Politics » Politics Feature

New Blood

Van Hilleary's entrance into Senate field complicates the race for others.



After much back-and-forthing and premature word-of-mouth about his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 2006, former 4th District congressman Van Hilleary finally is officially in. He made a formal announcement of candidacy Monday via press release and filed official papers with the Federal Election Commission and the secretary of the Senate.

That's bad news for another former congressman, former U.S. representative Ed Bryant, who represented the 7th District from 1994 to 2002, when he vacated his seat to make a Republican primary race for the Senate seat now held by Lamar Alexander. Bryant and Hilleary, both by-the-book conservatives, are regarded as having overlapping voter and financial support, and, more importantly, both gained statewide name recognition two years ago, when Hilleary was the GOP nominee for governor.

Both Bryant and Hilleary have reason to be concerned about another Republican candidate, Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, who has so far raised upwards of $2 million for the 2006 race and reportedly has good support in the GOP establishment, both state and national.

But another likely Senate candidate, 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr., sees a rosier outlook for the two former Republican congressmen.

"I don't think he'll get the nomination," the congressman said about Corker's prospects on Friday, after his attendance at President Bush's Social Security forum at the Cannon Center. "I think Bryant or Hilleary will. It doesn't matter how much money you have if people don't know you."

Ford's statement was an acknowledgment of the fleeting nature of name recognition in politics. The seat being vacated in 2006 is that of Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is considered likely to make a presidential race in 2008. Of the six Republican candidates who ran for that seat in 1994, only Frist remains well known across the state, at least among voters at large. Corker, who later served two years as former Governor DonSundquist's finance director, has a more limited range of recognition, centered around his political base in Chattanooga.

Corker is, however, busy making up for that shortcoming. He was in Memphis Monday night for a well-attended fund-raiser at the home of high-stakes entrepreneur Brad Martin. And the Chattanoogan's supporters in Shelby County include the local GOP's last three party chairmen: David Kustoff, Alan Crone, and Kemp Conrad.

Bryant is being backed by a number of local establishment figures as well -- notably former national Republican committeeman John Ryder. Hilleary's local organization has yet to take shape, although Mike Carpenter, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, has been helping Hilleary locally for some months. Carpenter, however, is dropping out of state politics to concentrate on his own forthcoming race for the Shelby County Commission.

Not to be ignored in all this conjuring, of course, is the only woman in the GOP primary race, state representative Beth Harwell of Nashville, the immediate past chairperson of the state Republican Party and no doubt the possessor of many political IOUs stemming from that service.

Harwell's former statewide role is a reminder of an unresolved issue concerning Hilleary, who exercised some political muscle last year to get himself voted in as Ryder's successor as national GOP committeeman from Tennessee. Does he get to keep that office, which entitles him to speak for all Tennessee Republicans, even as he vies against several others for senator?

At the very least, it's a possible point of controversy.

Meanwhile, pending an announcement from Representative Ford, state representative Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville remains the only Democrat formally in the U.S. Senate race.

n At President Bush's Social Security forum Friday, Representative Ford was one of several local dignitaries acknowledged by the president. At one point, while speaking of the possibility of maintaining a social safety net under his Social Security plan, Bush ad-libbed, "Harold understands that."

That may be wishful thinking. The congressman has not signed on to the Bush proposal, having aligned himself, along with virtually all other Democratic members of Congress, in a solid front to oppose the president's plan -- or at least to oppose that portion of it calling for private investment accounts funded by the Social Security tax.

Beyond that point, though, Ford seems willing to rethink the premises of Social Security -- a fact which continues to be highlighted by several national publications and pundits. USA Today featured Ford on its front page last week as one of six national figures it considered undecided on the issue of changing Social Security.

That's probably an overstatement. But the congressman has put forward ideas of his own. He has introduced a bill -- the ASPIRE Act -- that would confer a government-funded grant to newborns to be used for investment purposes. He suggested Friday, after Bush's presentation, that the president might think about something similar if he wants to alter the structure of Social Security.

As Ford sees it, any investment add-on should not only be funded from sources other than the Social Security tax, but should have a progressive component, like that contained in ASPIRE, whereby citizens below a defined poverty line could expect proportionately greater investment fodder.

The Memphis congressman added a new wrinkle to that concept Friday. Among the issues he raised was this one: "What happens if people lose? Will some kind of Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation be created?" Ford seemed to be floating the idea of a governmental machinery that would cushion against losses that might occur through bad investments in sour lemons such as Enron and WorldCom. A fail-safe mechanism, as it were, one that would allow profit but prevent unreasonable loss.

n Believe it or not, the 2006 Shelby County countywide election has already begun -- with prospective candidates detaching themselves from the woodwork and beginning to organize campaign staffs and fund-raisers.

The aforesaid Mike Carpenter intends to run for the District 1 county commission seat now held by John Willingham. Carpenter, who was among the unsuccessful applicants last year seeking to fill a vacancy in another District 1 seat, indicated he would campaign on the need for a new school-funding formula as well as on opposition to the concept of a converting The Pyramid into a casino, a longtime project of Willingham's.

Another applicant for that District 1 vacancy last year is Mike Rich, who intends to run for the district seat currently held by Marilyn Loeffel and who has been attending commission meetings with some regularity of late.

The commissioner who ended up filling the District 1 vacancy last year, George Flinn, is likely to draw opposition from Karla Templeton, Willingham's daughter and yet another former applicant for the seat. That's if her father, who continues to have complications resulting from heart surgery, follows through on his current intention to run again for his own seat. If he doesn't, his daughter will likely turn her attentions to that seat.

Loeffel is known to be thinking of a race for Shelby County clerk, from which incumbent Jayne Creson has indicated she will retire. Loeffel is one of several commissioners who, in 2006, will have served two terms or more and would be prevented from running again, according to term limits established in a referendum passed by county voters in 2002. That referendum is under legal challenge from fellow commissioners Walter Bailey, Cleo Kirk, and Julian Bolton. A ruling by Chancellor Tene Alissandratos is expected soon.

Add-ons and Elaborations

Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks, a candidate in the forthcoming March 24th Democratic primary to fill a state Senate vacancy, notes that he was not convicted of a drug offense some years ago, as I indicated last week, but saw the charges dismissed because of faulty search procedures. Hooks, who underwent a highly publicized and evidently successful rehabilitation, adds, "I'll say for the record: That was the best thing that ever happened to me."

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