Zach Wamp was a Democrat. Kim McMillan’s parents used John F. Kennedy as an example for why she should get involved in politics.
Jim Tracy remembers meeting Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington like it was yesterday. Roy Herron warned students they’re going to be the ones paying the bills for decisions made today. And a couple of candidates from Nashville are running against state legislators who have served as long, or nearly as long, as the young candidates have been alive.
Through telling stories, sharing experiences and turning up the volume on issues important to young people, a gathering of Nashville area college students Saturday at Vanderbilt University provided a mix of perspectives for students to absorb and use in political activism.
The Nashville Intercollegiate Activism Conference, hosted by the Vanderbilt Political Review, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Nashville Civil Rights Sit-Ins, but it also offered a very modern look at the political process, whether through the eyes of current candidates, local activists or a panel of students themselves who proved politically astute.
The gathering explored issues that matter and showed reasons students should stay involved. Current candidates shared how and why they took the poltical paths they’re on.
Wamp, a Republican candidate for governor, told the students he was a Democrat until 1980 and had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
“It’s pretty simple that Ronald Reagan made a Republican out of me,” said Wamp, a congressman from Chattanooga.
He recalled how he and fraternity brothers got in a car and went to Washington for Reagan’s inaugural.
“I shook the hand of Howard Baker, who was a prominent United States senator from Tennessee, and I’ve been a Republican activist ever since,” he said.
Wamp explained that in the last 28 years he has served at every level of party activity. He had recruited candidates, and he was told he should run for Congress.
“I said, naw, I can’t do that, because I was too wild when I was your age,” he told the students. What he didn’t explain was that he had been a cocaine user and spent time in rehabilitation before getting straightened out.
“They said you really should run, and I kind of mustered up the courage and ran in 1991-92,” he said.
Wamp lost to Democratic incumbent Rep. Marilyn Lloyd in 1992 by 2 percentage points.
“I woke up the next morning, kind of took a deep breath, said a prayer, asked my wife and decided to run again,” he said. “So I ran in 1994 and won.”
Wamp was part of a Republican revolution that year and has been re-elected ever since.
“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent, our way of life is at risk from non-activism,” Wamp told the students.
McMillan, a Democratic candidate for governor, told students she was adopted by parents who were school teachers. They taught her that everybody has an obligation to give back.
“My parents were very politically active. They didn’t run for office, but they instilled in me that you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter if you’re adopted, if you’re a woman, or if you’re young,” she said.
“They taught me about how President John F. Kennedy gave back even though he didn’t have to, because he believed in people and wanted to make a difference.”
Then there were candidates like Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville attorney challenging Sen. Doug Henry, who has been in the legislature 40 years, in the Democratic primary. Steven Turner is challenging Rep. Mary Pruitt, another veteran lawmaker from Nashville, in a primary campaign.
Yarbro, 32, sounded like an old pro, however, describing how he got involved in Al Gore’s presidential campaign and slept on people’s floors and in spare rooms in the process.
“The reason Barack Obama is president is because of people in this age group,” he told the audience. “It changed the face of the electorate. It changed the face of the country.”
Turner described getting involved in the 2006 Senate race of Harold Ford Jr. and the 2007 mayoral race of Howard Gentry. He launched a voting registration drive in Nashville called Voting is Priceless, aimed at 18-35-year-olds.
“I would go home and talk to my peers, people my age, and they didn’t care as much as I cared about the process,” he said. “I wanted them to care, because what was happening in the country, the state and the city was going to affect us more than anybody else.”
Turner noted that at 26 he was probably the youngest candidate in the room.
Tracy, a Republican state senator from Shelbyville, is running to replace Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, who is retiring from Congress in the 6th District. Tracy, too, had parents who encouraged him to get involved, and he told the students, “What’s going on in Washington is going to affect you.”
Herron, a Democratic state sentor running to replace retiring Democratic Rep. John Tanner in Tennessee’s 8th District, painted a grim picture of how spending is threatening the nation’s future.
“This country is piling up debt that is inconceivable,” Herron said. “We’re spending amounts that are unfathomable. We’re on a spending binge, and we’re sending you the bills.
“You will find yourselves in short order trying to figure out how in the world you can pay the debt for the generations that went before you. How do you pay the bills for our excesses now? In Washington, Democrats and Republicans are so busy trying to shoot at each other they’re busy wounding the country.”