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Sound & Fury ...

Spin control, attack ads, and "me too" politics lead the way as the 2002 campaigns come to an end.



U.S. Senate candidates Lamar Alexander and Bob Clement
With only days to go before the election, all the races are now in the home stretch, and a surprising number of them are neck-and-neck.

To begin with some of those closest to home, two legislative veterans -- state Representatives Carol Chumney and Mike Kernell, both Democrats -- are under serious challenge (in terms of the effort, anyhow) from Republicans Ruth Ogles and John Pellicciotti, respectively.

Indeed, the Republicans' heavily favored 7th District congressional nominee, Marsha Blackburn, though ostensibly running against never-say-die Democratic novice Tim Barron, has spent much of her time of late barnstorming for these and other GOP hopefuls. Hint: Marsha, the state senator from suburban Nashville who was the Madame DuFarge or Betsy Ross (pick one) of the anti-income-tax movement, is building her bridges, as they say, though she has "no plans" to run for statewide office later on. Right.

Kernell impresses people as a happy-go-lucky sort but is a legislative veteran of serious intent, a reformer with environmentalist concerns and an expert of sorts about government operations and state regulations. His constituents in the University of Memphis/Poplar Plaza area have returned him for a generation against all comers, both Democratic and Republican.

But reapportionment has shifted Kernell's district in the direction of the GOP -- marginally, say the Democrats; substantially, say the Republicans.

Newcomer John Pellicciotti certainly has advantages that most of Kernell's previous GOP opponents didn't. He is attractive, poised, personable, and able to articulate his party's less-government/more-freedom, stay-within-your-budget litany in a way that cuts across factional lines. Active drum-beaters range from social conservatives like Blackburn to social moderates like District Attorney General Bill Gibbons -- which is to say he has unified his base.

And teacher Ruth Ogles will no doubt end up giving Midtown Rep. Chumney her toughest go yet (though the incumbent says confidently, "I know my district, and they know me"). Her campaign got off to something of a slow start, but Ogles has increasingly hit the mails and the right-of-ways within recent days. Her fliers -- designed for three distinct audiences: black voters, white voters, and the Republican rank and file -- tout herself and excoriate opponent Chumney. Bearing the likenesses of AIDS activist Novella Smith Arnold, Gibbons, and longtime women's activist Paula Casey, Ogles' campaign adviser and major motivator, they present her, depending on the intended audience, as a logical complement to Midtown Democratic state Senator Steve Cohen, as a defender of the "less fortunate," or as an exponent of the GOP verities of efficient, low-cost government.

In what on the surface appears to be an instance of classic chutzpah, one of Ogles' fliers actually takes Chumney to task for being "suspiciously quiet" on the "Cherokee day care broker fiasco." Given that Chumney spearheaded the cause of daycare reform in successive sessions of the General Assembly, the charge would seem to be, as the incumbent herself called it in a Sunday fund-raiser sponsored by the Memphis Women's Political Caucus, "absurd." But as Casey, a onetime friend of Chumney's turned implacable foe, elaborated, the accusation is meant, among other things, to suggest a rhetorical bending over backward on Chumney's part to avoid antagonizing state Senator John Ford, a legislative colleague whose role as an enabler on behalf of the defunct and scandal-wracked Memphis-based daycare broker is still under investigation.

That last Sunday's fund-raiser was held at the Chickasaw Gardens home of David and Jerry Cocke was an indication of how well Chumney has landed on her feet after her lopsided loss in last spring's Democratic primary for county mayor to ultimate winner A C Wharton. As Chumney and her backers believe, the mayoral race -- a debacle in arithmetical terms -- had the effect of reinforcing her name recognition, already considerable in a district she has represented for more than a decade.

And in losing, she at least held fast to certain policy issues -- opposition to urban sprawl and espousal of a county debt policy, among them -- that do her no harm with her erstwhile adversaries. Lawyer David Cocke was, after all, a pillar of the Wharton campaign, and schoolteacher Jerry Cocke was a Wharton supporter so dedicated that she was moved to unleash some intense public criticism of Chumney after a forum involving the two Democratic candidates. The Cockes' willingness to embrace Rep. Chumney's reelection effort is only in part an instance of party loyalty. It is also an illustration of the principle that the persona of a candidate can be perceived in radically different ways by the same set of observers, depending on the office he or she seeks and on the circumstances of a particular election.

