Trial Heats

As summer beckons, so does gubernatorial fever among Democratic wannabes.

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The 2002 Tennessee gubernatorial race is shaping up as a dead heat, according to the Mason-Dixon polling organization -- which, however, has so far only polled instances matching either of two Democratic candidates -- ex-Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen, who is already announced, and Nashville congressman Bob Clement, whose candidacy is now a moot issue -- vs. the likely Republican nominee, Rep. Van Hilleary of Tennessee's 4th District.

Clement's long-rumored announcement Tuesday afternoon that he would not be a candidate confirmed reports that the congressman had been able to recover from the announcement last month of Bredesen, who sewed up common sources of money and support.

Two other Democrats -- former state party chairman Doug Horne of Knoxville and former state senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro -- were not included in the poll, although their candidacies seem all but certain.

A gubernatorial rundown:

The "Try-Harder" Candidate

Womack, a visitor to Memphis last week, plans to make his official announcement of candidacy for the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial nomination this week in Nashville.

The State Farm insurance agent and 12-year legislative veteran, who retired from the General Assembly just last year, can calculate the odds. He not only knows what the line is, he knows what his line is.

"I've just got to work at it a little harder," he said Friday morning at a stop at The Peabody, making only a modest variation in the vintage phrase which Avis Car Rental used in its efforts to catch up with industry leader Hertz.

In Womack's case, the presumed leaders are named Bredesen, Horne. An obvious underdog, Womack is nevertheless prepared to compete all the way to next year's primary election date against his two well-heeled opponents.

Some of Womack's backers insist their man can raise $2 million for a governor's race -- a sum that would seem both to tax the former legislator's capacity and to be only a pittance compared to what multimillionaires Bredesen and Horne can come up with.

No matter.

"I'm prepared to wear out a lot of shoe leather," Womack says. "I never have run in an election in which I wasn't outspent."

As the 55-year-old Womack discourses on such past experiences as being a platoon sergeant in Vietnam, when he not only faced enemy fire but worked closely with civilians in numerous friendly villages, it is clear he has confidence in both his leadership ability and his affinity for the grass roots.

"I'm not going to have the big lick contributors, but I'll have lots of ordinary people, and that's who I'm running for," he says. "I think Tennesseans are tired of the same old names. They want to shift gears a little bit."

Which is Womack's way of acknowledging that he isn't exactly a household name. He is well known to followers of the legislature, of course, having served for six years as chairman of the Senate Education Committee and having sponsored the 1992 Educational Improvement Act which effected the reforms called for by former Governor Ned McWherter.

Womack thinks it's time for more focused attention on education, both at the K-12 and higher-ed levels, which is one reason why he's running. He also thinks that, as someone familiar with the practices of the insurance industry, he is well equipped to pursue the overhaul which he thinks TennCare needs.

He professes concern that, in these two areas, and in that of taxation as well, state government has for too long followed a "laissez faire" logic.

"I think my experience in the legislature gives me a pretty good grounding in how to fix that," he says. Unlike many in state government, he does not shy away from the prospect of making unpopular choices. On taxes, for example, he says, "We can't afford to take anything off the table." That means looking at both the sales tax and the income tax, each of which has evoked strong opposition.

"Mainly, though, what we've got to do is establish what we're going to do in government, then determine how we're going to pay for it," says Womack, who has a good many specific proposals in mind -- involving changes in TennCare's underwriting basis, for example, or instituting "dual-institution" credit for high-schoolers taking college-level courses.

How much campaign money does the Try-Harder candidate have on hand right now?

Womack grins. "My mother told me never to tell how much money I make."

At some point in the future, when he'll have to 'fess up in the form of financial disclosure statements, we'll know, of course, and that will be some gauge of how serious Andy Womack's chances are.

There's no doubt, in the meantime, that his intentions are quite serious indeed.

Bredesen Touches All Bases

As reports first began to percolate that Clement, his presumed chief Democratic rival for the governorship, would announce his non-participation in the 2002 race, Bredesen came, saw, and conquered at a Democratic Party fund-raiser here last Tuesday night.

The fund-raiser, at the East Memphis home of former Shelby County Democratic chairman John Farris, was kept scrupulously neutral in the intra-party sense by both Farris and state Democratic chairman Bill Farmer, who also attended, but virtually everyone on hand privately professed support for Bredesen's gubernatorial bid. Included were Farris himself, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, and former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris.

The accessions of Herenton and Morris to Bredesen's cause were especially interesting in that the Memphis mayor went through the entire 1994 gubernatorial campaign without endorsing Bredesen, then the Democratic standard-bearer, and Morris was the then Nashville mayor's chief primary opponent that year.

