“I do have a streak of Teddy Roosevelt in me,” declared Zach Wamp toward the end of a coffee break Friday at the Cracker Barrel in Lakeland, where he’d been doing heavy-duty shmoozing from table to table. He professed himself to be opposed to monopolies and “a consolidation of power in this country that’s threatening.”
That was a milder summary of some things he’d said earlier in the conversation about a specific group of Tennesseans he’d identified as monopolists — the Haslam family, one of whose members, Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, is Wamp’s opponent in the Republican primary for governor.
Those remarks smacked somewhat of the big stick so famously recommended by the Republican Progressive-Era president.
“The Haslams are nice people if they get their way. That’s the way it is with the very rich and very powerful in America,” he said, adding that the reality was, “They’re ruthless.”
He went so far as to suggest that the family, which owns the Pilot Oil conglomerate, used its influence to get the august Wall Street Journal to launch an editorial-page attack on him as “an epic spender and earmarker.” The editorial was an echo of a charge made against Wamp by his other GOP opponent, Lt.Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville.
But to Wamp, the WSJ editorial, which appeared Thursday morning, was the work of the Haslam family.
“Somehow they’re so rich and powerful that they’ve got people working for them in New York City,” said Wamp, who declared, “ We shouldn’t let New York operatives determine who the governor of Tennessee’s going to be. I didn’t invent Oak Ridge, Tennessee, or the Chickamauaga Lock. I inherited them. I’ve had to do certain things for our state. To claim that I’m a big earmarker just flies in the face of the truth. I’ve been a leader in earmark reform.
“When has the Wall Street Journal ever involved themselves in a primary in one of 50 states? When has that ever happened?” Wamp demanded. “That just speaks to the reach of a family that has a $37 billion empire. They’re connected to all kinds of publications and all kinds of people.”
Just in case his meaning was unclear, Wamp was asked: Was he suggesting that the Haslams directly planted the Wall Street Journal editorial?
“I’m suggesting there’s something fishy about the whole thing, yeah,” he said.
The editorial bore as its title “Zach Wamp’s Rebel Yell” and took as its hook recent remarks by Wamp which many thought amounted to a call for Tennessee to consider secession from the Union. (The Journal archly suggested it would rather Wamp seceded from the House Appropriations Committee.)
What Wamp had said, in an interview with the National Journal's “Hotline,” was this: "I hope that the American people will go to the ballot box in 2010 and 2012 so that states are not forced to consider separation from this government.”.
At the Cracker Barrel, Wamp hazarded a clarification: “Nothing that I said could be interpreted that I suggested Tennessee should secede from the Union. When I’m governor, of course we won’t secede from the Union. But we need a strong governor to stand against this federal intervention in the states.”
The congressman mentioned as signs of encroaching federal power President Obama’s stimulus bill, federal health-care legislation, and the Justice Department’s suit against Arizona’s immigration law.
The “secessionist” interpretation of his statement may also have been the work of the Haslams, Wamp implied. “Again, their reach is so extensive with their $37 billion empire, they’re able to make things look like they’re not.”
As he has several times recently, Wamp contrasted the $4.4 million he originally budgeted and will spend during the primary campaign with the $15 million he says Haslam has lavished on the gubernatorial race so far. “A million and half a week, that’s his burn rate.”
Wamp vowed: I’ll be the governor for the middle class. Frankly, extreme wealth shouldn’t translate into political power in America.”
Given the strength of his feelings, would he be able to support Haslam in the general election? “I expect to be able to support the Republican nominee," Wamp responded after a moment of thought. “We’ll see what happens in the next few days.”
Meanwhile, Bill Haslam, the object of Wamp’s scorn, had also been campaigning in Shelby County, making morning stops in Cordova and Bartlett. Asked about Wamp’s statements concerning “separation from the government,” Haslam said only: “I think it does matter what words a governor uses. You represent the state to the world. Most Tennesseans I know want to improve the United States. They don’t want to pull out.”
Since the complete quotation from Theodore Roosevelt was “Speak softly but carry a big stick,” it can be said that both Republican candidates — who have been dueling relentlessly for support in population-rich Shelby County — were honoring a different portion of the onetime president’s legacy.