Interview: Tennesssee Politics and 2006 Elections

The August 3, 2006, primary election in Tennessee resulted with Rep. Harold Ford Jr., of Memphis, as the Democratic nominee, and former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker as the GOP candidate.

Harold Ford is no liberal, and while that fact gives him a fighting chance in a state that has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since Al Gore was reelected in 1990, it may not be a net-plus for the Democratic Party, especially when you consider his record in the House:

[Rep. Ford] has voted to outlaw gay marriage and to repeal the estate tax, and wants to amend the Constitution to ban flag burning. He supports getting rid of the handgun ban in the nation’s capital and says the Ten Commandments should be posted in courtrooms around his state. He favors school prayer, argues that more troops should have been sent to Iraq and wants to seal the border with Mexico.

Still, capturing the majority in the Senate is the name of the game this cycle, and the election of a Democrat in Tennessee, albeit a conservative, could tip the balance against the GOP and George W. Bush.

We have been very curious about the political atmospherics in Tennessee, circa 2006, and so we invited our friend Alice, the editor of one of our favorite sites, 10,000 Monkeys and a Camera, up to the Pensito Review electronic garret for a mug of green tea and a chat about politics in the Volunteer State.

Interview with Alice from 10,000 Monkeys & a Camera

PR: Welcome to the electronic garret here at the Pensito Review world headquarters, Alice. Sorry about the dust. Hope you’re not allergic.

A: Having just moved into a rental house that is in the middle of a complete new window installation, I am conveniently accustomed to dust.

PR: You’re a transplant to Tennessee, but you seem to have taken root in Chattanooga. I know you’ve been involved in a number of local campaigns. How does the slate of local candidates look this year?

A: We’ve just come out of our local elections (they were on the ballot along with the general primary on August 3rd) and we did very well. There was only one big disappointment: we narrowly lost in a heartbreaking race against a Zell Miller-type looney incumbent named Curtis Adams on our county commission who switched from Democrat to Republican when Howard Dean took over the national organization (he even went on Fox”News” at the time to proclaim his hatred for gay people). The challenger in that race is a great progressive who will keep fighting for the people, schools, and especially the children of his district, so hopefully we’ll git ’em next time. In other matchups, we picked up the County Sheriff’s office (from an incumbent, no less!) and fought off a challenge from a Bush/Melman puppet in another county commission race.

In the November election, we’re down to just four races: Governor, US House, US Senate, and the State House. In the State House races, there’s really only one hot race in my area, and we’ve got a great candidate in Bill Lusk, who could give us a very important pickup. He’s running for a seat that’s being vacated by Chris Clem, a right wing radical (and no fan of Bob Corker, btw) who never really did anything in the legislature except pick on homosexuals. Lusk is a great candidate. He’s young, handsome, articulate, a quick wit, and can think quickly on his feet. He was successful enough in business to be semi-retired well before retirement age and he’s already drawing quite a few Republicans to his campaign. I think it’s a race to watch.

Ford’s Opponent Is Former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker

PR: So tell us about the GOP’s nominee to the Senate, Bob Corker. Where does he fit in the Bill Frist-Lamar Alexander-Howard Baker GOP constellation in Tennessee? What is his statewide profile?

A: Compared to Ford, who is pretty well known outside of his home base in Memphis, Bob Corker didn’t start out with much name recognition outside the Chattanooga area. And he’s even having some identity problems here in his home district. Bob Corker used to be a socially flexible, fiscally reasonable, moderate Republican. But he’s had to move sharply to the right (flip flopping on abortion, among other things) for the sake of the nomination. He faced two rightwing, Christian conservative types in the primary, which was very ugly, and now that he’s worked so hard to define himself as a rightwinger, he’s going to be stuck there.

Tennessee’s GOP Senate candidate Bob Corker is a little tiny man with a Napoleon complex, and while he was mayor he ran Chattanooga with only one thing in mind: building the value of his real estate portfolio.

As for what I think of Bob, that’s simple: he’s an incredible ass. He’s a little tiny man with a Napoleon complex, and while he was mayor he ran Chattanooga with only one thing in mind: building the value of his real estate portfolio. He sold out the citizens of this town for the sake of a few lucrative commercial property deals. (See a current story about his shenanigans here).

