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McWherter, Haslam Denounce Mosque Fire, Laud Zoning

Both major party candidates for Tennessee governor denounced the burning of construction equipment at the site of a new mosque in Murfreesboro over the weekend.

And both also reiterated earlier statements that local zoning officials should decide if and where controversial building occurs.

Candidates Mike McWherter, a Democrat, and Bill Haslam, a Republican, addressed the issue Tuesday night at a “Student Town Hall” forum sponsored by Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte.

Asked how “as governor (he) would balance freedom of religion with concerns about security,” McWherter said that while he’s a “huge proponent of religious freedom” he “understand(s) the constraints and problems you have when you locate an institution like that inside of a quiet neighborhood.”

“As a community you ought to be able to have some zoning restrictions, and make sure that the house you bought is something that you can continue to resell, and will not disturb your neighborhood,” he continued.

McWherter, a businessman from Jackson, went on to denounce the perpetrators of the crime, calling it an “atrocity.”

Responding to a question from a reporter outside the forum later, Haslam took a similar tack.

“No one should condone what’s just happened, OK. It’s just not acceptable in any way, and those folks should be found and appropriately punished,” said the Knoxville mayor.

On the issue of whether the mosque should be built, Haslam said it is a “local land-use issue.”

“As somebody who has been a mayor, I didn’t want the state or federal government telling us what to do,” he said. “That’s where you follow constitutional guidelines and local land-use planning and you let the local land-use people decide.”

Federal law enforcement agencies are investigating the setting ablaze of a piece of earth-moving equipment in the early morning hours of Aug. 28 at the location of a proposed 52,000-square-foot Islamic religious center in Rutherford County.

A local FBI official was quoted by CNN as saying that while the the cause of the fire is believed to have been arson, “We have no reason to think it’s a hate crime.”

A statement issued by an Islamic Center of Murfreesboro spokewoman Monday declared “we feel heartbroken that we have been a victim of yet another shameful crime, however, we are grateful to the majority members of this community who expressed their support.”

“We believe that this event was instigated by the hate campaign that our Muslim community has been subjected to recently,” the release continued.

Flood Issues Dominate Candidate Forum

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.

Candidates Eager to Debate

Gubernatorial candidates have been eager recently to get on with debates, rather than forums. But as another major forum is scheduled Monday night at Lipscomb University, the tone may be somewhat subdued in the wake of the recent flooding in Middle and West Tennessee.

The scheduled forum, hosted by the Nashville Junior Chamber of Commerce, is expected to stick to the familiar format of candidates answering questions one at a time, although it’s likely candidates at some point will feel a need to express their feelings about the impact the recent floods have had.

The Junior Chamber has touted the expected participation of the three major Republican candidates — Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — as well as Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, the lone Democrat remaining in the campaign. Questions are expected to focus on subjects such as economic expansion and education. Another forum is scheduled earlier in the day Monday in Nashville by the Associated Builders and Contractors.

The race has been going forward where it could in the state. Haslam, for example, held a big event in Memphis with former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker on Thursday. But candidates have also been expressing their concerns about victims of the disaster, including links on campaign Web sites for where to find help. Ramsey established a drop-off site in Bristol for flood relief for the other parts of the state. Much of the state was spared the flooding.

Forums for the candidates thus far have amounted to candidates being given time to make opening and closing statements and answer questions, one at a time, in a structured format. But the desire for more interaction could be sensed among the candidates after a recent forum at Middle Tennessee State University.

Candidates have been appreciative of the opportunity to give their pitches, but thus far in the race to succeed Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is term-limited, there has been little room for real debate.

The basic forum does still serve as a valuable format for voters, many of whom are just now becoming familiar with the candidates. But it’s not surprising that the candidates themselves, who have been doing such events since last year, are ready for more.

“I’m ready for the television cameras to come on statewide and us to have as many open, free-flowing debates, so we can talk issues,” said Wamp after the MTSU forum.

“There’s been so much canned, staged, scripted, coached language. We’ve been together over a hundred times, and we’ve yet to really get into ‘wait-a-second-that’s-not-true.'”

Wamp is not alone.

“As soon as we can get there, I’m ready for it,” Ramsey said. “I am, because I do think I have the knowledge and experience on the issues to be able to debate them.”

Ramsey said he has already found moments when he thought he had the upper hand because he believed he had a better command of the facts.

