JOHNSON CITY, Tenn.
Republican Ashley Nickloes is the only woman in a seven-way primary race to fill a congressional seat held by one family for five decades. She’s also the only military pilot in the race, running against a litany of odds, including the strong possibility that she’ll lose to a popular career politician who hunts Bigfoot and made it easier for Tennesseans to eat their roadkill.
Nickloes and I sat down Wednesday at the Yee-Haw Brewing Co. and talked about her decision to seek the 2nd Congressional District seat long held by retiring Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (and before that, his father). Last December, she was in Washington on her daughter’s seventh-grade class trip, during which the group visited one of her state representatives (she won’t say which one). Nickloes asked a question and got an answer that made her mad.
Her query: “In light of Congress’s inability to pass a budget and its detrimental effect on our military, do you think you’ll be able to pass a budget before the continuing resolution ends?”
His reply was that the military has everything it needs and that the Pentagon has sold the American people a bill of goods. He might as well have said, Don’t you worry your pretty head, young lady. At this, Nickloes stepped forward, extended her right hand, and said, “I’m Lt. Col. Ashley Nickloes. I fly a 1957 aircraft, and some of our enlisted men and women live below poverty. Yes or no, can you pass a continuing resolution?”
It was a moment.
For our meeting, Nickloes arrived punctually with two unpaid staff members. Wearing a navy-blue dress, a single strand of white pearls and medium heels, she resembled the flight attendant she once was en route to becoming a military pilot. Already a trained pilot, and having initially been turned down by the Tennessee National Air Guard because they felt she couldn’t handle the physical demands, she took the airline job at her father’s urging. Also a pilot, he told her to get to know the pilots, who often also serve in the Guard, and take any Guard pilot job she could get.
When the New York National Air Guard had an opening, Nickloes applied. “Yeah, we need a chick,” she recalls being told. “You’d be a quota.” Finally, an officer said: “Go to the bar tonight, drink, don’t make an ass of yourself, and we’ll hire you in the morning.”
Nickloes is preternaturally calm as she describes these and other made-for-Hollywood episodes in a life that begs for a biographer. When I use the word “serene” to describe her, she laughs. “I doubt my children or my husband would agree with that assessment.”
That is, four children, ages 8 to 15, and a fifth, Gabriel, who died after being born prematurely. I asked how she manages a family, including her surgeon/professor husband; her career as a commander in the Tennessee Air National Guard and the U.S. Air Force; eight deployments since 9/11, including five times to the Middle East, flying a KC-135 Stratotanker — she refuels aircraft in flight — while also (are you kidding?) pursuing a master’s degree in the “operational art of war.”
Faith and family, she answered. “I am blessed to serve. If my family and faith are strong, my service is stronger.”
Thus far, Nickloes lags behind her fellow GOP contenders in fundraising and, therefore, exposure, mostly because she’s had only about 100 days to build a campaign after returning in April from her most recent deployment. Her toughest opponent, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, is a former member of both the state House and Senate and has never lost an election.
His popularity is unrivaled, perhaps, because as a legislator, he eliminated red tape for people who want to quickly scoop up their roadkill. He is also well known as an avid Bigfoot hunter, which prompted Nickloes to wonder aloud: “If I kill Sasquatch, does that mean he’s mine?”
Nickloes, meanwhile, has won the endorsement of the Knoxville News Sentinel, and a fundraising group in Washington, “Defending Main Street,” just released a six-figure ad about Nickloes for the Knoxville market.
Should Nickloes beat the odds and win the Aug. 2 primary, and ultimately be elected, she’ll continue serving in the Guard and hopes to apply her experiences to tackling defense and health care, as well as term limits. Serving in Congress, she says, should be like any other mission. You do the job, and then you go home.