From physician to politician, from Northeast Tennessee to Washington D.C., Congressman Phil Roe, MD, is on the move. Not satisfied to sit back, enjoy retirement, and let Congress decide what's best for East Tennesseans, Roe now travels extensively across the area, listening to the concerns of the people he represents and taking their petitions to Capital Hill.
Throughout his career as an obstetrician in the Tri Cities, Roe stayed interested and involved in politics, eventually serving as mayor of Johnson City; and three years ago, he was approached by members of the community to run for Congress. While the first campaign resulted in a close loss, when he ran again, Roe was one of only two Congressmen out of 435 who beat an incumbent in their own primary. "It was very humbling to know that I would go represent what is in the best interest of my district," said Roe, "but I felt I got to know them [the people] well from practicing medicine with them for many years."
Serving the community for 31 years as a healthcare provider, now serving them by fighting for their healthcare rights, Roe's determination to stand up against what many consider a bad system is evident. "I brought a philosophy up here—a very simple one, really—what we did in Johnson City: spend less than we take in. That is not the philosophy here [Washington, D.C.]."
Continued Roe, "Two things that have shocked me the most up here: the partisanship and the spending. I had never worked in a partisan environment where if you are a Republican or a Democrat, you just oppose somebody because they are a Republican or a Democrat. . . .you should simply solve problems."
Amid the differing views on one of the most controversial issues America has faced, Roe brings a practical approach from a professional who knows: "Healthcare is a people issue. And it shouldn't matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican. If you have a heart attack, it's just a heart attack. I've never seen a Democrat or Republican heart attack, or I've never operated on a Democrat or Republican cancer in my life; it's just a people problem."
Roe's representation is very empathetic as well. Like many members of his district, Roe comes from simple beginnings and has worked hard throughout his life. From Stewart County, Tennessee, the smallest populated county in the state, Roe's first home and school both lacked indoor plumbing and running water, as did many in the tiny farming community. His family eventually moved to Clarksville, where his father worked for BFGoodrich and his mother for Northern Bank. As did many of his peers, Roe ran track and played ball in high school, and every summer, as an Eagle Scout, he worked at the Knoxville Scout Reservation, and still has very close friends from those years.
Reflecting back on his time there, he recalled, "My first summer, I washed 350 dishes, 3 times a day, and I determined I didn't want to be a dishwasher for the rest of my life.
"I must have washed them pretty good because from then on, they made me the dining hall director," Roe chuckled.
A self-described "one man show," Roe also played the guitar, led songs around the campfire, and was the designated camp bugler. "I got up at 5:30 every morning and fed 350 scouts three times a day. I would wake them up every morning with 'Revelry' and put them to sleep with 'Taps' at nine."
While attending college at Austin Peay, Roe lived at home and sold shoes during the regular part of the year. During the summers after camp had convened, he would go to his cousin's farm and help out with the tobacco harvest. "[Tobacco farming] convinced me chemistry really wasn't that hard; I studied a little harder than the year before," Roe shared.
Roe attended medical school at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, during a very formative time for the nation's youth. In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Roe remembers extremely well the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. "It was a very scary and turbulent time in our country's history. I was a young man between the ages of 21 and 24 witnessing so much social change, Civil Rights, the Vietnam War—two very close friends were killed in the war, and I still grieve until this day for their loss," offered Roe.
Married with one son at the time, Roe was drafted and went into the Army, spending 13 months in Korea. He finished out his duty at Fort Eustis and then headed back to Memphis to finish his medical training.
With a fondness for the mountains and always one to relish time spent outdoors (as an Eagle Scout, Roe had spent over a year of his life living in a tent at camp), the call he received from Brian Dunkelberger, MD, to check out the possibility of moving to Johnson City was very attractive. "I was looking for an area where I could practice, an academic area, but in a rural area so I could get out and hike. I could see this possibility of Johnson City," explained Roe.