The recent forum in Murfreesboro was even more constraining than most since much of the program involved asking a specific question of a specific candidate and not of the others.

“In a situation like this where there are a lot of questions you want to answer more of them,” Haslam said. “There’s a lot of those where you think, ‘I want to answer that one, too.'”

When asked that night if he’s ready for a debate format, Haslam was quick to respond.

“You bet,” he said. “I would love that. The problem with this format is somebody can make a comment, and if you’ve gone before them, you don’t get a chance to talk for about six things later, and by then it’s a long way away. I would prefer a debate.”

While political crowds may be familiar with the candidates and their positions, it might be just now dawning on many potential voters that there’s a governor’s race going on. That’s why there’s cause to mention Republican candidate Joe Kirkpatrick, who is often excluded from major events because of fund-raising levels but is working as hard as any of the candidates. Meanwhile, several independent candidates will be on the ballot.

A big reason candidates have been doing forums for so long is the simple fact that they had to launch fund-raising efforts long before an official campaign begins. In fact, frustration over raising money has been a major factor why some candidates have already dropped out on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the campaign.

Then there’s the Democrats’ own special factor. At one time, the Democratic field included McWherter, Kim McMillan, Jim Kyle, Roy Herron and Ward Cammack. All but one, McWherter, have dropped out, for various reasons, which leaves forum organizers with an odd situation. Just at a time many voters are beginning to pay attention, all but one of the Democrats are out.

The real competition at the moment is the three-way battle for the Republican nomination. So it creates a somewhat awkward situation to have McWherter on stage with the three Republicans. Until McMillan quit the race to run instead for mayor of Clarksville, an audience could normally count on at least two candidates from each party to participate.

McWherter has expressed his own frustration with a forum-style program.

“I really would like to have the opportunity to talk about the tax incentive program I want to deliver for small business in this state,” McWherter said. “It’s hard to do that in a 90-second response.

“I want to talk about that and the need to go out and recruit these supplying industries for Volkswagen, Wacker and Hemlock. I’m a little frustrated truthfully with not being able to spend a little more time going a little more in-depth. We’re kind of at the surface level at this time. But I know I’ll get that chance, and I’m excited about being able to do that.”

Wamp Scoffs at McWherter’s Tax-Break Vow

Republican gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp said Tuesday Democrat Mike McWherter’s pledge to give tax breaks to businesses that create jobs is an example of an “empty campaign promise” that can’t be met.

He likens such an idea to the strategies coming out of Washington from President Obama.

Wamp, in Montgomery County as part of several campaign stops Tuesday in Middle Tennessee, also said he has enough money to compete with Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam for the Republican nomination. He said he will begin his own television campaign advertising soon and described the request for an ethics investigation into his living quarters in Washington as “bogus.”

Wamp, the 3rd District U.S. representative from Chattanooga, pointed out that the state is looking at a budget deficit of over $1 billion.

“I think we all have to be careful that we’re not just throwing out political promises you can’t meet once you’re governor, because tax breaks right now in Tennessee are going to be really hard to come by until we fill up this $1-billion-plus budget hole,” Wamp said. “And that’s responsible, honest talk.

“Anyone who’s talking about tax breaks as soon as they become governor right now is just trying to throw out some empty campaign promise, in my opinion. Right now, we’ve got to reform the way state government does business, we’ve got to right-size state government. Frankly, if the Democratic nominee’s incentives for economic development mirror President Obama’s, no thanks.”

McWherter last week, in his speech formally announcing his candidacy, said he would give tax breaks to businesses who hire Tennessee workers. McWherter also called into question Haslam’s honesty in his campaign ads that said Haslam helped create 11,000 jobs.

None of the three major Republican nominees — Wamp, Haslam or Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey — has advocated tax breaks in the campaign.

“The government largess and the government make-jobs by the Democrats in power today in this country haven’t worked, and there’s not a whole lot of state incentives you can offer in the state budget unlike the federal budget for small business investment,” Wamp said.

Kim Sasser Hayden, McWherter’s campaign manager, said in an e-mail response, “Zach Wamp’s spent way too long in Washington, and he’s busy finding excuses how not to get things done.”

“Zach is right about one thing: It will be difficult to get things done if his views prevail,” she added.

Wamp reported campaign fund-raising figures this week that put him over $3 million in total contributions, but that was far short of the figure Haslam’s campaign put out that said Haslam has now topped $7 million in funds.

