Tennessee voters have more than a year and a half before they go to the polls to select the next governor.
For anyone who wants to sit in that seat in Nashville, that’s a long time to campaign. It’s early, but you wouldn’t know it by the candidate activity. Four Republicans have announced their intention to run for the spot on the Republican ticket. Three Democrats have announced they are vying for their party’s nod.
And more than simply announce, the candidates are showing up at chamber meetings, leadership summits, courthouse walk-abouts and scheduling time at Lincoln Day/Roosevelt Day dinners.
The race, it seems, is on, and Blount County is seeing plenty of smiling faces as the candidates get an early start.
Republicans who have announced are Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp. Democrats include businessman Ward Cammack, State Sen. Roy Herron and Kim McMillan, former state house majority leader and former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Last week, Bill Gibbons was in Blount County, visiting with some of the area press.
On Friday, Wamp spoke at the Blount County Chamber, addressed the Leadership Blount Leadership Summit and paid a visit to the folks at Gunny’s Indoor Shooting Range.
On Monday, Haslam visited Blount County and took a tour of the courthouse before attending a private fundraiser. He is coming back on Monday, May 13, for a briefing at the Blount County Chamber of Commerce.
While Blount Today was not able to speak with Gibbons, Haslam and Wamp both took time to discuss the issues they plan to hit hard over the next 18 months.
Rep. Zach Wamp
At Friday, April 17, Leadership Summit at First United Methodist Church, Wamp told Leadership Blount members he was in the middle of a 17-day, 18 county, 3,500 mile tour of the state.
“I’ve seen every side of this state. It’s really sweet,” he said, adding that “we can do better, particularly in education and economic development.”
Wamp shared how this past Christmas he was talking with his family about running for governor.
“My kids said, ‘Whether you run for governor or not, you should consider not running for re-election.’ Some people stay too long, and you need to know when to leave,” he said. “I’m not motivated by power or money. I’m motivated by how can we leave the greatest legacy.”
The 3rd U.S. District representative also spent an hour Friday morning, at the Blount County Chamber where he spoke and then answered questions. He spoke about Alcoa, Maryville and Townsend and praised U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan for his conservative philosophy and also for his work in helping to build up McGhee Tyson Airport.
Wamp drew close comparisons between himself and Duncan.
“If you like the way Jimmy Duncan votes, you need to vote for me for governor,” Wamp said. “I learned this business at his feet. Nobody could be closer in the House. He and I have just become like brothers.”
Wamp said that economic development agencies should make the most of the assets in a region. “Follow the advantages and niches you have and build on those,” he said.
The congressman said the whole concept of a technology corridor stretching from Chattanooga to Oak Ridge was born out of a desire to recruit manufacturing. “If somebody doesn’t build it, make it or grow it, you can’t service it,” he said.
Wamp said that today most talk is about how tough the economy is and how most are just trying to survive and aren’t making big investments until there is a recovery. The congressman then alluded to President Ronald Reagan’s attitude of preparing for conflict during peace, comparing this attitude to the philosophy of the Volkswagen motor company that is holding to its commitment to build a plant in Chattanooga, even during a recession.
“This is an important period of time for all of us with the state in an economic downturn. I’m proud of our stubborn German partners. They’re not retreating. They’re advancing in the downtown, to be positioned when the economy recovers,” he said. “We have to make investments now. That is so important -- that we prepare now and work together now to generate that manufacturing base.”
Wamp said that since being elected to congress in 1994, he has worked to help transform Oak Ridge from a facility that just built weapons and made it into a manufacturing stronghold.
“With the lab, we focused on transportation and energy. We transformed Oak Ridge. We do have a lot to be proud of. That place is roaring with mission strength,” he said.
With Oak Ridge on the north end and Huntsville on the south end, the corridor has potential to grow, Wamp said. “We have the infrastructure and ability to parlay that into a regional economic development agency with a technology focus,” he said.
Wamp referred to the former Volunteer Ammunition Plant in Chattanooga in 1998. After preparing the site and missing out on two car plants, Hamilton County and Chattanooga leaders got word that Volkswagen wanted property in the park and committed to building their plant. “It took 10 years, but we began that process,” he said.
