News Transparency and Elections

Strong State Senate Flavor in 6th Dist. U.S. House Race

Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, and Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, sit just a few feet apart on the floor of the state Senate, so it might seem a bit awkward for them to do state business as they run against each other for Congress in the 6th District.

But there is no such awkwardness, no friction, they say.

The formalities of the Senate floor erase any spirit of competition other than the normal debate of the General Assembly, not that the two Republicans have much to disagree about anyway. While Black and Tracy are far from the only ones seeking to replace Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, who is retiring from the seat, the circumstance does give the 6th District race a strong flavor of state government in the field.

When asked about their proximity on the Senate floor, Tracy immediately said, “It has no effect. If you remember, I refereed basketball for 25 years, so I’m used to just concentrating on what I need to do. We go in there to do a job, and that’s how I look at it.”

Black concurs.

“It’s not awkward for me,” she said. “It’s just the way we do things.”

The 6th District race has gotten national attention, foremost because of the exit of Gordon, who was first elected to the seat in 1984. The district itself has changed politically. It has seen many decades of Democratic dominance, but that has changed dramatically.

The change has been so pronounced there is now a general assumption that the 6th District will go to the Republican primary winner, and it has left many political observers to conclude that Gordon’s departure has as much to do with the change in his district as with the change in his personal ambitions. Democrats have struggled to find a strong candidate for the race.

The seat has been held in the past by the likes of James K. Polk and Al Gore Jr. But it has been part of a massive shift in political persuasion in recent years, moving from the conservative Blue Dog Democrat mold and now on to what is being viewed as an almost certain Republican pickup. The race gained notice the moment Gordon made his announcement.

Black and Tracy look like natural fits for the district. But that in no way suggests either one is sure to win. Lou Ann Zelenik, who built a successful business and is a former head of the Rutherford County Republican Party, is also seen as a serious contender for the seat. Other candidates include businessman Kerry Roberts, real estate agent Gary Mann and retired major general Dave Evans.

“I have looked at this seat for a number of years,” said Black, who is chair of the Senate Republican Caucus. “As a matter of fact, I had a meeting several years ago in Washington with some people who considered me a potentially good candidate.

“I looked at the seat several times, and I just didn’t think the timing was right. But we do feel now the timing is right.”

Neither is likely to underestimate Zelenik, who has the financial wherewithal to top the field and has already hit the radio airwaves. Zelenik said it is an advantage not to be in public office right now, given voter disgruntlement with government.

Black was asked if she would have run against Gordon had he decided to run for re-election.

“I don’t know I can say for sure about that decision,” Black said. “You wait until you see what is happening with the whole mood in the country, and obviously we’re moving in a direction where the country is very upset. As a candidate you always look at timing.”

Tracy and Black have similar views about what’s happening in Washington and certainly hear similar issues from the people they would represent. The health care debate is the most prominent example.

“I’ve never seen people this upset,” Tracy said. “I’ve had many phone calls from people wanting to know what to do. ‘Do I buy insurance? Do I not buy insurance?’ It has been from small businesses and individuals.”

The health care issue is such a dominant topic it’s still being debated, even as the bill has been passed and signed by the president.

“I don’t think health care is fixed,” Black said. “There are a lot of needed reforms.”

Tracy says he feels well-suited for the district. His background includes education, including a seat on the Senate Education Committee, and agriculture. Both are important issues in the district.

Black says she’s ready to fight “reckless spending” in Washington.

“You can count on me,” she says, “unlike Bart Gordon, who went there saying one thing and did another.”

Tracy tells voters he is “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small business and a solid conservative.”

He makes a basketball analogy.

“I’m an old basketball official, and I’m going to call a technical on Nancy Pelosi and throw her out of the speakership,” he said.

Education News

Candidates to Students: Get Politically Active

Zach Wamp was a Democrat. Kim McMillan’s parents used John F. Kennedy as an example for why she should get involved in politics.

Jim Tracy remembers meeting Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington like it was yesterday. Roy Herron warned students they’re going to be the ones paying the bills for decisions made today. And a couple of candidates from Nashville are running against state legislators who have served as long, or nearly as long, as the young candidates have been alive.