“He could spend $50 million if he wants to,” Wamp said of the wealthy Haslam. “So you really can’t worry about what their top number is. What you do is raise the amount you need to communicate with 500,000 people.”

Wamp reflected on some of Haslam’s own words to make his point.

“There’s some science to this,” Wamp said. “He said himself a year ago you could run a successful campaign for governor with $5 million, and I agree with what he said a year ago, because that’s about what I’m going to do. If you’re a good candidate, $5 million is all it takes. If you’re not a good candidate, who knows? It may take $15 million.”

Wamp, who noted that on Thursday there will be only 100 days before early voting starts, said he would be airing television ads “very soon.”

“That’s all I’m going to say,” he replied about the timing. “With 100 days to early voting, you’re getting into a window where people are paying attention and therefore paid communication becomes essential, and we’re not very far at all away from paid communication.

“Frankly, I’m really excited about that, because I have won the ground game in this campaign for 15 months. Now that I get to go up on air very soon, this is going to be a very successful campaign down the stretch.”

Wamp also has issues to address in Washington, however. A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has filed complaints with the Senate Ethics Committee and the House Office of Congressional Ethics against Wamp and other members of Congress who live or who have resided in a building known as C Street House. The group claims congressional members who stay in the house are paying below-market rates in violation of rules regarding gifts for members.

“It’s a totally bogus claim,” Wamp said Tuesday. “To allege we’re not paying market value is simply not analyzing the market.”

He said CREW’s request for an investigation is just that.

“This was just an outside group filing the complaint,” he said. “Unless and until that committee takes it up, it’s not in any way an investigation. It’s just been filed, so I don’t know if they will or what they will do to take it up, to be honest with you. It is the most ridiculous allegation and claim that I have seen. I have lived there for 14 years. Isn’t it interesting that this just now comes up?

“Over 50 members of Congress live in their offices for free, subsidized by the taxpayer,” Wamp said. “Over 50.”

CREW says House and Senate gift rules prohibit what’s being done.

“Unless they’re going to do an evaluation of all 535 members — and it will be a wide range, from the freebies in the House gym to multi-multi-millionaires — you can’t just pick a few and file an investigation,” Wamp said. “I don’t see how you just pick a few and say we’re going to look at them but not everybody. They need to look at everybody if they’re going to look at one.”

McWherter: It’s All About Jobs

Democrat Mike McWherter officially launched his campaign to be Tennessee’s governor Thursday, and while he currently has no competition left in the Democratic primary, McWherter made it sound like he’s already running against Republican Bill Haslam.

McWherter said he does not know who his Republican opponent will be after the Aug. 5 primary, and said he has no preference, but he referred to Haslam’s television ads in his speech and acknowledged openly afterward that he was addressing those ads.

He focused on the claim in a television advertisement Haslam has run that says Haslam has helped create over 11,000 jobs in his business, Pilot Corp., the chain of travel centers owned by the Haslam family. Other Republican candidates for governor have criticized the ad as being misleading, and McWherter joined the chorus Thursday.

“I believe in truth in advertising,” McWherter said. “Even the other Republicans have been critical of Mayor Haslam’s ads about creating jobs that really were not created. They were bought. They weren’t all in Tennessee.

“I think that’s misleading. For somebody who has created jobs, and I understand how to create jobs, I want to make sure my message to Tennesseans is always truthful. That’s part of being in this campaign, is to hold everybody accountable, make sure they’re telling the truth.”

Haslam’s campaign was asked to respond to McWherter’s comments, and Haslam spokesman David Smith said in an e-mail, “That’s not worth a response.”

In his speech, McWherter referred to a candidate “juggling numbers” in television advertising.

“These are serious times, and these times require more from a candidate than simply juggling numbers on his TV ads to inflate his accomplishments,” McWherter said. “Tennesseans will see through those tricks, they’ll take the measure of the man, and they will say, ‘If he’s going to stretch the truth about jobs, then how can we trust him on this economy?'”

The criticism of Haslam’s ads has been that it is misleading to assert that the company created its large number of employees when the history of the company is that Pilot acquired established business interests as it grew.

McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, owns a beer distributorship in Jackson and is chairman of the board of a Union City-based bank. His speech on the steps of the Capitol, after officially filing papers to run for governor, focused heavily on job creation, and he announced his intention of giving a tax break to businesses that create jobs.