Wamp praised then Mayor Bob Corker for working tirelessly to make the plant happen. “He convinced the governor to build an interchange with no road to it because VW wouldn’t have done this if that interchange wasn’t there,” he said. “Philosophers say you build it, and they will come. Now 15,000 jobs are coming into Tennessee during a recession.”
The representative said that while that’s good news for this region, the unemployment rate in Tennessee hit 9.6 percent on Friday. “There are real pockets of pain where the rate is above 20 percent. This is a serious economic downturn which no end in sight. Hopefully it won’t last more than 12 to 15 months,” he said.
Even with the negative news, having VW, Saturn and Nissan in Tennessee can only be a good thing if the state capitalizes on it, Wamp said. “We should plan around maximum productivity in industries where you have strength,” he said. “It’s a realistic goal for Tennessee to go from the No. 3 carmaker to the No. 1 carmaker in the next 15 years, but it takes a dynamic economic development agency in the state and executive leadership all the way.”
The representative said this is a time in the state’s history when planning around an economic agenda is the right strategy. “This is the time you plan and organize and bring particulars to bear around an economic agenda. That is why I’m running,” he said. “I think we have not had an economic development plan for the future since Lamar.”
Wamp shared his thoughts on the federal stimulus bill. “It was way too much,” he said. “About 15 percent was good.”
Wamp said that instead of using the stimulus package to fund a “pinup” list of expenditures that had more social than practical value, President Obama should have invested big chunks of money in high-speed rail to give Americans an alternative to air transportation.
“On Sept. 11, we saw the problem with one primary mode. That speaks to a lack of intermodal transportation. Trains are good. AmTrak has been poorly run, but high-speed rail is important,” he said. “President Obama is only putting token support behind high speed rail.”
Wamp toured Gunny’s Indoor Firing Range on East Broadway Avenue and shared his support of the second amendment with owner Dave “Gunny” Perry.
“This is important in this day and age,” Wamp said.
Wamp said the second amendment guarantees Americans the right to protect and defend their homes and places like Gunny’s help citizens learn firearm safety. “It encourages me people can come to Gunnys and learn gun safety in a responsible way to ensure the security of their families,” he said. ‘We feel when people are armed, there’s less crime.”
Mayor Bill Haslam
Mayor Bill Haslam came to the Blount County Courthouse to meet wit Mayor Jerry Cunningham and say hello to county employees on Monday, April 20. In each office, Haslam shook hands and chatted with the county workers, then took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and talked to Mayor Cunningham, Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett and Blount Today about the issues on his mind.
Among the first priorities, Haslam said, will be education.
“I think the next governor’s biggest job will revolve around K-12 education. We are 42nd out of 50 states. People say that’s bad news, Bill. What’s the good news,” he said. “Well, we’re about to have a dose of reality and that will be a good thing.”
Haslam said Tennessee is getting ready to enact the Tennessee Diploma Project standards. To graduate, students will have to have four years of math including Algebra II, and three years of science, including chemistry and biology. Where the proficiency rate as measured by TCAPs today is attained by 87 percent, under the new standards, only 27 percent of today’s students would test proficient in English and reading and 22 percent in math.
“That’s the slap of reality,” he said.
The mayor said there is opportunity in the challenge the diploma project presents. “The state can go back to the old standards or hold students to the new, higher standards,” he said. “The new standards tell us where we are. This is as challenge for real education reform in Tennessee.”
Haslam said the standards will be more rigorous and demanding of students and the state and local systems must provide the resources to make the systems across the state better. He cited some of the keys to education reform that he would prioritize as governor as recruiting the best teachers, giving principals the tools they need to lead and convincing graduating students of the viability and importance of community colleges.
The mayor said good teachers also will be needed because regardless of resources, good teachers always bring out the best results in students. Good principals are also needed to leverage change, the mayor said.
“There are about 1,700 schools in the state. Let’s take those 1,700 principals and prepare them for their roles in how to lead those institutions,” he said. “I’m one of those people who believes the quality of leadership determines the quality and effectiveness of the institution.”
Haslam said another aspect of improving education will be to convince citizens about how viable community colleges are and how individuals who continue their education after high school improve their earning potential by 50 percent over those who choose to not continue their education.
The mayor said he would like to implement an initiative similar to the Knox Achieves program that offers “last dollar” scholarships to cover the costs of tuition students can’t pay. “This is a program we think can be spread across the state,” he said.
