Politics » Politics Feature

Wamp vs. Haslam

Shelby County is a major battleground for the two GOP gubernatorial candidates.

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As the 2010 primary season heads into its final month, the facts of life concerning this year's gubernatorial race become clearer and clearer.

On the Republican side, it seems obvious that Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam is in a position to out-distance his GOP rivals — Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville — in much the way that current U.S. senator Bob Corker pulled away from primary opponents Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary in 2006.

Corker's fund-raising ability, augmented by his personal wealth, proved sufficient to overcome the more conservative efforts of Bryant and Hilleary, who essentially were competing for what they saw as the bedrock conservative vote against Corker, a relative moderate.

The analogy between this year and that is not perfect, but it's close enough. Once again, the two more conservative candidates on the Republican side, Wamp and Ramsey, are in a battle for second place (if various polls on the gubernatorial race — some published, some not — can be trusted). And Haslam, like Corker, not only has a strong financial advantage, he has the apparent backing of what can be termed the Republican "Establishment." (Indeed, the candidate's father, Pilot Oil founder Jimmy Haslam, has himself been an integral member of that Establishment.)

Wamp touched upon these realities in an hour-long interview with members of the Flyer editorial staff last Wednesday. (That conversation followed by two weeks a similar one with Haslam. Videos of both interviews are available on the Flyer website, memphisflyer.com.)

Early on in his meeting with the Flyer staff, Wamp stated that Haslam had "boatloads of money" (an estimated $9 million in available campaign cash, almost triple that of any opponent) and was "trying to buy the election." Wamp would follow that up with a series of less than flattering estimates of Haslam's executive ability:

"Bill Haslam might be the most overstated candidate in the history of Tennessee. ... He didn't run Pilot Oil. My gracious. This is like the TV show Dallas. There's J.R., there's Jock, and there's Bobby. This is Bobby. He's a nice man. Bobby was the nicest guy in that family. But he was never in charge. ... Bill Haslam is not a strong leader. He will be run over by this legislature." 

And eventually there was this: "There is an Establishment, and there is a conflict right now in the Republican Party in this country between the Establishment and conservatives. And the Establishment has a lot of money, and in this state the Establishment is very much behind Bill Haslam. And it's all about centralizing power. And frankly that's one thing we ought to be concerned about: centralizing power in the hands of a very few."

Speaking dismissively about two of Haslam's ubiquitous TV commercials, both of them designed, Wamp said, to make the candidate appear like "a regular guy," the congressman declared, "And that's where Big Money will throw you off."

Wamp may or may not be correct in his assessment that the Republican primary contest is now a "two-man race" between himself and Haslam. Ramsey has ample strength both in his native Tri-Cities bailiwick of Kingsport-Johnson City-Bristol and elsewhere in East Tennessee, and, as Wamp acknowledged, "Ramsey is the legislature." Even so, maintained the Chattanoogan, "He's running, but he's actually going backwards."

That assessment seems a bit of a stretch, but it's certainly true that, although Ramsey makes periodic visits to suburban Shelby County, it is Wamp and Haslam who are in active, nearly omnipresent competition for the votes of what, in the heyday of Boss Ed Crump, was called "Big Shelby."

Haslam, who began the current post-holiday week with an all-day series of stops in Shelby County on Tuesday, has offered what he calls his "Memphis Plan." Wamp had earlier established as a basic theme of his campaign that "Memphis matters" and has vowed, if elected governor, to spend more time in Memphis and Shelby County than anywhere else except Nashville ("and I have to sit there").

In fairness, his promises are somewhat more concrete — to attempt to funnel to the Med in Memphis the totality of funds provided to the state by the federal government in compensation for Med-generated charitable care; to endow the University of Memphis with its own governing body; and to appoint a commissioner of economic development from Shelby County.

Yet, while such public commitments have won Wamp a fair share of GOP support in these parts (including a majority of Republican members of the Shelby County Commission), they did not prevent so archconservative a Republican as Shelby County commissioner Wyatt Bunker from publicly casting his lot with Haslam, whose supposed "moderate" positions proved, à la Corker in 2006, to be no obstacle with GOP primary voters.

• Haslam, who made several stops in Shelby County on Tuesday, was asked about Wamp's remarks after the Knoxville mayor had addressed a group of senior citizens in Lakeland.

"I'm proud of my business record and proud of my record as mayor," Haslam said. On the subject of his role with Pilot Oil, the Knoxville mayor said, "It's always been a group effort, but 80 percent of the current top officers were hired by me." He said he had been integrally involved in every aspect of the company.

Haslam also responded to another allegation by Wamp, who said last week that Haslam's declining to release his income tax records allowed him to avoid answering questions about his involvement with Saks Direct from 1999 to 2003, which Wamp said had been a "financial disaster."

Haslam disputed that, saying that Saks Direct, the Internet marketing branch of the giant department store, had "become the second most profitable part of their business."

About Wamp's criticism in general, he observed, "You know, in the Westerns you always see the cowboy shooting the person in front of them, not at the person behind."

• On the Democratic side, Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, the Democrats' gubernatorial nominee presumptive (since he has no primary opposition), seems to have got the message. There has been an increasing chorus of criticism from local Democrats baffled by McWherter's inattention so far to Shelby County, which he has visited scantily.

But hark! McWherter came to Memphis on Tuesday for two appearances: a speech at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, then a stint at Jim Neely's Interstate BBQ on South Third as part of his "Mike Works!" campaign.

• Stephen Fincher, the farmer/gospel singer from Frog Jump in Crockett County who was an early frontrunner in the 8th congressional district Republican primary, got another boost Tuesday. He received the endorsement of Tennessee Right to Life, whose president, Brian Harris, called Fincher the only one of three GOP candidates who scored 100 percent on all of the anti-abortion group's list of criteria.

Those criteria included evaluations of public statements, evidence of personal commitment to the organization's goals, media reports, and "an in-depth survey coordination by national Right to Life," explained Harris.

Fincher said he considered the Right to Life endorsement "very important" and said the group's "core principles" were essentially his own. "This is a Christian nation, and the road map to success as a nation is our Constitution and our faith," he said.

Harris said one of Fincher's GOP rivals, Ron Kirkland of Jackson, had cooperated with the Right to Life survey but that the third Republican in the primary, George Flinn of Memphis, had not. "We reached out to him and got no response," Harris said.

On other matters, Fincher responded to criticism from officers of the Mid-South Tea Party about his absence at a recent 8th District forum arranged by the group, one that was attended by both Kirkland and Flinn. Fincher said he had another engagement the night of the forum and "couldn't get out of it." He said he had apologized to the Mid-South Tea Party for not being there.

Asked about another charge, this one from Kirkland, that he was running as a Republican but had voted earlier this year in a local Democratic primary election in Crockett County, Fincher said he valued the franchise "fought for by our veterans" and added, "We only have Democratic primaries in Crockett County. You cannot vote if you don't vote in Democratic primaries."

Fincher called the charge "desperate" and added that Kirkland himself had voted several times in Democratic primaries in Madison County.

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