Through telling stories, sharing experiences and turning up the volume on issues important to young people, a gathering of Nashville area college students Saturday at Vanderbilt University provided a mix of perspectives for students to absorb and use in political activism.

The Nashville Intercollegiate Activism Conference, hosted by the Vanderbilt Political Review, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Nashville Civil Rights Sit-Ins, but it also offered a very modern look at the political process, whether through the eyes of current candidates, local activists or a panel of students themselves who proved politically astute.

The gathering explored issues that matter and showed reasons students should stay involved. Current candidates shared how and why they took the poltical paths they’re on.

Wamp, a Republican candidate for governor, told the students he was a Democrat until 1980 and had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976.

“It’s pretty simple that Ronald Reagan made a Republican out of me,” said Wamp, a congressman from Chattanooga.

He recalled how he and fraternity brothers got in a car and went to Washington for Reagan’s inaugural.

“I shook the hand of Howard Baker, who was a prominent United States senator from Tennessee, and I’ve been a Republican activist ever since,” he said.

Wamp explained that in the last 28 years he has served at every level of party activity. He had recruited candidates, and he was told he should run for Congress.

“I said, naw, I can’t do that, because I was too wild when I was your age,” he told the students. What he didn’t explain was that he had been a cocaine user and spent time in rehabilitation before getting straightened out.

“They said you really should run, and I kind of mustered up the courage and ran in 1991-92,” he said.

Wamp lost to Democratic incumbent Rep. Marilyn Lloyd in 1992 by 2 percentage points.

“I woke up the next morning, kind of took a deep breath, said a prayer, asked my wife and decided to run again,” he said. “So I ran in 1994 and won.”

Wamp was part of a Republican revolution that year and has been re-elected ever since.

“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent, our way of life is at risk from non-activism,” Wamp told the students.

McMillan, a Democratic candidate for governor, told students she was adopted by parents who were school teachers. They taught her that everybody has an obligation to give back.

“My parents were very politically active. They didn’t run for office, but they instilled in me that you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t matter if you’re adopted, if you’re a woman, or if you’re young,” she said.

“They taught me about how President John F. Kennedy gave back even though he didn’t have to, because he believed in people and wanted to make a difference.”

Then there were candidates like Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville attorney challenging Sen. Doug Henry, who has been in the legislature 40 years, in the Democratic primary. Steven Turner is challenging Rep. Mary Pruitt, another veteran lawmaker from Nashville, in a primary campaign.

Yarbro, 32, sounded like an old pro, however, describing how he got involved in Al Gore’s presidential campaign and slept on people’s floors and in spare rooms in the process.

“The reason Barack Obama is president is because of people in this age group,” he told the audience. “It changed the face of the electorate. It changed the face of the country.”

Turner described getting involved in the 2006 Senate race of Harold Ford Jr. and the 2007 mayoral race of Howard Gentry. He launched a voting registration drive in Nashville called Voting is Priceless, aimed at 18-35-year-olds.

“I would go home and talk to my peers, people my age, and they didn’t care as much as I cared about the process,” he said. “I wanted them to care, because what was happening in the country, the state and the city was going to affect us more than anybody else.”

Turner noted that at 26 he was probably the youngest candidate in the room.

Tracy, a Republican state senator from Shelbyville, is running to replace Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, who is retiring from Congress in the 6th District. Tracy, too, had parents who encouraged him to get involved, and he told the students, “What’s going on in Washington is going to affect you.”

Herron, a Democratic state sentor running to replace retiring Democratic Rep. John Tanner in Tennessee’s 8th District, painted a grim picture of how spending is threatening the nation’s future.

“This country is piling up debt that is inconceivable,” Herron said. “We’re spending amounts that are unfathomable. We’re on a spending binge, and we’re sending you the bills.

“You will find yourselves in short order trying to figure out how in the world you can pay the debt for the generations that went before you. How do you pay the bills for our excesses now? In Washington, Democrats and Republicans are so busy trying to shoot at each other they’re busy wounding the country.”