Kim McMillan keeps going.
As the field of candidates to be Tennessee’s next governor developed, there was a tendency to refer to McMillan, former legislator and ex-aide to Gov. Phil Bredesen, almost as an afterthought.
The Democratic field was crowded at first. Business figures and sitting legislators were in the hunt, and a list of the party’s candidates seemed always to end with “and Kim McMillan.”
Her name was at the end of many conversations mostly because she was raising less money than her opponents. That factor alone made McMillan a long shot, despite her experience, especially when the Republican field was raising substantial amounts in campaign contributions.
But McMillan kept going.
In time, Nashville businessman Ward Cammack dropped out of the Democratic primary just as people were beginning to learn about him. State Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, stepped out of the governor’s race and into the race for Congress when 8th District U.S. Rep. John Tanner announced his retirement. State Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, citing a variety of reasons, bowed out as well. The exits left the Democratic field with only two survivors, businessman Mike McWherter and McMillan.
McWherter, who owns a beer distributorship in Jackson and is chairman of a bank board in Union City, is known primarily as the son of former Gov. Ned McWherter. Without that family connection, it’s difficult to say whether McWherter would even be on the political map.
Tennesseans are just now beginning to size up the field. A poll last month conducted by Middle Tennessee State University said 73 percent of the people couldn’t name even one candidate for governor. So for those who are just now paying attention, it looks simply enough like a two-person Democratic race in the primary.
As voters focus on the field, one of the certainties is that there will be continued references to McMillan, who is from Clarksville, voting for an income tax while she served in the Tennessee General Assembly. The time was known for its horn-honking public outrage over the prospects of such a tax.
McMillan is prepared to respond.
“What I voted for was a tax reform package,” McMillan said this week. “The plan I voted for, while it did contain a flat-rate income tax that could not be raised except by a super-majority vote of the Legislature, also contained a number of tax reductions.
“It would have removed the sales tax on food, removed the sales tax on clothes, eliminated the Hall income tax, reduced some of the business taxes, so it was a revenue neutral plan that was actually something that didn’t raise taxes. In fact, over 65 percent of the individuals in the district I represented would have paid less in overall state taxes than they were paying.”
But it’s a political fact of life that Tennesseans recall the policy battle in simpler terms: It was an effort to impose an income tax, end of story. And an income tax remains hugely unpopular in this state.
After that battle, the General Assembly came back and increased the state’s sales tax, making Tennessee’s basic seven-cent sales tax and a local-option tax of up to 2.75 percent just shy of a double-digit sales-tax base, which seems to satisfy the majority of Tennesseans.
“I was opposed to an increase in the sales tax,” McMillan said. “I voted against that bill.
“The plan I supported would have actually reduced taxes on a number of individuals all across the state. That plan did not pass. At the time, it was supported by the people I represented in the 67th District that bordered the state of Kentucky.”
She noted the disparity between taxes in her district and those across the border.
“I was re-elected twice with bigger margins after I cast that vote. The people of my district felt it was in their interest to lower their taxes,” she said.
“You have to look at it in terms of being a representative of the will of a majority of my constituents. That’s what I did.”
And it is in that vein that McMillan says she no longer supports an income tax.
“I do believe the majority of people in Tennessee are not ready to change our current revenue system,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s off the table. It’s not something to be discussed, and it’s not something that’s going to happen. Before, I was elected to represent the 67th District. When I’m elected governor, I will be representing all the people.”
McMillan has another obstacle to overcome, and it has nothing to do with her record. It has everything to do with the name of her lone Democratic opponent.
Mike McWherter is known as Ned’s son. Ned McWherter is one of the most beloved political figures in the state. His blessing alone on his son’s campaign makes Mike McWherter a viable candidate. And it leads to the real-world question of whether McMillan believes she is running against Mike McWherter or Ned McWherter.
“It’s a difficult question,” McMillan said.
She considers Ned McWherter a mentor she admires as much as anyone else. She even says she tries to emulate Ned McWherter’s performance as a public servant.
“Ned McWherter did a wonderful job as governor,” she said. “We don’t know about Mike, because he’s never held office before. It’s hard to judge what kind of leader he would be or what kind of policies he would advocate or how he would actually run state government. People have something they can judge me on, which is my record, like with Ned McWherter. But they can’t do that with Mike.
“Because he has that last name, sometimes people might confuse the two. I hope not,” she said. “I hope people will judge him on his individual abilities and not that of his father. Nobody is exactly their parents. I hope the public will judge Mike on his record and experience, which quite frankly I don’t think stands up very good to mine considering I have been there in the Legislature and in the executive branch.”
In fact, McMillan sees an ironic parallel in her experience and that of Ned McWherter. The elder McWherter had the advantage of knowing how the Legislature works when he reached the governor’s chair.
That is precisely the kind of record McMillan is campaigning on. She was not the House speaker, as Ned was, but she was the majority leader in the House. She was senior adviser to Bredesen before taking a role at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville.
She spoke with Ned McWherter before she decided to enter the governor’s race, and she describes their relationship as “good and very cordial.” Yet she faces the realities, both from the past and present, that cannot be denied.
And as has been the case all along, as some of her former gubernatorial opponents have seen, there is one constant thus far in the race. Kim McMillan keeps going.