McWherter said he would give tax breaks “to small businesses, to mom and pop operations, to the entrepreneurs, to the rural farm operations.

“It’s crystal clear, and it’s simple. If you create jobs in Tennessee, we’ll give you a tax break. We have to look after our own.”

When pressed on how he could offer a tax break given the state’s long run of declining revenues, McWherter said it would work economically.

“When you start putting people back to work, you’re making consumers,” he said. “We are a consumption-based economy. The more people we can get back to work, the more revenue we will have, and that revenue will pay for that tax break. I’m confident that those numbers will work.”

He said he was not ready to commit to a specific type of tax break but said, “I will definitely work on a tax break for small business out there, business that puts people to work.”

He said they would have to be businesses who can document that they were hiring people.

“It’s crystal clear, and it’s simple,” he said in his speech. “If you create jobs in Tennessee, we’ll give you a tax break. We have to look after our own.”

McWherter referred to the large economic boosts the state has received in recent years, such as the new Volkswagen plant, bringing in investments of up to $1 billion.

“It’s good to get international companies to locate here in Tennessee and put Tennesseans to work and we need to do more of that,” he said. “But we must make sure Tennessee-based businesses are the ones growing and supplying these major industries.

“It’s not enough for a Tennessean to be unloading a truck full of supplies at a factory gate. Those suppliers need to be Tennessee-based businesses, and those need to be Tennessee jobs.”

Following the speech, McWherter pointed to the stark contrast between when times are good economically and when they’re not in the state, and he used that to make the case for a tax break.

“Three years ago, we had pretty much full employment here in the state,” he said. “At that time, our revenue was so large, the legislature appropriated monies for all the state representatives and state senators to take back to their districts. We were running that kind of surplus.

“I don’t mean to say giving away, but providing help for local fire stations and places like that. If we get people back to work, we will have revenue to sustain that kind of tax break.”

McWherter said he did not have a timetable for when his own television ads might appear.

“I have not got a plan for putting ads on TV yet,” he said. “I imagine I will probably go on air certainly the week after the primary, once we know who the Republican nominee is. But I might go on before then, just depending on what our strategy is.”

McWherter was speaking one day after his last remaining primary opponent, Kim McMillan, dropped out of the race. McMillan announced on Wednesday that instead of continuing her bid for governor she would run for mayor of Clarksville instead.

McWherter had been considered the Democratic front-runner by many observers almost since he said he was in the race. Gradually, candidates in what once was a crowded field began to drop out. Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, then state Sen. Roy Herron, then state Sen. Jim Kyle all left the race, and McMillan’s departure Wednesday put McWherter in position to focus solely on the Republican field. The general election, when nominees from the Republican and Democratic parties square off, is Nov. 2.

The Republican field includes Knoxville Mayor Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville and Congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga.

Guv Candidates Agree Housing Issues Need Attention

Five of the six major candidates for Tennessee governor appeared at a forum on housing Tuesday in Williamson County, each making the case for how their candidacy connects with housing issues in the state.

And the most common refrain was that creating jobs can solve problems in housing.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, an auctioneer, explained that his experience related to the real estate market and housing goes way back. He learned about construction and worked in the homebuilding industry, he said. His business background in surveying and auctions put him in position to understand housing issues.

“I’ve been around the housing industry all my life,” Ramsey said. “I believe we’re on the cusp of that shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan talked about. I believe in Tennessee we can be an island of sanity in a nation gone amok.

“There will be states nobody wants to be living in. We need to be a state where people will want to bring jobs and bring their families. I understand completely you are the force that drives our economy, and I’ll be very supportive of your industry.”

Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons said he knew what it was like to lose a home from his childhood, when his father left the family. He also noted that his father became homeless, and he sees how many factors are involved in housing issues.

Homelessness, Gibbons pointed out, can be the result of mental illness.

“The largest mental health institution in my community today is the Shelby County jail,” he said.

Gibbons said there were good intentions in trying to deinstitutionalize people who had mental illness, but that there wasn’t enough follow-through to provide community support to make that policy work.

Gibbons said the key on housing is to have good-paying jobs and safe neighborhoods. He emphasized his job as a prosecutor in fighting crime, which is important to stable housing, he said.

Congressman Zach Wamp, who had to leave the forum halfway through to go back to Washington, explained he worked in the commercial real estate sector.

