Let the 'Gubernatorial Games' begin

Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 11:45pm

Nashvillians scoffed at the suggestion, put forth a few years ago by then-mayoral candidate Bob Clement, that the city should bid on the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Rightfully so: The idea was crazy.

Now, as the world looks to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, we take comfort in the presence of our own games, a more vicious high-stakes contest free from the meddling of French judges.

Welcome to the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Gubernatorial Games, which includes some events you’ll recognize, plus a few more you’ll never see on a Wheaties box.

Heck, these games even have a mascot. It’s a red herring known as “Pat the Powerbroker” who lives in Centennial Park’s Lake Watauga. Take that, “Quatchi the Sasquatch” of Vancouver.

The motto of the Olympics is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which translates to “Swifter, Higher, Stronger.” Ours is in Pig Latin: “Istortday, Eflectday, Onfusecay.” That means “Distort, Deflect, Confuse,” for those not versed in porcine romanticism.

Contestants in these games hail from all over the state. They are known for their (verbal) jousting, sparring, position flips and occasional Fosbury-type flops.

Entries into this year’s games have been in training for a long time. Let’s take a look at who is engaged in this modern day Battle of Marathon to sit in power in the Athens of the South.

Bill Haslam
Mayor, Knoxville (Republican)

Herculean traits

If Haslam has anything over his competitors, it is money — lots of it. The beneficiary of the Pilot Corp. fortune would likely glance past Michael Phelps’ gold medals in the give-a-penny/take-a-penny tray without a second thought.

The fortune began with his father, Jim Haslam, who founded Pilot after he bought a gas station in Gate City, Va., in 1958. Today, there are close to 300 Pilot Travel Centers, and the company is the largest purveyor of over-the-road diesel fuel in the United States.

Bill joined the company in 1980 and left for a time to become chief executive officer of Saks Direct, an e-commerce and catalog division of Saks Fifth Avenue. He would later return to the company his father founded.

What you will hear from the campaign is that when he started with the company, it had only 800 employees, and during his tenure as president it grew to operate in 39 states with more than 11,000 employees.

As mayor of Knoxville he has been an able steward through troubling economic times and is the only candidate to have had the responsibility of governing.

Achilles’ heel

Haslam’s opponents will remind you that Pilot is his daddy’s company, his daddy made the fortune, and the family is using the wealth created by that business to try to buy the governor’s office. In other words, his daddy won the moguls race and thinks his son deserves the gold medal for it.

In the primary, Haslam will also be accused of being a RINO — Republican In Name Only. He doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid served up at tea party rallies, and more conservative elements in the party find him suspect when it comes to guns.

As mayor of Knoxville, he opposed allowing guns in parks and for a time was a member of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, “Mayors Against Illegal Guns.” This group has been tagged by some of his opponents as “anti-Second Amendment.”

Expect to hear a lot about this in the primary. It is an easy attack that can catch fire among the Republican base, and it won’t cost a lot of money.

If the state’s voters are in a pragmatic mood, as they were when Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker were elected, Haslam will benefit. But Tennesseans of late have been less inclined to embrace pragmatism, which will hurt Haslam, especially in the primary.

Zach Wamp
Congressman, Chattanooga (Republican)

Herculean traits

A member of the 1994 “Contract with America” class of Congress, Wamp prides himself on his power of persuasion. He is an energetic and affable personality who gives off the perception that he regularly runs marathons at a full sprint.

He calls himself a “regional mayor,” which is a pretty fair assessment — his work to help bring in jobs and development projects stretches across a far-flung congressional district, from the Tennessee/Georgia border up to where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia meet. He has worked every hamlet in between.

This regional work will likely be a central theme of his campaign. Expect him to take credit for bringing projects like the Volkswagen plant to Chattanooga and increased funding to Oak Ridge.

His campaign will also portray him as a bootstraps candidate who overcame, and admitted during his first congressional campaign over a decade ago, a cocaine addiction in the late 1970s and went on to become a valuable member of the community by taking responsibility for his own actions.

In 2007, he was central in persuading former Sen. Fred Thompson to run for president.

Achilles’ heel

Wamp will have to overcome the perception that he is a great cheerleader but shouldn’t be the head ball coach. At times his intensity is reminiscent of the assistant manager of a health supplement store on the Jersey shore who will browbeat you into buying the latest vitamin shake to increase your muscle mass.

Long ago Wamp beat back the demons of a drug and alcohol addiction, but he never finished college because of the problem. Past substance abuse issues won’t and shouldn’t factor into this election, but the lack of a college degree will bring pause to others.

Wamp is also among a small contingent of representatives called “The Family,” a secretive religious group whose members cohabitate at a house on C Street in Washington, D.C. According to Wamp, it is a place to live and meet in good Christian fellowship. To others it is a secretive organization that people like disgraced South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Nevada Sen. John Ensign are a part of.