The U.S. Senate Race

Republicans gather to support one another in Nashville:
(left to right) Van Hilleary and wife, Senator Fred Thompson, and Lamar Alexander.
Moving up in weight class, the same phenomenon is to be seen in the nearly universal embrace by Republicans of Lamar Alexander's U.S. Senate hopes against Democrat Bob Clement. This is the same Lamar Alexander who was viewed askance by a considerable number of GOP conservatives as recently as his primary effort last summer against 7th District congressman Ed Bryant, and it is also the same Lamar Alexander who received not a single vote for president in a straw vote of Tipton County Republicans during the early stages of the 2000 election process.

During an unguarded moment last summer, Alexander told Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Tom Humphrey, "I wanted to be president; the Senate will have to do." Bryant tried to make mileage out of that, and so has Clement, but, by and large, voters seem to have had no problem with the face-value sense of the remark.

Clement also seems to have believed that his chances for success depended on the choice of arena, that his candidacy for the Senate would resonate with voters and potential supporters who had never provided a groundswell for his off-and-on gubernatorial ambitions over the years. Indeed, Clement, always Hamlet-like and tentative in his attitude toward a race for governor, was so convinced that the Senate might be his ultimate reward that he faced down, successively, both 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis and Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice President Al Gore, when each wanted to run for Senate in the wake of GOP incumbent Fred Thompson's surprise withdrawal last March.

Backed by the state party establishment, Clement told both Ford and Gore in his deceptively easy-going Middle Tennessee drawl that he hoped they wouldn't run because he was going to and, gosh, he sure would hate to have to run against them.

In retrospect, some party leaders have wondered out loud if they wouldn't have been better served by a competitive party primary. Alexander's chances seem not to have been hurt by the bitter, bruising battle with Bryant, though his finances (since replenished by fund-raising visits to Tennessee by the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney) were, to some degree, depleted.

Clement had an edge of a million dollars or so when the general-election campaign began, and some Democrats believe he held on to his campaign war-chest too long and too tight, though Alexander was heard as recently as this week at a fund-raiser at the University Club to lament the fact that his opponent still had money to spend and apparently was doing so in a last-minute barrage of television advertising.

The Alexander camp blamed a recent upsurge by Clement in several polls in part on the Democrat's "negative campaigning," though the Democrat's efforts in that direction -- as in an ad using vintage clips from Alexander's second gubernatorial term to suggest sympathy with the bugaboo of a state income tax -- seem modest compared to those turned out on the Republican candidate's behalf.

One of these -- a commercial focusing on some of Clement's lesser moments during the recent series of senatorial debates -- ends with the refrain "Bob Clement/ Trouble with the Butcher Bank/Trouble with His Campaign/Trouble with the Truth," a triadic crescendo whose authorship has been variously imputed to Mike Murphy, a longtime Alexander associate who also labored on behalf of John McCain's 2000 presidential efforts, Tom Ingram, a well-known Tennessee PR maven who has also long been identified with Alexander, and Memphian John Bakke, a wordsmith and strategist who, ironically, worked on behalf of Democrat Jake Butcher's 1978 gubernatorial campaign when the Knoxville banker, later convicted of bank fraud, was opposing then-GOP nominee Alexander. (To compound the irony, one of Butcher's Democratic primary opponents had been ... Bob Clement.)

Clement's moment of televised discomfiture concerning Butcher and the Nashville Democrat's alleged service on the board of a Butcher bank was only one of several instances in which Alexander seemed to get the best of his opponent, at least rhetorically. In a debate shown on WREG-TV in Memphis two weekends ago, Alexander hit Clement between the eyes with two questions meant to remind his local audience of the former governor's long ties, unusual for a Republican luminary, with the city's African-American community, and to challenge Clement's own bona fides on the racial front.

Why had Clement not supported former state Supreme Court Justice George Brown, an Alexander appointee and an African American, when Brown was up for reelection in the 1980s, as had such local Democrats as then-Congressman Harold Ford? Clement seemed even more dumbfounded and as much at a loss for an answer as he had been when asked about the putative Butcher connection during an earlier debate. His slow-motion answer was a textbook definition of "hem and haw." What he finally managed to get out was classic irrelevancy -- that he had been a Public Service Commissioner at the time and "didn't have a vote" on the matter.

The actual truth had been that Brown, who was unseated by Democrat Frank Drowota, was on the wrong side for Clement of two divides -- the Republican/Democratic one and the geographic one of Nashville vs. Memphis. There was nothing personal and certainly nothing racially motivated in his lack of public support for Brown. The truth might have made for an unhandsome answer, but it couldn't have been any worse than the way Clement actually responded. Or, more accurately, failed to.

