There had been gubernatorial cattle calls before in the 2009-10 political season, but the one conducted Monday night at Belmont University in Nashville and carried on the state's major NBC affiliates had an air of "last call" about it. And it served to remind us of just how diverse — and how limited — our choices for a state chief executive are.
There were three Republicans and one Democrat in the mix — a reversal of what might have been the expected ratio, say, 20 years ago. The one remaining Democrat, Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, is almost by definition a legacy candidate — the son of the next-to-last Democratic governor, Ned Ray McWherter of Dresden, and the endorsee of the current Democrat in the governor's mansion, Phil Bredesen — whom McWherter spent most of Monday night citing by name as his role model.
To say that McWherter performed cautiously in the debate is an understatement. He had the air of a candidate who knew he would still be running for governor into the fall and was saving his ammunition — and his candor — for a one-on-one against whichever of the three GOP candidates turned out to make the cut. Meanwhile, like the rest of us watching, he was checking them out.
When the point came, about midway in the hour-long debate, that each of the candidates was allowed to address a pointed question to one of the others, their choices were revealing. McWherter chose to question Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, the presumed frontrunner, and his inquiry, directed to the issue of Pilot Oil scion Haslam's refusal to release his income tax returns, was bluntly stated: "What are you hiding?" (Haslam replied, essentially, that only politicians, for political purposes, wanted to know the answer to that question. A disingenuous and dubious guess, we would think.)
Next to pick a partner was Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who boldly stated that what he wants out of government can be expressed in one word: "nothing." (Cynics are within their rights to wonder if that's also what he has to offer as potential head of government.) In any case, Ramsey picked on Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp, his rival for the affections of Republican ultraconservatives. Why did Wamp vote for a TARP (bank bailout) package? he demanded. The congressman answered, apparently honestly, that he had only voted for one such bill and that was because he had been convinced that his constituents' financial security (i.e., their bank accounts) would dissolve into nothing if he didn't.
Wamp, wanting to be seen as Haslam's chief chaser, insisted that the Knoxville mayor come clean about his business experience with Saks Direct from 1999 to 2003, a chapter missing from Haslam's campaign resume. Rather blithely, Haslam said it had all been a huge success.
Finally, Haslam, assuming the role of presumptive nominee, asked Democrat McWherter if he intended to raise taxes to pay for freshly legislated federal mandates. McWherter said ... well, it was hard to tell what he said.
As good a place as any to remind you that we at the Flyer have conducted interviews with two of these candidates (Haslam and Wamp), with the results available in video form at memphisflyer.com. Ramsey and McWherter may also get their turn — the former hopefully before the primary date of August 5th.