According to author Jeff Sharlet, a former resident of the house who was interviewed by the Las Vegas Sun, “The Family began with this idea that God does not work through churches but rather through those whom The Family calls the ‘New Chosen.’ They believe they’re chosen by God. … They need to pray in private with people of equal status.”

It should be interesting to see how that one goes over.

Mike McWherter
Businessman, Jackson (Democrat)

Herculean traits

Mike McWherter’s strengths in the Democratic primary are legacy and money. In the “name game” contest of the Gubernatorial Games, McWherter won in record time.

While not having near the fortune of the Haslams — few in Tennessee do — the McWherter bank account has enough of a balance to augment campaign coffers without difficulty.

He is the son of one of Tennessee’s most popular governors, Ned McWherter, and grew up immersed in politics. Though he didn’t enter the political field until recently, the good will and favors his father accumulated over the years gave him a head start in the Democratic primary.

Speaking of the primary, a huge assist came when fellow West Tennessee Democrat Roy Herron scratched from the race in December to run for an open congressional seat.

McWherter’s campaign will portray him as a successful small-businessman who isn’t a career politician.

It’ll also make hay over his seat on the board of directors of the Jackson Energy Authority. He also serves as chairman of the bank board of First State Bank in Union City.

Achilles’ heel

Perhaps more than Haslam, McWherter likely will get hit with the charge that he has lived a life swinging from his father’s coattails and survived on hand-me-down Nilla wafers.

The “small business” that McWherter says he owns isn’t all that small — it’s rural West Tennessee’s largest Budweiser distributorship.

His father owns the other major rural West Tennessee Bud distributor.

Finally, First State Bank of Union City has taken federal bailout funds. That will likely end up on somebody’s campaign commercial as a charge of using a banned substance in these games.

Ron Ramsey
Lieutenant Governor, Blountville (Republican)

Herculean traits

If there is a Republican in the state who gets the lion’s share of the credit for the GOP takeover of the Tennessee General Assembly, it’s Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

In 2007, Ramsey convinced now former Democratic state Sen. Rosalind Kurita to vote against her own caucus and make him the first Republican lieutenant governor in more than a century.

To the Republicans it was like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the Soviets all over again.

Two years later his protégé, Jason Mumpower, led the state House into a numerical GOP majority, effectively giving Republicans control of three constitutional offices: State Treasurer, Comptroller of the Treasury and Secretary of State.

Because of those key victories, Ramsey has built up a large team of support from legislators and Republican operatives from Mountain City to Memphis. Expect many of them to be by his side throughout this race.

As sitting lieutenant governor — he’ll continue to be even if he loses the governor’s race — Ramsey is also cashing in on a lot of contributors who may not be for him but will donate to his campaign to stay in his good graces.

Achilles’ heel

Ramsey has accomplished a lot for his party, but under his leadership the state legislature hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire. He has been an overwhelming success in partisan politics, but that isn’t all there is to governing.

While Rome has burned in this economic downturn, the Tennessee General Assembly has seen its priorities become issues like allowing guns in bars and parks.

Ramsey medals in the shooting competition but hasn’t entered the stadium when it comes to bread and butter.

Undoubtedly, Ramsey’s team will point to other legislative accomplishments, but anyone who has spent time watching Nashville politics will tell you it’s becoming increasingly petty.

Expect other campaigns to play on that issue and try to keep Ramsey tethered to a failing system.

It may be too early to gauge, but perhaps Ramsey’s biggest problem will be the fundraising blackout he and his Democratic colleague in the state Senate, Jim Kyle of Memphis, are facing.

Neither can accept campaign donations while the legislature is in session.

Don’t expect their opponents to sit on their hands.

Kim McMillan
Former state representative, Clarksville (Democrat)

Herculean traits

As the only woman in the race, McMillan and her campaign will continue to play up the gender issue. They will appeal to female voters that it is time a woman serves as governor of Tennessee.

McMillan started her training on Capitol Hill as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives. In short order, she rose to become the first woman to serve as house majority leader. “Lady Leader,” as she was called, became known as a highly intelligent and deft politician skilled at advancing key Democratic initiatives, like pre-kindergarten programs, through an often-fractious caucus and legislature.

Like Kyle, she can and will take credit for many of Bredesen’s successes. In addition to shepherding his legislation through the House, she also served as one of his senior advisers after leaving office in 2006.

McMillan has been a respected member of the Tennessee Bar Association since she graduated from the UT College of Law.

Achilles’ heel

McMillan was the first Democrat to declare candidacy but has yet to catch fire. Her fundraising has been decent, but at times her candidacy is almost an afterthought. Nothing she or her staff have done has separated her from the pack.

At times, it seems McMillan is relying heavily on being the only female candidate in the race to give her a boost at the polls. The danger in that is when a candidate becomes known as a single-issue candidate, they isolate themselves and keep the voters from listening on other issues.

