The three Republican candidates for Tennessee governor offered a contrast in style at the Blount County Lincoln Day Dinner, if not particularly in message.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam all advocated the GOP lines of low taxes, less federal interference in state matters and opposition to most all things Obama.
But at the dinner, which drew nearly 400 people to the William Blount High School cafeteria Thursday night, it was not difficult to separate whose style was whose.
On one end of the front table was Ramsey, the self-described country boy who grew up in Upper East Tennessee - in the shadow of Bristol Motor Speedway, he likes to say - and found a way to put some distance between himself and milking cows by getting a college education and starting a successful real estate and auction business. He even treated the Blount County Republican Party to a little of that auctioneer chatter at the beginning of his talk.
At the other end of the table was Haslam, who is every bit the sophisticate one would expect him to be as a principal in a ubiquitous chain of gasoline stations, truck stops and convenience stores. Smiles and words come easily to him before a crowd, a trait which has no doubt served him well in his leadership roles in both business and as mayor of Knoxville.
Somewhere in between - both at the table and in demeanor -- was Wamp, a veteran member of U.S. Congress who spoke in an almost evangelical tone, which indicates his strong belief in what he is saying and the urgency of saying it to as many people as possible.
His delivery was strident, and his message borderline apocalyptic for his party.
Blount County being overwhelmingly Republican, the annual dinner comprised an A-list of the county’s power structure with both officeholders and potential officeholders in abundance and enough lapel and bumper stickers to wallpaper the Clayton Arts Center.
Ramsey laid out his priority for the state as “jobs, jobs, jobs,” adding that he is “uniquely qualified” to bring those jobs to the state. He cited his experience as a small-business man, saying that the state’s economy is driven by that type of commerce. He said that small businesses “want nothing” but to be left alone, and they will create jobs.
He said he wants the rest of the nation to know that “Tennessee is open for business.”
Haslam said that when he was elected mayor of Knoxville, he was encouraged to “run the city like a business. They like that until you do it,” he said.
He said unemployment is near the 11 percent level in Tennessee and that some counties have rates as high as 18-20 percent. And that does not count what Haslam calls the “underemployed” who do not make enough to provide basics like health care.
“We need a governor who is great at bringing jobs to Tennessee,” he said.
Wamp cited his efforts in establishing the Tennessee Valley Technology Corridor and bringing major employers to it as evidence of his ability to create quality jobs for Tennesseans.
But, he said, that same leadership is needed in Middle and West Tennessee.
Wamp also said he places a high priority on early childhood education and physical fitness.
He said every child should be evaluated earlier in school, and that benchmarks of achievement should be set for those children to reach.
“Every child must be able to read before moving on,” Wamp said.
He also decried the prevalence of obesity in Tennessee’s children and what he called their “over-medication.”
“Sweat is the best antidepressant,” Wamp said.
Wamp began his talk by painting a bleak picture for the Republican Party’s future if it does not return and adhere to its core principles.
“If we don’t do it right this time,” he said, the door will be open for “a widespread third-party movement.
“I see conflict coming,” he said between states trying to exercise their autonomy and federal interference.
“We need a strong governor” to “push back” against federal mandates.
Ramsey also said he sees a federal assault on certain basic constitutional rights, saying the U.S. government is “out of control” and that he is looking for an avenue to join other states in suing to reverse the recently passed health care reform bill.
Haslam also said that the coming year will represent one of the greatest challenges a governor has even faced, with a project $1.2 billion budget shortfall and no stimulus money to bridge the gap.
“Raising taxes,” he said, “is 100 percent wrong.” And he added that another increase in the state sales tax would only further drive business across the border into other states.
Preceding the gubernatorial candidates’ talks were remarks by Eric Golub, a New York stockbroker who transplanted to California and now writes a blog on national affairs.