Alexander's follow-up question in that debate might have served to define another word: "disingenuous." In asking Clement to specify whether he favored reparations to descendants of slaves, all he sought to do was put his opponent, one more time, on the "white" side of an issue that is of marginal importance, at best, to most black voters. In this case, Clement was able to answer, sensibly, that, no, he didn't favor such reparations, and, for that matter, neither did Alexander. Anybody who thinks that, say, state Rep. Henri Brooks, a dedicated proponent of such reparations, would end up voting for the Republican rather than for partymate Clement is beyond credulous.

But there is no doubting that Alexander -- a bona fide moderate in contemporary GOP terms, although he labored mightily to disguise the fact in his primary race with ultraconservative Bryant -- has better connections with black voters than any other statewide Republican figure has ever had. Rodney Herenton, son of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, is an open-and-above-board supporter of Alexander's, and His Honor himself is a de facto backer of the GOP candidate, appearing at public functions with Alexander under the rhetorical rubric of some undefined and apolitical "coalition" but fastidiously shying away from using the word "endorse."

Talk about parsing! Swami predicts that, should Alexander succeed in this election, Herenton will be coming front-and-center in years hence, claiming to have, indeed, "endorsed" Alexander. That was his modus during and after the 1994 gubernatorial race, when his conspicuous silence during the campaign was followed in subsequent years by the ex post facto claim that, of course, he had supported hometown Republican favorite Don Sundquist over Democrat Phil Bredesen.

A Close Race for Governor

The Memphis mayor (who has covered his tracks on the senatorial front by beaming a robo-call this week to blacks, asking them to vote for the "Democratic family") is in fact behind Bredesen's gubernatorial effort this time around. Indeed, it seemed during the early part of 2002 that the former Nashville mayor, then coasting to an easy primary win over several foes, would have sufficient support from former fence-sitters, even overtly Republican ones, as to easily turn aside his ultimate Republican opponent, 4th District congressman Van Hilleary.

Part of that, in a time of concern about rising TennCare costs, was due to Bredesen's experience as a health-care executive (or, as Hilleary's ads charged, "an HMO millionaire") and his reputation as the hands-on manager and bargainer who secured the NFL Titans, the NHL Predators, and various other industrial interlopers for Nashville. Part of it was out of concern that Hilleary, untested as an administrator, might suffer the same kind of Alice-in-Wonderland misfortunes as befell former Congressman Sundquist, whose eagerly pursued tax-reform crusade came to naught.

And part owed to Bredesen's willingness to come out of the gate last year renouncing the income tax as a viable solution to Tennessee's fiscal ills. That, he confided at the time, should keep Hilleary from making the controversial state income tax the test-case issue in the gubernatorial race.

Except the strategy hasn't worked. Hilleary has made the most of Bredesen's concession in their first debate that the income tax might not stay off the table in his second term and has hounded the issue as if Bredesen were as zealous an income-tax advocate as Sundquist arguably became. (Poor Governor Sundquist, now an all-purpose bogeyman -- condemned as the nether half of "Bredesundquist" in a Hilleary ad mongering the income-tax issue and shown with his arm around Hilleary in a Bredesen spot warning against voting for another back-bench congressman and going "down that road again.")

Although there are plenty of cold-shower types who fussily complain that politics should be about "issues," not personalities, the fact is that issues change while personalities do not, and atmospherics of the preceding kind will unquestionably play a role in deciding the outcome of various races next Tuesday. (For example, when a Democratic cadre accused Alexander of angrily twisting his hand at a mid-state rally last week, supporters of the former governor were able to guide the charge in the direction of a macho image -- Fred Thompson would call him "the crusher" -- that Alexander had thus far lacked.)

Nevertheless, there are issues. The income tax is still there as a dominating presence in both the governor's race and even, by virtue of Clement's commercial reminders, in the Senate race. It also underpins the election rhetoric of would-be representatives Ogles and Pellicciotti, who point out that Democrats Chumney and Kernell were forthright in their sense that tax reform should follow the route of an income tax. Economic concerns have been discussed -- especially by Clement, who has argued stoutly for a raised minimum wage and for federally administered prescription-drug benefits and against the kind of corporate-board funny business his ads impute, not altogether fairly, to Alexander himself.

And newcomer Barron, though his race is not one of those judged by most observers to be competitive, is doing his best, traveling-salesmanwise, to market Democratic bread-and-butter issues door-to-door out there in the suburban-and-rural 7th congressional district, which, even more so these days than East Tennessee (where Bredesen is registering surprisingly well), passes for the Republican hinterland.

