Before it's all over — more than a year and a half from now — the 2010 gubernatorial race will have exposed a number of different personalities to the view of Tennessee voters. But none so different — at least among mainstream candidates — as Democrat Ward Cammack and Republican Zach Wamp.
Nashvillian Cammack and Chattanoogan Wamp were not alone in making local appearances last week. Along with Wamp, two other Republican hopefuls — District Attorney General Bill Gibbons of Memphis and Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam — were on the bill at the Shelby County GOP's annual Lincoln Day Dinner at the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn.
But Cammack and Wamp, mindful of their status as unknown quantities in Memphis and Shelby County, were at pains to make themselves available for private interviews. And, while there was some degree of overlap between them — both, for example, emphasize recruiting new industry and oppose a state income tax as contrary to the competitive interests of Tennessee — each said something unexpected that was sure to distinguish them from their rivals.
There won't be many other candidates of either party who would second Cammack, a recently retired veteran of the investment finance world, in saying this: "We're hearing a lot of argument about socialism. The socialism we're seeing, so-called, is really just cleaning up the mess made by free markets, so-called. 'Free markets' is really a misnomer. Markets are not entirely efficient. They probe in various directions until they find they can't go any further."
And, while other Democratic candidates will, like Cammack, profess themselves to be pro-choice on abortion, few would go on to endorse, as he does, the concept of adoption rights for gay parents: "We've got to move the line of adoption as far forward as we possibly can. We have to recognize that people have different lifestyles, but that does not keep them from being capable, loving parents."
Cammack sees many of today's economic problems — those of the slumping automobile and housing industries, for example — as stemming from having converted all businesses into "finance industries," rather than focusing on innovation and technological change. Though he prefers to use terms like "energy grid" rather than the current nonce-word "green," he proposes to deal with problems of industry and business from the standpoint of reducing costs and respecting the reality of "finite resources."
"We've obfuscated change for so long on so many fronts," says Cammack, who proposes that Tennessee set out to lead the nation on exploring the uses of renewable energy.
Cammack, who grew up Republican and has taken some flak of late from Democratic Party purists for having contributed to GOP candidates in the past, unabashedly calls himself a "convert" who can bring back into the Democratic fold "those who have left."
As for Wamp, who represents the state's 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives, he owns impeccable conservative credentials but boasts of having been sent "to the woodshed" by former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas, on grounds of collaborating with Democrats on issues like campaign finance reform, a patients' bill of rights, and the federal inheritance tax.
Like most Republicans, Wamp will call the latter revenue source "the death tax," but he refers to the state equivalent by its right name and, pointing out that the Tennessee inheritance tax nets the state some $93 million annually, wonders if it might not continue to be a useful revenue tool.
He notes, too, that the state gasoline tax has "never been indexed." That, he says, would be "a reasonable thing" — to allow a fluctuating tax rate in accordance with rising or falling prices rather than assessing a fixed per-gallon figure, as at present. And he is aware, of course, that an opponent might accuse him of the un-Republican sin of raising taxes for merely talking about such a change.
Where Wamp sounds most different from other candidates, though, is on issues like state sovereignty and immigration.
The federal government is "upside down" revenue-wise, he says. Consequently, "The states need to start learning to say no to Washington, and we're not going to give you our money. We're going to have to almost establish the sovereignty of the state of Tennessee under the 10th Amendment."
Wamp would attempt to "close our borders" to illegal immigrants by employing the Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system to identify illegals and to "make sure illegal immigrant parents do not have a job." That would ultimately spare the state the expense of providing education and health care to them, he says.
In many ways, of course, Wamp and Cammack are polar opposites, reflecting the distinctions between their parties.Wamp rests his case, finally, on five issues: "life and the protection of life; the marriage of man and woman; gun rights and the 2nd Amendment; taxes; and immigration." Cammack observes dispassionately and somewhat ambiguously, "Moral entitlement doesn't get anybody very far."
• One of the attendees at the Lincoln Day Dinner was Chip Saltsman, who not too long ago was the campaign manager for Mike Huckabee's upstart presidential campaign, and not too long before that was chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, and not long before that was a student here at Christian Brothers University. At age 40, Saltsman still looks more like a young guy coming up than the veteran pol he is — a fact which, under the circumstances, is a good thing. Most recently, of course, Saltsman was one of the contenders to become chairman of the National Republican Committee and last December, in furtherance of that aim, dispatched — as he had every year at Christmastime — copies of his longtime Memphis pal Paul Shanklin's latest parody CD excoriating various Democratic icons. The latest version was entitled We Hate the U.S.A., and that might have been a tip-off to the more than usually toxic nature of the album, but Saltsman didn't pay much attention to its contents. "I just packaged 'em up and sent 'em on the way I always have. I didn't really even listen to the songs," he confessed Saturday night during the pre-dinner reception.
What happened after that was virtually a textbook definition of the term "rude surprise." One of the album's cuts in particular, employing Shanklin's voice imitating that of Al Sharpton and called "Barack the Magic Negro," proved incendiary. As Saltsman granted at the time — and granted again Saturday night — he shoulda known better. Standing in another conversation group a few feet away at the pre-dinner reception was Memphian John Ryder, one of Tennessee's three RNC members, all of whom quickly disavowed the lyric when its presence in Saltsman's Christmas package got known and a controversy flared up with all the heat and intensity of a public cross-burning. "We had no choice," Ryder would say, when asked. "I like Chip, but it's hard to imagine anything more wrong in its effect, more wrong for the party than that song. It was incredibly dumb to send it out."
He and Tennessee's other RNC members distanced themselves from native-son Saltsman and made a point of professing neutrality in the chairmanship race. In the end, an African-American candidate, Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a relative moderate, would win the chairmanship, and Chip Saltsman conceded Saturday night, in the wannest of bittersweet smiles, that he and the controversy his Christmas package generated may have helped force his outreach-needy party into such a result. (It is surely no accident that Colin Richmond, an African-American and a rising star in the local party, was at the Lincoln Day dais Saturday night and played a major role in the event.)
"Going in, I had a good chance to win," Saltsman recalled Saturday night about the RNC chairmanship race, adding ruefully. "But after a while I knew it was all over with." In essence, the erstwhile political comer is having to start all over. In the meantime, he has business interests, and he's keeping his hand in.
"I'll be all right," he said. And Saltsman, a talented operative and likable presence, probably will be.