Not only that, it is generally believed that political activists friendly to Bredesen made sure that Morris became the subject of investigative focus that year, resulting in his brief indictment on charges of improper use of county prisoners at his campaign events.

Although Morris was able to clear himself and to resume campaigning, his campaign suffered a loss of momentum which could not be recouped. Reminded of those circumstances Tuesday night, Morris said, "I'm not thinking of the past. I'm looking to the future."

Herenton's decision to back Bredesen not only contrasted with his reluctance to support his then mayoral counterpart in 1994, it was further evidence that he finds himself increasingly able to make common cause with his erstwhile political rival, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., who, in his turn, would meet with Bredesen last week and promise to support him as he had in 1994.

(Eight years ago the then congressman found Bredesen a handy medium through which to inflict some payback on Morris, who -- Ford thought -- had, early on, frozen him out of the Clinton-Gore campaign of 1992 and had shown a reluctance to give financial aid to the legal fund which helped Ford, ultimately with success, to acquit himself of federal charges of conspiracy and bank fraud.)

The Farris fund-raiser was only the latest Bredesen visit to Memphis over the past several weeks. Much of the previous weekend had been spent here as well -- the candidate schmoozing with Herenton and other local dignitaries of the political and business worlds.

Bredesen had also touched bases, not only with former congressman Ford and his son and successor, U.S. rep. Harold Ford Jr., but with members of the family political organization. Former county party chair David Cocke, a longtime Ford ally, recalled Monday that he had received a friendly telephone call prior to Bredesen's visit here last week, asking for Cocke's support.

"He was making the same call to lots of other people, too," Cocke said. "Nobody else was that active."

Clement's Departure

In the immediate wake of the Mason-Dixon poll, which showed him edging Hilleary by 38 to 37 percent -- Rep. Clement managed a statement that sounded upbeat.

"I am encouraged by such positive numbers, in both favorability and support, particularly since my name has not been on a statewide ballot in 23 years," Clement said. "These numbers are consistent with the very positive response I have received from Tennesseans from all regions and all walks of life during the past few months."

But on Tuesday, just after noon, the Nashville congressman released a statement which said in part: "Since there appears to be no shortage of quality Democratic candidates for governor, I have decided that an expensive and divisive primary is not in the best interest of the Tennessee Democratic Party. I wish the best for all Democratic candidates for governor ... I will be returning the money I raised for the Bob Clement for Governor Committee and will continue to focus my time and energy on serving the people of the 5th Congressional District and Tennessee."

For the record, the Mason-Dixon poll had Bredesen doing marginally better than Clement against Hilleary -- winning by 40 percent to 37 percent. And the poll's match-up of the two Democrats, along with former Tennessee education commissioner and Board of Regents chairman Charles Smith, came out: Bredesen, 33 percent; Clement, 28 percent; Smith, 3 percent; and the rest undecided.

· Horne, meanwhile, made it clear that only Clement's involvement in a gubernatorial race would keep him out. With the Nashville congressman now a dropout, Horne is sure to enter himself, as he insisted last week.

That set up the prospect of an inevitable Battle of Millionaires -- an intensely fought one between Bredesen, a former health-care executive, and Horne, whose various interests run from publishing to trucking, but one kept free of rancor.

Farris noted last week that it was important for Bredesen (and presumably for Horne also) to raise significant grass-roots money for the race. "People don't want to get the idea that anyone is trying to buy the office," he said.

· Bartlett alderman Mike Jewell, who is head of the sheriff's department prisoner-transfer unit, formally declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination for sheriff last Thursday night at the Bartlett Performing Arts Center on Appling Road.

Blaming the current administration for an unclear agenda and an undesirable "image" (though declining to criticize personalities by name or to cite specifics), Jewell pledged to restore public confidence if elected. ·

Breaking Out Of the Box

As the deliberations of the Tennessee General Assembly turned into what members hope is the home stretch, each of the legislature's two chambers late last week appointed a 15-member committee. The two groups together constitute a joint conference committee and will attempt to resolve a budget impasse which, unless resolved, would threaten the state with a $1 billion deficit by next year.

Several Memphians are prominent in the effort.

State senator Jim Kyle (D-Frayser, Raleigh) was named chairman of the Senate contingent, which also includes Sen. John Ford (D-South Memphis).

The House group includes both Rep. Joe Kent (R-Southeast Memphis) and Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry (D-South Central Memphis). · -- JB

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