Consequently, Dunkelberger became his partner and one of his best friends. "It was a great decision for me," Roe said. "I joined the group, and like a lot of young doctors, I went to work, raised a family, and even coached soccer and little league basketball at Parks and Rec."
Roe's involvement in politics began early as he stayed aware of the issues and was a regular voter. He also served as president of the Tri-County Medical Society, and was active in the campaigns of Fred Thompson and Dr. Bill Frist, volunteering to help with fundraisers and organization. He was eventually asked to be on the Johnson City Regional Planning Commission. "I'll never forget the first meeting I attended. There were 50 of the maddest people, and I thought 'what in the world have I gotten myself into?'" recalled Roe.
But such an eye-opening experience didn't discourage him. He served on the commission for six years.
While Roe jokingly says the decision to run for Congress was made when he "went off his medication," he views his term in Washington exactly like his military experience, as service to his country. "I was not a career soldier, and I don't see myself as a career politician. I've had a career, 31 years of practicing medicine, seeing patients, delivering babies, and taking care of folks in Johnson City."
Being a House Representative is in no way an easy job, but Roe feels that being a physician was much more difficult. "There are decisions I've made politically, both at the city level and here in Congress. None will ever be as difficult as telling a patient that they have a terminal disease and that they can't survive. In a situation like that—where you have to say 'your hands are in God's hands now and there is nothing more that I can do for you'—I can assure you, those are heart-wrenching things I've done all too many times, much harder than any political decision," shared Roe.
"With political decisions, people can get mad at you, and they can get over it or they won't get over it, they'll beat you or run you out or whatever, but those decisions as a doctor are very, very hard. And doctors do them every day, and I try to remember that . . . every single day."
Roe attributes the quality healthcare our region-and nation—has, to the dedicated healthcare workers of which the system is comprised.
"I can't say thank you enough because I've been a patient, and I've also seen it from a parent's side, from a grandparent's side, and a doctor's side—we have the best healthcare system in the world, and we are so fortunate in East Tennessee to have the quality physicians, nurses, and the non-physician leadership that we have.
"We are very, very lucky and very blessed in our region—an area that is not wealthy, yet we have access to the best healthcare in the world. It's really amazing. So what I want to do as a politician is not mess that up. Certainly we have affordability problems, and that's the problem that needs to be solved."
Healthcare is a major concern for Roe, but perhaps his biggest apprehension, which directly affects healthcare, is the nation's spending habits. "We are leaving a debt to our young people that will prevent leaving legacies like my 87- year-old grandmother left for me—an opportunity to succeed personally, financially, and spiritually in this country," Roe explained.
"We are getting into so much debt that we are going to have to raise taxes to pay for the debt, which will lower the people's standard of living and that's wrong. And that's what I'm up here fighting against," Roe said.
Roe's healthcare and small business background makes him well-prepared to assess the situation and offer strategies for correcting the situation. "This is the most poorly operated place as a business that exists on the planet—Washington, D.C. There has never been a program up here that gets started that ever goes away that I can find. They all get a little bit bigger, and they all need a little bit more money. People forget where the money comes from and that's the tax payer," admonished Roe.
Additionally, Roe believes that members of Congress stay too long in office. What he calls "career politicians," according to Roe, spend their life in Washington when they should serve for a time, then "go back home and live under the laws they passed."
Roe has centered himself in the middle of the debate, as he works hard to get the region's voice heard, but he still takes time to appreciate the many blessings he has in family. He and his wife Pam have three grown children and two grandchildren. His son David just finished his MBA and works for Mountain States Health Alliance in Johnson City. His daughter Whitney works in marketing for Wilson Pharmacy in the Tri Cities, and his son John trades futures in Chicago.
Roe and his wife spend as much time as possible together. "She is really a perfect match for me, to put up with me," Roe chuckled as he shared the story of getting the two of them stuck atop Roan Mountain in a foot of snow.
He hikes whenever he gets the chance and has even summited Mt. Rainier. He also enjoys golfing, exercising, and is a huge basketball fan, attending games whenever the opportunity presents itself. "We live and work in such a wonderful area."