He proved in the primary that there is no principle he’s not willing to abandon for the sake of buying this seat (he even stooped to denying accepted science and he’s already resorted to infusing his campaign from his own fortune when the going got tough). The campaign itself should be entertaining, though, especially if you’re into tabloids — his older daughter has already made national news (did you catch her appearance on Wonkette?), rumor has it that the younger daughter has controversy potential as well, and his wife might even be a Democrat. He’s going to have a rough couple of months — hopefully followed by a disappointing loss. I’m afraid if he wins, we’ll never be rid of him.

Harold Ford Would Be to the Right of Most Dems in the Senate

PR: Harold Ford Jr. is largely a blank slate to me. I know he comes from a political dynasty, and like all dynasties they have had their problems. Does he have a chance at winning the Senate seat?

A: I think Ford does have a chance in this race, especially with all the anti-republican sentiment that is roiling this year. He’s made some pretty big gains in the polls since the primary. As you’ve already pointed out, Ford is a very moderate democrat (which does make the liberal in me less-than-enthusiastic about him in theory — in practice, I know he’ll be much better than Corker). He’s disappointed me as a Congressmen in his support for the Bush administration on some issues (like the repeal of the estate tax) and he really lets me down quite often when it comes to social issues. But he’s a moderate in a conservative state, so the very things that make me squeamish about him are the reasons he just might win here. Further, he’s always been a moderate, so no one can accuse him of tacking to the middle for the sake of an election.

“The liberals I spoke with at his events this past weekend certainly weren’t thrilled by all [Harold Ford’s] positions. They were thrilled, however, by the emergence of a candidate with a Clintonian ability to deflect Republican attacks — and by the prospect of their state electing a senator who is young, gifted and black.”
— Harold Meyerson

The Washington Post published an op-ed this week from Harold Meyerson, who recently visited Ford on the campaign trail. Meyerson reports that “the liberals I spoke with at his events this past weekend certainly weren’t thrilled by all his positions. They were thrilled, however, by the emergence of a candidate with a Clintonian ability to deflect Republican attacks — and by the prospect of their state electing a senator who is young, gifted and black.” I think this illustrates that it’s not going to be an all-or-nothing, go-for-broke year for progressives. A lot of people who maybe at one time bought into Naderite thinking have realized, in the years since Bush moved into the White House, that there is indeed a huge difference between Democrats and Republicans. Even if we progressives can’t achieve all of our lofty goals this year, some of us are willing to settle for little bits of progress, especially when we consider that our alternatives are no progress at all, or worse, more backsliding when it comes to issues like our nation’s security, the environment, human rights, and the budget. After suffering through twelve long years of Bill “Cat Killer” Frist, filled with pandering idiocies like his video mis-diagnosis of Terri Schiavo and his attempt to claim that AIDS can be transmitted through tears and sweat, even a moderate Democrat is going to feel like a breath of fresh air around here.

PR: Well, I certainly get that. I’m a pragmatist about politics. For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein is hands down the most popular politician in California, and she is hardly as liberal as liberals would like to her to be. She’s usually good in the clinches, however. Sounds like Ford would be similar.

But now Ford comes from a political dynasty that, like all dynasties, has had its highs and lows. What are the chances we’d find ourselves facing a scandal if the Congressman is elected to the Senate? Is that something that is on the minds of voters?

A: I don’t think it’s on the mind of voters, and this Ford is probably smart enough to avoid scandals. I suppose if anything does get him, it will be the same thing that catches just about all smart politicans: arrogance. But I think he’s learned from his family’s foibles, so he should stay out of trouble.

A Look at Statewide Races in Tennessee

PR: Let’s talk about statewide races. What is the voter registration split between Democrats and Republicans like (roughly) these days?

