Though rumblings have been heard from time to time among Memphis-area Republicans that favorite son Bill Gibbons might be wise to follow local Democrat Jim Kyle’s lead and depart the gubernatorial race, Gibbons himself, the Shelby County D.A., claims not to have heard them — cash-poor campaign or no cash-poor campaign.
And if someone did approach him with the idea? “It would be a short conversation,” Gibbons averred Tuesday night just after making a forceful, detailed case for himself as governor to a group of Shelby County Young Republicans at Central Barbecue on Summer Avenue.
In his talk to the YR group, Gibbons was frank about what it would take for him to overcome the comparatively well-funded efforts of GOP rivals Bill Haslam, Ron Ramsey, and Zach Wamp. “I need to win my home county by a landslide. We’ve really got to make this a grass roots effort,” he said.
And he cited an historical precedent in his favor — that of Winfield Dunn, the unheralded Memphis dentist who in 1970, at a time when Gibbons was a young activist serving as president of the College Republicans, came from obscurity to win the Republican nomination and the governorship itself.
“There was a grass roots movement in Shelby County. He was unknown in the rest of state and was outspent by the other candidates.” But he won. “And we hope to do the same thing this year. That’s my strategy.”
From that point on, Gibbons delivered a succinct version of his platform, focusing on three areas — jobs, crime, and education.
His recipe for providing “good-paying jobs” and improving the state’s employment picture, both qualitatively and quantitatively, was to upgrade the state’s infrastructure, its “roads, bridges, and industrial megasites,” and providing tax incentives to industry, particularly in the “growth industries of the future: solar energy, the biomedical industry, and auto manufacturing.” Entertainment and tourism were two other areas for development, the candidate said.
Tennessee’s crime rate, had become the third highest in the nation, Gibbons said. And it wasn’t just a Memphis problem. It extended everywhere. “It’s a Nashville problem, and one from Athens, Chattanooga, Lexington, Dyersburg, and Jackson.” He proposed tougher sentencing laws like those imposed by New York State, which, he said, had significantly lowered that state’s crime state.
“I do not buy the notion that tougher sentences mean we have to have more prisons. They serve as a deterrent. New York’s prison population has actually gone down.” But if new confinement facilities turned out to be needed, “then so be it.” The state constitution’s first clause promised to “provide for the peace and safety of the people.”
In discussing schools, Gibbons revived an old barb he had thrown at Knoxville mayor Haslam a year ago. Without naming Haslam this time, Gibbons chided “another candidate” who purportedly said that Tennessee doesn’t have good schools “because Tennesseans don’t care.”
Contending that Tennesseans did care and did have the will to improve education, Gibbons proposed solutions to “change the status quo” by rewarding good teachers and getting rid of bad ones. (In remarks to reporters afterward, he would praise recent efforts by Governor Phil Bredesen in that regard.) He also suggested increasing the number of charter schools (“we need to get rid of the 90-school cap”), giving the University of Memphis its own governing board and ending what he said was state government’s neglect of the University of Tennessee Center for Health Sciences at Memphis.
On that last score, he would add that the state has been shortsighted in its attitude toward the financially beleaguered Med. “UTCHS can’t function without the Med,” he said. “It’s a training hospital, and it’s the only trauma center within a 200-mile radius.” And the Med had its historical role as a “safety net hospital.” Like other local Republicans, Gibbons proposed revising the state’s current funding formula and distributing federal funds generated by the Med’s uncompensated care services wholly back to the Med.
That was how it was before the creation of TennCare in the 1990s, Gibbons noted, but since then such funds had been sent, not back to the home institution, but to state government, which distributed them throughout the TennCare network.
In his conversation with reporters after his speech proper, Gibbons dilated on his prospects, noting that he had done well in selected polls, including one carried out on behalf of Zach Wamp, and pointing out that his bailiwick of Shelby County would provide fully 20 percent of the GOP primary vote. Middle Tennessee, he said, was “wide open,” and “I hope what gives me an advantage is my message.”