Three gubernatorial candidates took on one of the toughest questions possible Monday night when asked at a forum at Lipscomb University how best to respond to a massive flood like the one Nashville and much of the state just endured.
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp said he brought a national perspective to such a special challenge. Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam emphasized the need to set the right priorities in organizing a response. Jackson businessman Mike McWherter talked about his personal hardship from the storm and described joining the sandbagging efforts at MetroCenter in Nashville. One other candidate, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, was scheduled to attend but couldn’t because he had to work — in session at the Legislature.
Wamp, Haslam and Ramsey are Republicans. McWherter is the lone Democrat in the field.
The question itself about the flood came in unusual fashion, preceded by a three-minute video of images from the storm accompanied by music. The mood was reflective, not so much somber, at the Collins Auditorium event held by the Nashville Junior Chamber of Commerce. Joel Sullivan, CEO of the Nashville Area Red Cross, addressed the audience after the candidates spoke, and the evening was all the more poignant given that Lipscomb’s Allen Arena had served as a shelter for victims.
Wamp said the circumstance presents the challenge of making key decision-makers understand the magnitude of the problem many of the flood’s victims face, due to its historic nature, and he likened the situation to Hurricane Katrina.
“We’ve got to make a consolidated effort to convince people that those who were affected by Katrina and the Gulf storm surge are no different than Tennesseans who didn’t have flood insurance,” Wamp said.
“The challenge we have here is asking the United States government to do more for us than the normal FEMA rule, because a lot of young families had no idea when this week began that they would effectively end up with a second mortgage, because all they may qualify for is a long-term low-interest loan.
“This is important for us to stand together as a state and ask the federal government to help us even more.”
Wamp said there was no one else in the race with as much experience in this area as he has. He said he had toured the Katrina zone as a member of Congress multiple times and wrote reports for the Appropriations Committee on the challenges regarding Katrina.
McWherter explained that his company in Jackson was flooded.
“There was 21 inches of water in my office,” McWherter said. “I was watching tadpoles swim around my desk that evening.”
He said after Interstate 40 opened up, he drove to Nashville for the volunteer work.
“I wanted to prevent what had happened to me,” he said.
Haslam described talking to people as divergent as Colin Reed, chief of Gaylord Entertainment, home of the flooded Gaylord Opryland Resort hotel and the Grand Ole Opry House, to a man running a funeral home in Millington.
“The governor’s job is to figure out what is happening, what the state can do to help, then immediately talk to the federal government,” Haslam said. “One of the unique things in this was the widespread impact. It will be a lot more work and take a little longer than maybe it has in the past.”
McWherter complimented the work of Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Gov. Phil Bredesen and said that was the kind of leader he would like to be.
The forum did not deal solely with the flood. One noteworthy item was that the forum presented a clear case of a conflict of interest, with a candidate openly admitting he would have to step aside on an issue.
That was McWherter on the issue of whether wine should be sold in grocery stores. The issue is whether large grocery businesses should be able to sell wine, which is now fundamental to small-business liquor stores. McWherter is a beer distributor and has an interest in how that issue would affect his business. He openly admitted it and said he would leave the decision to the legislature.
McWherter began his answer by saying, “I am a beer wholesaler, and I prefer that everybody drink beer.”
The issue of a conflict of interest has come up before with Haslam and his family’s business, Pilot Corp., which runs Pilot Travel Centers, but Haslam has been hit on that issue mainly as a roads issue. Haslam said on the wine matter it’s important to protect the investment of small businesses, saying, “My tendency now, until I hear something better, is to leave the law as it is.”
Ramsey’s absence didn’t prevent Wamp from pointing out that when Ramsey first went to the Legislature, there were 10,000 fewer people who worked in state government. Ramsey has painted himself as one who would cut government, but the Wamp campaign has linked Ramsey to the growth in state government during his time in state office.
Wamp, who has been criticized for being part of the problem in Washington in his role as a congressman, used the forum to emphasize his knowledge of how the federal government functions, given that over half the state budget is federal money passing through.