A: We have open primaries here in Tennessee, so we don’t have offical registrations to look at. All we can do is look at who is taking which ballot in the primaries and then, of course, which party does better in the statewide races. Tennessee leans Republican, but not by much. If you look back at the last couple of elections, you’ll see that while Bush beat Kerry in 2004 by 57 percent to 42 percent, two years earlier, Phil Bredesen beat Van Hilleary (who was one of the also-rans just defeated by Corker in the Republican Senatorial primary) by a margin of 51 percent to 48 percent. A friend of mine, a political junkie who has been following local politics in this state for decades, tells me that like Chattanooga, the state of Tennessee runs about 35 percent to 30 percent Republican to Democrat, with the rest being independents. And I suspect that this year, those proportions are trending more toward a third each.

PR: Gov. Phil Bredesen is a Democrat. How’s he doing? I saw someplace that he is one of the least vulnerable governors up for reelection this year.

Gov. Phil Bredesen might just be more popular with Tennessee’s moderate Republicans than he is with liberal Democrats these days.

A: Yeah, that sounds about right. He’s another moderate Democrat who, like Ford, doesn’t really inspire excitement in us yellow dogs, but gets a good bit of support from swing voters. Phil Bredesen might just be more popular with moderate Republicans than he is with liberal Democrats these days — he kicked a bunch of Tennesseans off TennCare, our state’s medical program, he stubbornly clings to our state’s staggeringly regressive tax structure (I think we’re just about the only state without an income tax that doesn’t have an obvious alternative source of revenue, like gambling, beaches or oil pipelines), and he never seems to hesitate when it comes to executions, even in the cases involving the mentally ill.

On the other hand, Bredesen has been a good governor when it comes to funding schools (and at a time when the Bush regime is choking funding a la No Child Left Unscrewed), balancing the budget (again, in spite of Bush), child advocacy (he did make sure the TennCare cuts didn’t include children), bringing jobs to the state, and supporting women’s issues. He’s also done a lot of work in beating back the meth labs that have been sprouting up all over the state.

PR: How does Gov. Bredesen factor in Ford’s race, if at all?

A: I don’t think he will be a factor. He showed no interest in helping candidates in our local races (he didn’t visit at all during the local campaign season), and I’ve been given no reason to believe he’s got plans to try and help out any of our November candidates. Ford and Bredesen work with very different demographics, so their GOTV efforts will be not be aimed in the same directions anyway.

PR: What is the party split in the Legislature?

A: In our General Assembly, the upper chamber (the Senate) has 18 Republicans and 15 Democrats. The lower chamber (the House) has 53 Democrats and 46 Republicans.

PR: Does conventional wisdom foresee any changes in the split this year?

A: The Democrats have a small shot at taking over the Senate (the political junkie friend I mentioned earlier puts our chances at @35-40 percent), but odds are better that the proportions will stay about the same, with us Democrats maybe tweaking things a bit in our favor.

Does Rep. Zach Wamp Practice Imitating George Bush’s Swagger and Cornpone Accent?

PR: The congressman from your district is a Republican, Rep. Zach Wamp. He is one of my least favorite members of the House (and that is saying a LOT). Does he practice in a mirror looking and talking like George W. Bush? And if, so why??

A: They’re like two peas in a pod. Both of them are addled, lazy sons of privilege who have never worked an honest day in their lives. Zach went to college over in your old stomping grounds, Chapel Hill, but didn’t finish (which he lied about when he first ran for Congress — at the time, he claimed to have graduated from UNC-CH). He dropped (flunked?) out after some check kiting got him into trouble. He also had a pesky little cocaine problem. So, he slithered back to Chattanooga and started “working” in his daddy’s real estate business. From there, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to… well, you know the drill… supposedly finding the Lord and then letting Poppy buy him a seat in Congress.

Only finding Jesus didn’t help Wamp keep his promises. When he ran in 1994 he promised to observe a self-imposed term limit of 12 years. 1994 + 12 = 2006. Oops. He also promised he would never take money from PACs. Another oops. And then there was his famous pledge to live in “barracks” while in DC. Instead, he hooked himself up with a sweet deal where he gets to live in a swanky DC townhouse for only $600 a month (check out this story from Harper’s!). And then there was his pledge to decline to take his congressional pay raises. Guess how many times he did that? (Here’s a hint: the number is less than one).

