Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey got up from his chair on the stage Tuesday night in Cookeville and ambled over to pick up two more.
He took them over and sat them down, one on each side of his.
One chair represented Bill Haslam. One represented Zach Wamp. And Ramsey addressed the empty chairs periodically throughout the evening.
Putnam County Republicans held a forum for all three of the three front-running gubernatorial candidates Tuesday, but it didn’t work out that way. With Wamp and Haslam no-shows, Ramsey had the stage — and the audience of about 100 people — all to himself.
He didn’t appear to mind.
There were no time limits, and seemingly no limits to the questions the partisan audience had for the candidate.
But Ramsey slogged it out for about 90 minutes onstage, occasionally pausing to offer the empty chairs a chance to join the discussion. “Right, Zach?” he would ask. Or, “We’ll let Haslam answer this one.”
But neither the congressman nor the mayor laid a glove on the lieutenant governor that night.
And Ramsey probably won a lot of votes in the hall just by showing up. Organizers seemed frustrated by the circumstance, but there was a refreshing twist to a candidate being able to answer a question in full without a bell ringing shortly after he began to speak.
After Ramsey gave his basic stump speech, Ramsey plunged right into the Q&A — the first question was about Sharia law and Islam, which has become a hot topic in the state most notably with the controversy over a proposed mosque in Rutherford County.
Ramsey declared that he welcomes any other faith in this country, but that an attempt to bring other “law” here simply can’t be allowed.
“Here’s the deal. If someone wants to come to this country and be a freedom-loving person who wants to live within our laws that’s fine. There are Muslims who do that, who want to live in our society. They become one of us. They follow our Constitution. They follow our law. They’re freedom-loving. That’s great. That’s what this country is all about,” Ramsey said.
“But, and this is indisputable, there is a radical faction that has taken over a portion of this that the freedom-loving Muslims need to push back on just a tad. When you’re promoting violence I don’t think that can possibly be any kind of religion. As far as Sharia law, when you come over here, you agree you’re moving to the United States, therefore, you’re going to live under our Constitution,” to which someone in the audience yelled “amen.”
It goes back to the way the nation was founded, Ramsey asserted.
“You’re going to live under our laws that were founded under Judeo-Christian principles. That’s what you do when you come here,” he said. “Don’t come over here bringing your laws and want to change us into that. This is what made us the greatest country in the world.
“I appreciate the First Amendment that gives the freedom of religion. I also appreciate the Second Amendment, the Tenth Amendment. Anybody who comes here ought to also appreciate the Constitution and the laws and live under those laws here in the United States.”
Ramsey laid out his plans for K-12 education as well as higher education, emphasizing how good the state’s community colleges and technology centers are for educating a workforce. He said he favors keeping the sales tax on food because it is part of a tax structure he likes and prevents moving toward an income tax.
Ramsey discussed his ideas for utilizing local health departments to help manage health care needs in the state. He said he is ready to be a “super-salesman” for Tennessee attracting business as governor and said, although he wrestles with the issue, he is leaning toward favoring closed primary elections where people cannot cross over and vote in a party other than their own. The state currently has an open primary process.
“You don’t want people who really aren’t in your party to choose your nominee,” he said. “That’s just wrong.”
He said he frequently hears Tennesseans say they are registered as a Republicans or Democrats but that the reality is they’re not.
Ramsey expressed a fair amount of frustration that his campaign has siphoned up a healthy $3.5 million in contributions, and still he’s been financially overshadowed by Haslam, whose campaign has raised over $8 million. Ramsey said he is not in favor of term limits, saying people have the right to vote people out of office. And he said he is the only candidate in the race with experience in state government.