good, strong economy,” he said. “Without good infrastructure, you can’t attract industry or business. They want to know that you’ve got good roads. They also want to know that you’ve got good broadband access now, because we’re in a worldwide economy now. They want to know that you have good water supply and good sewage treatment plants. And then, on the other side is education. They want to know that you've got good schools and that you're training people in your education system that will become a good pool for them to hire from for their workforce.” 

He said the state of Tennessee has been nationally highly rated for its roads for several years, and that “great strides” have been made in education, “but there’s still a long way to go.” 

Howell said he’s “extremely happy” with local education systems, “not that they’re perfect,” but he credited their current state of growth to positive forces in leadership at both Bradley County and Cleveland City schools. He also said the Partners in Industry and Education (PIE) Center has “got the government’s attention and spurred them to invest” in the up and coming project, which is expected to break ground later this year. 

He added that schools in Polk and Meigs counties have also received top honors in the last year for their work in training the future workforce. 

In infrastructure, he said the tri-county area is lacking in broadband access. 

“That has become a necessary utility. It's not just something where we stay home and play games on the internet now. No, it's a necessity for industry to do business. It's extremely important in education. It's important in telemedicine, and so on,” he said. “It's disappointing when I hear stories about kids who live in, say Reliance, and in order to do the research that they need for their homework assignment, they have to drive into Benton or somewhere and go to Hardee's, or McDonald's, or someplace like that to get on the internet to do their research. That's disappointing. It really is disappointing. But we're working on it. We've made progress.” 

Howell named a broadband deregulation bill bhe co-sponsored some years ago, but it got watered down and “we didn’t get everything we wanted, but we made progress.” 

He added that “incremental progress” will have to be the method for now. If Tennessee were to fund broadband expansion border to border, to every rural home and every business in the state, Howell said the price tag is “estimated to be $3 billion.”

“We can’t do that. We just can’t, but we can incentivize and that’s what we have,” he said. “It’s a slower process, but it gets it done.” 

Companies working to expand broadband can apply for grants from a $50 million incentive fund set up by the state as an incentive for internet expansion. Tennessee has also removed the sales tax on spools of fiber, freeing companies of a potentially thousands in savings for expansion projects. 

As highly rated as Tennessee roads might be, Howell said there are some areas of District 22 that need work or are currently under construction. 

A southbound truck lane expansion is in the works for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, according to Howell, as well as an expansion project along Highway 60. The Highway 60 project has been pushed back to spring due to the number of utility lines that must be relocated for the widening project. 

Although some of his constituents contacted him and expressed their disappointment in the delay, he said “it made sense” with all of the companies that needed to respond to their respective utility lines. 

Howell said accomplishing broadband expansion will “take some real effort,” especially for the rural areas of Meigs and Polk counties, but improvements to internet access and general infrastructure will bring District 22 firmly into the 21st century. 

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