“I know your industry,” he said. “I loved it. I was the first to get there in the morning and the last to leave.”

Wamp said new investments are going to come south and that the state needs a dynamic governor to help make that happen. Wamp, too, pointed to the link between mental illness and homelessness from his experience in working on a subcommittee in Congress that deals with veterans.

Democrat Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, said that when he says he has traveled to all 95 counties, it doesn’t mean just going to lunch with four or five people.

“You have to understand what the infrastructure is and what the assets are,” McWherter said. “We need a governor who will focus on the retention of jobs. The bottom line is we need jobs.”

The candidates expressed their support for the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, established in 1973 to support the production of affordable housing.

They also expressed support for regional mass transit. But as in other areas, candidates quickly added that the next governor has to be careful about making promises that can’t be kept due to severe budget restraints.

Democrat Kim McMillan said the state needs to be smart on how it goes about mass transit.

“Sometimes we veer off course without the proper planning,” she said. “This is a reason why our roads system is recognized so well. Planning is what made our road system what it is today.”

The one major candidate who did not appear was Republican Bill Haslam, mayor of Knoxville. But Mike McGuffin, managing director of the retail division of Eakin Partners Commercial Real Estate, spoke on Haslam’s behalf.

Much of the forum’s discussion was about foreclosures, which were the first domino to fall leading to the credit crisis that drove the nation into recession.

“We need foreclosure counseling,” McMillan said. “When you actually educate people on how to buy a home, to service a mortgage, it makes a difference in their ability to stay away from foreclosure.”

“Let’s be honest. We knew this couldn’t last,” Ramsey said of practices that were going on that led to foreclosures.

He recalled how people used to have to verify they were making enough money to afford the homes they bought.

“It was lax regulation, and it was speculation that got us to this point,” he said, in a comment that drew some applause in agreement.

“That doesn’t deserve a clap,” he said. “It deserves a boo.”

Pre-K Effectiveness Limited; Candidates Still Support It

The educational benefits of Tennessee’s Pre-K program are small and short-lived, according to a report commissioned by the state comptroller and education department.

Those findings echo two previous installments of the “Assessing the Effectiveness of Tennessee’s Pre-Kindergarten Program” series produced by an Ohio-based firm, Strategic Research Group.

“As previous reports in this series have found, there are positive effects on these outcomes associated with participation in Pre-K, although they are for the most part limited to economically disadvantaged students… and are evident primarily in Kindergarten and first grade,” according to the study.

The report also stated that “the magnitude of these effects is small,” and that positive benefits “associated with Pre-K participation tend to diminish over time.” Once the children reach second grade and beyond, their academic performance tends to fall in line with that of their peers who didn’t attend the state’s Pre-K program, according to the study.

Candidates in both parties running for governor say they want to expand the program, which currently enrolls 18,000 children and is budgeted for about $93 million in the coming fiscal year.

Tennessee has spent about $335 million to fund Pre-K education since it was first launched as a pilot program in 1998, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

The program, which is meant to give children from poor families a head start in learning, is estimated to cost almost $92,955,000 in the 2010-11 school year. More than $86 million of that would come out of the state coffers, with about $6.6 million from the federal government. The state’s total education budget is $5.3 billion.

Calling Pre-K a “home run” of an education program, Democratic candidate for governor Mike McWherter told advocates gathered at the Capitol for a panel discussion on issues affecting Tennessee kids that the strategy behind the program is to “capture those kids at an early age and foster a love for learning in them.” That in turn “will carry them forward throughout their entire careers,” he said.

McWherter promised to continue funding the program if elected, adding that it ought to be made larger.

Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, a Republican, and former Democratic House Majority Leader Kim McMillan both said they support government-funded Pre-K efforts, too. McMillan also said she’d would support enrolling more children if she’s elected.

Congressman Zach Wamp, a Republican from Chattanooga, said he is a big supporter of early childhood programs and said the state has to do more to support it, but didn’t elaborate on what.

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey expressed doubt that the early education program is worthy of additional funding and expansion in the current revenue climate.

“I’ll be right upfront with you. I don’t think that universal Pre-K is the highest and best use of our money here in Tennessee,” said Ramsey.

Andrea Zelinski can be reached at andreazelinski@tnreport.com.