Our candidate in this race is a real wild card, though. This year should be a good year for a pickup — people are once again talking about Wamp’s failure to keep his promises from 1994, and it is looking to be an anti-Republican, anti-incumbent year in general — but our primary winner, Brent Benedict, a former Libertarian who pulled off a narrow upset against a progressive Vietnam Vet by studying the numbers and buying lots of robocalls in the final hour, isn’t very well known in the district, even among the party faithful. I hope he can pull together a strong campaign after his surprising win in the primary, though. He lists Governor Bredesen as a role model, so perhaps he can catch a ride on Phil’s coattails…

Based on no other knowledge of him other than my intuition, I’d say Rep. Zach Wamp is one of the members of Congress most likely to get caught with a slightly underaged Thai hooker.

PR: Tell us more about how awful Zach Wamp is. Based on no other knowledge of him other than my intuition, I’d say he is one of the members of Congress most likely to get caught with a slightly underaged Thai hooker. What do you think?

A: I think you’ve got a great sense of these things. I’ve heard some rumors about Zach’s merry-making up in DC while his wife is back here in Chattanooga with the kids. Plus, he’s got to be doing something while he’s up there, and it certainly isn’t legislating. Just about every year since Wamp first went to DC, he has some great press conference lauding the fact that he got us a much needed earmark to fix our dam, but then the funding always seems to end up falling through — but not until after her takes credit for it. He really hasn’t done all that much with his time in Congress. He did have his eye on Frist’s seat in the Senate (the one Ford and Corker are running to fill), but apparently even Rove and Melhman think he’s a weasel, because they threw him under the bus a long time ago.

Which State Will Turn ‘Blue’ First, North Carolina or Tennessee?

PR: Finally, an essay question. I’m an ex-pat Tar Heel, as you know, and one of my pet theories is that North Carolina could be one of the first Southern Red states to flip to Blue. Part of this analysis is based on my experience living there until I was 29, when literally 9/10ths of the people I knew socially were liberals, and on the fact that the state voted decidely for Jimmy Carter. In the two decades since I left, the population has grown to almost 9 million people, most of whom are transplants from the Northeast. The Legislature and the governorship are controlled by the Dems now. It seems to me that it’s just a matter of time before the state goes for a Democratic presidential candidate like, say former Virginia governor Mark Warner. This might never happen in South Carolina, Alabama or Mississippi, but what about the prospects for Tenneesee? Do you see a major cultural shift in the future?

A: I do (and I can’t tell you how deleriously happy I’d be if that Democratic presidential candidate you mention were to be Al Gore). But I think the flip to blue will happen in stages. First we’ll elect a few people who are moderate democrats in the historical sense — people like Bredesen and Ford. This will be possible because these are candidates who can be stomached by the Reaganite rednecks, moderate Republicans and disaffected fiscal conservatives, while also being (at least barely) tolerable for most progressives — especially given the likely Christian Conservative alternatives like Wamp and the other rightwing whack jobs who have taken over the Republican Party. Once people get used to the idea of having some Democrats working for them beyond the local offices where we’re accustomed to seeing Democrats, then we can sell them on some more progressive ideas — or even a president.

I’m also part Tarheel, btw. I only lived in Chapel Hill for six years (while my other half was getting his doctorate), but my heart will always long to return to that southern part of heaven. It was there that I had my political awakening, thanks to Senator Jesse Helms (who, in case you’re wondering, is shockingly not dead yet — I could have sworn he was, but I guess I was confused by the death of Strom Thurmond, another ancient, ugly southern racist… but alas, I digress…). I remember hearing the Senator’s suggestion about fencing off Chapel Hill as a substitute for building a zoo in the state and right then and there I got involved in my first political campaign (I’m not even sure who the candidate was anymore — Jim Hunt, maybe?).

Anyway, I think Tennessee and North Carolina are both poised to turn Blue and it’s going to be a race to see which one flips first (or they might very well take the plunge together in 2008!). Then we can meet in this little garret again, only with some champagne or a bottle of wine instead of tea.

This has certainly been fun. The green tea is great (one of my favorites, along with rooibos!) and I hope we can do this again soon!

PR: Thank you, Alice. I feel like I have a good sense of the political landscape in Tennessee this year and certainly hope our readers do too.

We’ll check in with Alice about the state of the races in Tennessee as we move closer to the elections in November.