Haslam said if the state is going to attract more high paying jobs, it has to show a commitment to educating the workforce. Students have to understand the importance of staying in school. The mayor said statistics show students who don’t graduate are 60 percent more likely to end up on TennCare.
“The less well-trained our workforce is, the harder it is to attract great jobs,” he said. “It’s all either a vicious cycle or a virtuous cycle.”
Haslam said attracting jobs also included preparation. “I think economic development is a product of a lot of things, one is preparation,” he said.
Haslam referred to Hamilton County mayor Claude Ramsey’s efforts to prepare the Volunteer Ammunitions Plant property for use by private industry. After more than 10 years of work and near misses from several interested parties, Volkswagen committed to building a plant on the property.
“Mayor Ramsey has been working on that site for 15 years. That’s economic development -- you have to do the seed work to make it happen,” he said.
The mayor said finding large tracts of flat land that is available and accessible also can be a challenge in Tennessee. He referenced the vision Lamar Alexander had in developing Pellissippi Parkway
between Oak Ridge and Blount County. While it took many years to complete, businesses are now developing off of the parkway, including the joint venture in Blount County being called Pellissippi Place. “Now it’s starting to be real,” he said.
Haslam compared the job he has now to the position he hopes to hold in two years. “Being governor is a like being mayor. You have to have vision but you have to execute. Roads have to be fixed, garbage and brush have to be picked up. Being mayor is a hands-on job. If you don’t do it, people will get their hands on you,” he said with a laugh.
Haslam said the job of governor, just the like the job of mayor, has challenges that can be addressed immediately, but at the same time the state’s leader must have a vision for what the state can become. “The flip side is people expect a response,” he said. “That’s why I decided to run for governor. It’s a results-oriented job.”
Haslam said the state is facing a tough challenge, and he will bring his background of working in the private sector as well as working as mayor to handle those challenges. “I understand how to make hard decisions relative to expenses and revenue, but I also have public experience and know how to do things within the amount of money allotted,” he said.
The mayor said the job of governor isn’t about pointing out problems and not providing suggestions. “It’s not problem identifying, it’s problem solving,” he said. “We need a governor used to solving problems.”
Haslam said the state is $1 billion short with 10 weeks to go in the fiscal year. Were it not for the stimulus package, it would be a time of crisis. The state will get about $5 billion from the federal government, Haslam said, but it is one-time stimulus money. It will be used to cover the shortfall this year and next year, but after two years, there are going to have to be some answers, he said. “The next governor has to fix that shortfall with no government help,” he said.
The mayor said he would go through the budget line-by-line to see where savings could be found and also to see where things could be done in a more efficient manner. Haslam said he would apply the same fiscal philosophy as governor he has applied as mayor - in good times, put back money for when times are tough.
“In good times, hold reserves back because bad times are coming,” he said.
The term-limited mayor said it will be bitter sweet to leave city hall after all his team has accomplished, but his family is supporting his run for the governorship. In a race that is beginning this early, Haslam said the days and nights can be long.
“Being mayor is a full-time job,” he said, “and running for governor is a full-time job.”
Party chairs weigh in
Blount County Republican Party Chair Susan Mills said early campaigning, especially for a position such as governor, is just the new reality.
“I think we’re seeing a national trend to that,” she said. “Personally I wish they would wait until later. I think people get so exhausted when elections start so soon.”
Mills said she doesn’t believe the average voter will be engaged in the governor’s race until Spring of 2010. “That’s my opinion. I think they’re coming out too quickly,” she said.
Blount County Democratic Chair Tony Webb said he’s glad to see candidates wanting to meet voters, but the early campaigning is a bi-product of the national races.
“I think elections, as we have seen from the presidential election, have started off earlier,” Webb said. “I think everything is going to follow suit down to the state and local elections. I don’t know how people are going to take that at a local level -- always having politics out there.”
As far as what the local parties are doing during the off year, Webb the party faithful are busy educating voters about the issues. “In Blount County this is not an off-year. There will be no off-years,” he said.
Mills said the party faithful are busy this year getting their conservative message out. “I think everything is pretty low-key until next year,” she said. “This is a year for reorganizing, revamping communications and reaching out to people.”