Then there's the lottery-referendum issue (see Editorial, page 10). It has gotten tight. But lovers of gaming need not fear one way or the other. There are lots of close races to follow out there and to wager on if one is of a mind, and, politics being what it is, political horse races there will ever be.

Jingo Bells

Examining the 30-second candidate.


If we could find someone from another planet, someone who knew nothing of America's political system or the fundamental differences (theoretical or otherwise) between the Democratic and Republican parties, and we were to show this visitor Tennessee's campaign commercials from 2002, he would be more than a bit perplexed. He would wonder what all the sound and fury is about. He would say, "Your candidate for governor, Van Hilleary, is against the income tax. Your candidate for governor, Phil Bredesen, is against the income tax as well. And they are both deeply moral men, committed to their common values. It doesn't matter who you vote for. Both candidates are exactly the same."

If you focused on TV and radio spots (the nonattack variety), you would likely agree with our alien. All the celluloid candidates stand on their integrity in front of Old Glory, shake hands with a multicultural crowd, and pledge their support for education, cutting government spending, and protecting their constituents' checkbooks. Even the attack ads do little to explain the differences between candidates. They only serve to say, "We think the other guy is shady." Still, if you look closely behind even the emptiest bit of campaign rhetoric, you can see the candidates' true colors. Here are a few prime examples:

• Phil Bredesen for Governor

Bredesen's commercials have the look and feel of a Hollywood movie trailer, with grainy, soft-focus footage representing the candidate's past and crisp, tightly edited footage representing the here and now. You really expect the voice-over to conclude, "Coming to a theater near you." Responding to accusations that he raised taxes while serving as mayor of Nashville (without actually acknowledging the fact that he raised taxes), the 30-second Bredesen proudly stands on his rather impressive record for putting more cops on the street and helping to bring pro football to Tennessee. Somehow, he manages to skip around the Adelphia Stadium controversy that is the darker side of Nashville's NFL story.

Anyone who says a candidate won't point out his own shortcomings should take a second look at Bredesen's ads. In at least one, he points out the fact that he was born and raised in New York. That may fly with snooty Nashvillians who still think of their city as the Athens of the South. In East and West Tennessee, such a confession makes the man an instant carpetbagger. Bad move, Phil. Find or fabricate your redneck roots and try again.

• Van Hilleary for Governor

The most telling commercial of the Hilleary campaign doesn't actually feature the candidate. In fact, it says almost nothing about the candidate. Well, nothing specific. Instead, it offers President George W. Bush (who manages to look stunned and sound totally inarticulate without actually mangling his words) stumping with all the tried and true election clichés. Bush thinks Hilleary's a stand-up guy, and why shouldn't he? Hilleary's antitax, promilitary record makes him the perfect "yes man." Ah, the elephant parade.

• Bob Clement for Senate

It's probably a bad move for Clement to adopt the Andrew Jackson quotation "One man with courage makes a majority" as his motto. Forget the comment's fascist overtones. That's beside the point. This is an election, and personal style is all that matters. If ever there was a man who makes Al Gore look like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, it's Bob Clement. He's a total nonpresence in his own generally generic ads. In his commercials for West Tennessee, he proudly declares himself a graduate of the University of Memphis (true). In the rest of the state, he's a Big Orange alum (also true). From this, one gets the sense that Clement is playing a pitiful card, reading, "Hey, guys! Over here! Remember me? We went to school together." On the other hand, one senses that the nebbish Clement is genuinely committed to protecting pensions and Social Security. He's also right on, both politically and morally, in pointing out Alexander's potentially scandalous business relationships. Hey, Lamar wasn't going to do it.

• Lamar Alexander for Senate

Rather than discussing any of Alexander's TV spots, in which the former governor stands on his well-known résumé and touts his dubious reputation as a great education reformer (his Master Teacher program was never a good idea), I'll focus on a single radio spot. In this one, Hank Williams Jr. (who sounds like he's making things up as he goes along) delivers what must be the worst campaign jingle of all time. "This is President Bush/Lamar Alexander country," he begins, cramming too many syllables into not enough measures. He boasts about how Tennesseans are proud -- and sick of the lies they are told by most politicians. Then, things get totally weird.

"Ol' Hank would be proud," Junior sings, giving Alexander the endorsement of his famous father, beloved country-music icon Hank Williams Sr., who died of drug- and alcohol-related causes when the senatorial hopeful was a mere 13 years old.

"I know I am too," Junior continues, as if the notoriously hard-living crooner's stamp of approval carried any credibility. If ever there were a deceitful campaign ad, this is it, and it's oh-so clever.

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