TN’s Big 3 Campaign Issues: ‘Jobs, Jobs & Jobs’

Gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam plans to launch a statewide “jobs tour” this week, and it’s safe to say he won’t be the only candidate addressing the issue for the next several months.

If there’s been one constant refrain by the candidates thus far, it’s been “jobs, jobs and jobs,” as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey described Tennessee’s “top three issues” in a recent speech.

Candidates often have pet projects and special agendas in any election. Sometimes candidates completely misread what the public wants and needs, but candidates from both major political parties this year seem to understand the one thing most on the public’s mind is employment and its relationship to the economy.

Haslam, Republican mayor of Knoxville, has also announced that as governor he would create regional “jobs base camps,” where 10 to 13 “regional directors” in the state will apply strategies specific to each area. Haslam says his approach would “decentralize the home office.”

Given Haslam’s assertions that he has a conservative agenda, he was asked if the regional program would add to bureaucracy and expand state government. But he quickly rejected that notion.

“We’re not adding more people. We’re just pushing more authority to the regional level,” said Haslam, whose family owns Pilot Corp., known for its Pilot Travel Centers. “We want the right people to lead that regional effort. It comes from my conviction being in business that the more we pushed decisions down to the local level, the better decisions got made, because they understood the environment there better than we did back at the main office.”

Ramsey has said he wants a focus on small business as governor, to the point he wants every department in state government thinking about it.

He relies on personal experience, where after attending East Tennessee State University and wanting to be self-employed he knew he had to work for someone for two years to get a license as a surveyor. His plan was to put in his two years then immediately quit to go out on his own. That’s what he did.

“When it came time to leave, I said I would give them a two-weeks notice, but I was told, ‘Don’t bother. Go ahead,'” Ramsey said. So he left, and the next day his wife gave birth.

“I didn’t know where my paycheck was coming from. We started with only a pickup truck and a prayer,” Ramsey said.

So Ramsey says he understands the needs of small businesses.

Democrat Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, told an audience of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce last week he knows what the state’s priorities should be.

“Tennessee needs a governor who will put the creation and retention of jobs front and center on the agenda. That’s why I’m running for governor,” said McWherter, son of former Tennessee governor Ned McWherter. “Like you, I’m a business person, not a career politician. Like you, I understand what it is to make a payroll. Like you, I understand what it is to sit down and work out a health care plan for the year. Like you, I understand what it is to build a budget and live within that.

“If Tennessee is going to prosper, the next governor has got to be an individual with the skills and background who understands how to build this economy, how to create jobs and, I think most importantly, how to maintain jobs here in Tennessee.”

McWherter said it’s important to get greater accountability out of state government.

“I’ve spent my last 20 years in business creating jobs. In short, that’s what I’m all about. Job creation,” he said. “If we’re going to turn this economy around here at home, we’ve got to put Tennesseans to work, and we’ve got to put Tennessee businesses first.

“If you run an existing business in Tennessee, I have a message for you. I know you’re struggling. But help is on the way.”

McWherter’s Democratic opponent, former legislator Kim McMillan, speaks frequently of the need to capitalize on partnerships like the one at Austin Peay State University and the new Hemlock Semiconductor business in Clarksville, focusing on green technology jobs.

Republican candidate Zach Wamp, a member of Congress from Chattanooga, says that in 10 years the state should go from third to first in automotive manufacturing, and from third to first in energy technologies, including green energy.

He’s fond of saying, “If someone doesn’t make it, build it or grow it, you can’t service it or sell it.”

Wamp also sees an opportunity for job creation in a sector many Tennesseans don’t even think about. He wants to establish a defense corridor, capitalizing on the state’s military assets and using them as an opportunity to establish even more jobs. Wamp says a line of Tennessee military businesses and study centers would fall between Huntsville, Ala., and Fort Campbell, Ky.

Republican Bill Gibbons, district attorney general in Shelby County, focuses on the state’s standing in the region.

“I want to make sure we are above the Southeast average in per capita income,” Gibbons said. “Right now we’re about $1,000 below it and $5,000 below the national average. I think an achievable goal is to be above the Southeast average by the end of the first term. We also have an under-employment problem. The job of governor is to create a climate for economic growth, more good-paying jobs. The jobs have to come from the private sector, but the governor can lead the way in creating that climate for economic growth.”

Gibbons said the climate includes keeping taxes low, providing infrastructure for growth, reducing red tape in state government and to “go after the growth industries of the future.”