Politics » Politics Feature

The Race Is On

Frist's no-go decision is the starting gun for a crowded gubernatorial primary.

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No sooner had the new year turned than the race for Tennessee governor heated up.

Former U.S. Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who had been the acknowledged favorite among potential candidates in both major parties, ended several months of suspense with a weekend announcement of noncandidacy.

Even before Frist's official announcement on Sunday, word had leaked out, and at least three Republican candidates raced to the starting line — with more expected. Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam had a fund-raiser scheduled, and 3rd District U.S. representative Zach Wamp of Chattanooga was in the process of getting one together.

In Shelby County, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons hastened to make an announcement of candidacy, promising in a press release to emphasize crime and education as areas of prime concern. Gibbons amplified on his intentions in a sit-down with local media representatives on Monday, stating that it was his intent to avoid "an across-the-board tax increase" (a formulation that seemed to leave the door open for targeted revenue enhancements of various kinds).

Gibbons acknowledged that he would have to work on name recognition elsewhere in Tennessee but expressed a belief that he was the only Republican who could carry Shelby County in a general election race. He noted also that Shelby's vote would be a major component in the 2008 Republican primary.

Acknowledging that the independently wealthy Haslam has "the ability to self-fund if he wants to," Gibbons nevertheless expressed confidence in his own fund-raising ability. He acknowledged that he would have to "double up" while attending to his current duties while simultaneously running for governor but said his likely primary opponents would have to do the same.

Besides Haslam and Wamp, other known Republican prospects are 7th District congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, state representative and ex-state GOP chair Beth Harwell of Nashville, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, and state Senate majority leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

Among the potential Democratic candidates are Knoxville publisher (and former state Democratic chairman) Doug Horne, state senator Roy Herron of Dresden, U.S. representative Lincoln Davis, former state House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville, and state senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga. Another possibility is Democratic state Senate leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, a possible entry if the oft-rumored candidacy of former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr. does not develop.

Lang Wiseman seems to have a pretty good hold on the local GOP chairmanship. Things are more uncertain for Shelby County Democrats. As of now, current chairman Keith Norman hasn't ruled out a reelection bid. And several others — including Shelby County commissioner J.W. Gibson, attorneys Lee Harris and Van Turner, and current vice chair Cherry Davis — are thinking seriously of running.

A reorganization date will be set for Tennessee's county parties when the state Democrats meet in Nashville on January 24th, with Chip Forrester and Charles Robert Bone vying for the state chairmanship in a tight contest.

• Welcoming the new year as the featured speaker at city councilman Myron Lowery's annual prayer breakfast, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen prophesized categorically: "We're going to have national health care."

Cohen, entering his second term as congressman from the Memphis metropolitan area, also issued a warning to the banking industry, which, he said, has "taken advantage of people with late fees and penalties and interest rates." These exorbitant charges "need to stop," Cohen warned, and he left little doubt that he expected the coming adminstration of President-elect Barack Obama to break new ground in the manner of FDR's New Deal.

On the local scene, Cohen indicated he was optimistic about new funding for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the rest of the publicly funded colleges in the Memphis area. 

"This, like 1933, is the perfect time to have the House and the Senate and the White House working together," Cohen said. The congressman said he regarded Obama to be "the most special individual I have ever met in my life in politics. ... He's reaching out to everybody, and that is commendable. That is what we need. We need today a uniter, not a divider."

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