McMillan need not point out that she is the only woman running; it’s pretty obvious looking at the field. If a portion of the electorate thinks that is a quality worth voting for, they will gravitate naturally to her. Her campaign should spend more time pointing out what distinguishes her from her opponents other than a pair of heels.

Remember in the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time saying it was time to have a female president. That hurt her because while many people agreed, they started wondering whether she wanted to be president so she could become the first woman to have the job or be president to fix problems. At the end of the day they wanted someone who connected with them on fixing the problems at hand; it didn’t matter if they were male or female, black or white.

McMillan is too smart a person to be isolated as a single-issue candidate. Yes, being the only woman in the field has its advantages, but only if you let others run on that track and point it out.

Jim Kyle
State Senator, Memphis (Democrat)

Herculean traits

As Democratic leader in the state Senate, Kyle is like the coach of a Jamaican bobsled team. You know they are there, you like watching them, but you know they aren’t going to place.

A Memphis attorney, Kyle holds rights to the penultimate length of Senate service — only Nashville’s state Sen. Doug Henry has served in the upper chamber longer. Kyle knows state government like the back of his hand, and given his run in office, has written a large portion of the rulebook as well.

Kyle married into the Clement family and can count on their political contacts in the far reaches of the state to mount his ground war. He can also count on some affiliated cash infusions.

More than any other candidate, Kyle can and will run on the successes enjoyed by the Bredesen administration; he spent years shepherding the governor’s agenda through the Senate.

Achilles’ heel

While he is generally considered one of the smartest members of the legislature, Kyle likes to show it. This can come back to bite him on the campaign trail if he talks down to his audience. At times, he can have the Joe Biden problem — you never know what he is going to say.

There is no doubt his opponents will tar him with the “career politician” label. Should he make it out of the primary, Kyle can also expect Republican attacks that will try to link him to an Obama/Pelosi agenda.

Being from Memphis, one of the last bastions of Tennessee’s Democratic party, Kyle most likely won’t try to deflect these charges but rather embrace the Obama/Pelosi connection. Hard-line Democrats will like it, but it will hurt him badly with the electorate statewide.

Finally, being a Clement family member isn’t what it used to be. It was a major assist to statewide candidates 20 years ago. Now, it might help you meet a few people in a couple of counties.

Like Ramsey, Kyle can’t raise money while the legislature is in session.

Bill Gibbons
Shelby County District Attorney, Memphis (Republican)

Herculean traits

The Gibbons campaign wants you to know that Bill Gibbons was born into an extremely poor Arkansas family whose father abandoned his mother and her six children. Their farm was foreclosed upon, and they struggled to make ends meet. They were forced to go without winter coats, food or visits to the doctor.

It was his mother’s example and a fourth-grade teacher who put young Bill on the road to success. He worked hard in school, got a scholarship to Vanderbilt, worked on Republican campaigns, and eventually became an attorney.

After serving on the staff of then-Gov. Lamar Alexander, Gibbons was elected to the Memphis City Council and then to the Shelby County Commission. In 1996, Gov. Don Sundquist appointed him to fill a vacancy as district attorney general in Shelby County, a position he won outright in 1998.

The Gibbons campaign wants you to know that he is the “top cop” in the state’s largest county and has made tough decisions on matters of life, death and budgets, and he’ll do that as governor.

After telling that compelling story, the Gibbons campaign’s only other noticeable strategy is they believe that as the only West Tennessee Republican in the race, he will win election because the other candidates in the GOP primary are all from the East, and they will just carve each other up over there.

They have a lot of hope that no one will show up to compete in their events.

Achilles’ heel

If Gibbons wants to be governor, he has to lock down West Tennessee politically and financially. He hasn’t.

While Gibbons has some of the most ardent and loyal staff and supporters in the race, they haven’t been able to raise his status to major contender. They blame the media, saying coverage has overlooked his candidacy, and there is merit to that argument.

But the media hasn’t defined the gubernatorial race at this phase. Fundraising has, and Gibbons hasn’t had much success there, either.

It would be in the Gibbons campaign’s best interest to never venture east of Nashville during the next few months, and instead to knock on every door from here to the Mississippi River and back again.

So far none of Gibbons’ flexing has intimidated his competition. He might want to make sure when the starter pistol fires he can back up his race strategy by running like Usain Bolt instead of just talking like him.

1 Comment on this post:

By: govskeptic on 1/25/10 at 9:32

Fundraising sucess is the only thing important to the media in this state.
Whether donations or personal dollars those candidates for some reason
get the attention. Great ideas, true concern for the citizens, and attempts
or suggestions toward common sense solutions to certain problems are
ignored far too often. Recognition is hard to achieve in a state with the
lowest number of statewide office holders in the nation(governor and two
US Senators). Our citizens donate so little toward these campaigns the
"Selected ones" get the full lobbist dollars and press attention.