Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter, known foremost for his father’s last name, grabbed the coattails of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen instead Thursday night, as he joined what he called the “family feud” of three Republican contenders in a forum at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
McWherter’s presence made for an awkward setting, since the only real suspense in the governor’s race is the fierce fight among Republicans Zach Wamp, Ron Ramsey and Bill Haslam in the primary. McWherter has emerged as the Democratic nominee through attrition.
It was difficult, however, to determine if it was an advantage or a disadvantage for McWherter in the forum. At times, he could pick a target among the three Republicans when he answered a question. But McWherter found if he was going to give, he would also have to take — and it would come from all three Republicans.
The most immediately relevant issues were reflected when Lt. Gov. Ramsey of Blountville addressed the current state budget process, where Ramsey has clashed publicly with Bredesen in recent days over how to close a remaining $105 million budget shortfall.
Ramsey used the occasion to criticize Bredesen yet again for proposing to lift the sales-tax cap on items over $3,200, a step Bredesen says would bring in $85 million. Ramsey said to look for his proposal in the next few days.
“I’m stepping up and taking the lead on that issue,” Ramsey said. “I’m making sure we make those cuts. You’ll see the first of next week the cuts I’m proposing. It’s simple. We’ve got to live within our means.”
But McWherter, an almost forgotten candidate who has fallen largely out of public view since his Democratic competition went away, was in an unusual position. He took advantage of opportunities to get some shots in and looked unscathed until near the end of the program, when McWherter referred to all three of the Republican candidates as “career politicians.”
That came as news to many people who have grown accustomed to Haslam, who has been mayor of Knoxville more than six years, being criticized for not disclosing his income from the family business, Pilot Corp., where he was an executive and which has made Haslam the most wealthy candidate in the race.
Ramsey has squeezed in work duties of his auction business throughout the campaign. Wamp, a congressman from Chattanooga, was once in commercial real estate but reminded McWherter that McWherter’s father, former Gov. Ned McWherter, had a long career of public service.
“Mike, I think you know your dad and I have been friends a long time, and I would never demean or degrade his longtime public service to the people of Tennessee by saying he was a career politician,” Wamp said. “I think public service should be a noble calling.”
Haslam, too, responded to McWherter.
“With all due respect, I’m not sure how six and a half years as mayor makes me a career politician,” Haslam said.
Ramsey offered an invitation.
“If you think I’m a career politician, come home with me tomorrow morning and watch as I write paychecks in my business,” Ramsey said.
McWherter invoked Bredesen’s name early in the program, an interesting tack since many people have tied the Democratic candidate to his father.
“I think Governor Bredesen has done a tremendous job in presenting this budget,” McWherter said. “Ron may not agree with me. But he (Bredesen) has done a great job.
“He found Tennessee in a fiscal mess from the Republican administration of Don Sundquist. He will leave it in much better shape than when he found it. I have talked to him and talked about how we go ahead and create jobs in this state.”
McWherter said he wants to provide tax incentives for small businesses and that Bredesen has done a “great job” laying the foundation by landing major business investments in the state, pointing to Hemlock Semiconductor, Wacker Chemie and Volkswagen.
“I want to go after the supplying industries for those companies,” McWherter said.
McWherter also got Bredesen’s name into his comments on education, touting the governor’s pre-kindergarten program, which again became a reference to Ramsey.
“Governor Bredesen has introduced a Pre-K program that is a model for the rest of the country,” McWherter said. “You capture those children at an early age and foster them with the love of learning. You can’t capture them in the fourth or fifth grade. You’ve got to get them earlier.
“The Pre-K program has been one of the most important programs introduced in the last eight years. I’ve been in those classrooms. Lt. Gov. Ramsey is not exactly excited about it, but I am.”
Ramsey has been a critic of proposals to expand Pre-K beyond at-risk children, although he pleased Bredesen this week by saying he did not want to cut Pre-K in the current budget battle.
It wasn’t until the last round of comments that candidate McWherter even brought his father into the discussion.
The format was somewhat different from previous forums. Thursday night, other than questions for all four candidates on budget priorities and on a vision for the state in 25 years, the format had a specific question for each candidate, which the others could not answer. The only other times where the floor was open for each to say whatever he wanted were during the candidates’ opening and closing remarks.
Much of the discussion among the Republican candidates were the same lines used repeatedly in forums and other settings throughout the campaign, but there were moments when each of the three took aim at one of the others.
Wamp hit Haslam on his record, saying, “Mayor Haslam, conservatives don’t raise taxes before they cut spending and they don’t join the Bloomberg anti-gun coalition and stay on it for six years.”
The reference was to a property tax increase early in Haslam’s first term as mayor and to his former association with an anti-gun intitiative of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
Ramsey also referred to Haslam rasing taxes, and his frequent references to the spending habits in Washington may or may not have been pokes at Wamp, who has been in Congress since first elected in 1994.
Wamp also made a reference to McWherter’s line of business, which is a beer distributorship. When asked about penalties for DUI cases, Wamp pointed to the need to use technology to measure sobriety of drivers and added, “People like Mike who sell beer need to help us, on television, convince people not to drink and not to allow children to drink.”
McWherter is frequently referred to as a Jackson businessman but not always for the nature of his business, a beer distributorship in the Bible Belt. After the event, Wamp was asked if the beer reference was premeditated, but he said there were actually two candidates in the forum who sell beer, a clear reference to Haslam’s career with Pilot, which runs the Pilot Travel Centers on roadways.
McWherter did get around to mentioning his father when asked about the state’s standing 25 years from now. He said his vision would be similar to that of his father, focusing on infrastructure and recruiting jobs.
The primary is Aug. 5. The general election is Nov. 2.