Thursday, October 25, 2001

The Lamar Scenario

It's over now, but here's the story behind the former governor's re-emergence.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 25, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Unaccountably there arose something of a controversy a while back concerning the intentions of former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander toward the seat now occupied by once and future U.S. Senator Fred Thompson.

All that seems so long ago now, but it was all the rage in statewide political and media circles just before the horrific September 11th scenario prompted a previously reluctant Thompson to rise to a sense of mission and to announce for reelection, after all reenlisting, in effect, in the federal ranks.

No one much cares or pays attention now to Lamar Alexander, who has reverted to the condition of distinguished obscurity which characterized him before his late-summer bloom as a Senate hopeful. For those with an interest, however, the facts are these, as certified anew by Senator Bill Frist and other sources close to the National Republican Senatorial Committee which Frist now heads:

The drama in which Alexander was to do his late cameo appearance occupied the better part of a year since 9th District U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant made what for him was a fateful decision to back off a gubernatorial bid, yielding his place in that line to his colleague from Tennessee's 4th district, Van Hilleary.

Up until then, both Hilleary and Bryant had been eying the Senate seat in case Thompson chose to run for governor (that was the presumed issue back then) or the governorship in case he didn't.

Bryant appears to have gambled that Ole Fred, a sometime actor, would take the part which his GOP lodge brothers had picked out for him, that of providing another, rejuvenated Republican governorship in the post- Sundquist era. Nor for the first nor the last time, though, Thompson declined to be typecast and renounced a gubernatorial bid which meant that Hilleary had his race to run and the luckless Bryant didn't.

Then came Thompson's prolonged bout of indecision regarding a reelection race for the Senate. Bryant's hopes flared again and he launched a shadow campaign of sorts, which was well advanced when the Alexander gambit materialized, seemingly out of nowhere, in August. It began with an unattributed one-sentence item in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Alexander was floating an interest in the Senate race. In reality, it was being floated for him by Frist and/or delegated operatives in the NRSC.

The senator more or less confirmed all this in Washington last week. "We're in a tight battle for control of the Senate. Right now, as everybody knows, it's a single-seat majority for the Democrats and every seat counts," he said. Did he contact Alexander about a race? Frist nodded. "Yes, it was my responsibility to make sure that we had a candidate with enough means and name-recognition to make a serious, competitive race." Was it doubly important to him that the Republicans hold on to the Tennessee seat? "Oh, yeah," he said expansively. "No doubt about it."

And another source, speaking on assurances of anonymity, put it simply: "If Fred had not run again, Lamar was in." No two ways about it.

The reason: Neither Bryant's poll figures nor his fund-raising had generated enough confidence at the NRSC to go for broke with him. (Parenthesis: This was very probably a premature judgment on Bryant, who has a demonstrated ability to wear well with voters who've gotten to know him.)

Alexander, by contrast, was a known quantity as well as a proven statewide name. Given the stakes, in a Senate destined to be shaded one way or the other by the narrowest of margins, he looked good to the NRSC and to its chief.

It's that simple. And, again, whatever the surface noises of the occasion, the reality was that Alexander was presumed by those mostly closely related to the national Republican senate effort to be locked in. Before September 11th stoked Senator Thompson's sense of duty and changed everything.

· District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, after giving the matter "careful consideration" over the weekend, announced at a press conference Monday that he would not be a candidate for Shelby County Mayor. "Simply put," Gibbons said, "I prefer being district attorney to being county mayor." Gibbons' decision puts the ball in the court of lawyer John Bobango, a former city councilman, as far as the Republican Party is concerned. For some time Bobango's interest in the position has seemed more intense than Gibbons'. The two had long made it clear that whichever one of them decided to run would have the support of the other, and Gibbons gave Bobango his explicit endorsement Monday.

In private conversations during the several weeks that preceded his moment of decision, Gibbons had made it clear that he had doubts about the job of county mayor as one he felt strongly enough about to seek or even as one that might serve as a stepping stone to higher office. And his commitment to the unfinished business of his current office seemed genuine.

In his statement Monday, Gibbons touted achievements in problem areas ranging from gang violence to drug-traffic control to child abuse, but he said, "Crime remains far too high ... . This is not the time for me to walk away from this job."

Gibbons said "from day one I have been somewhat reluctant" about running for county mayor. He said the job of city mayor actually appeals to him more. The question he faced: "What obligation do I have to seek an office I'm not excited about holding?"

None, he concluded, becoming the second person, along with Jim Rout, to conclude that there are better things to do than be county mayor. It is questionable, of course, whether Gibbons could have won the nomination or the general election next year. He promptly endorsed his friend and fellow Republican Bobango.

"John Bobango would make a great mayor," he said. Gibbons added he foresees a "divisive, expensive Democratic primary" and a united Republican Party behind Bobango.

"For parts of the Democratic Party the stakes are high and I think it is going to get rough," he said.

· A statewide poll released last week by the Knoxville News-Sentinel showed that Democrat Phil Bredesen and U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary are the clear leaders for their respective parties in the gubernatorial race, with margins of 34 percent for Bredesen to single digits for various Democratic contenders and 50 percent for Hilleary to 10 percent for his only GOP opponent so far, state Rep. Jim Henry of Kingston.

Henry, who maintains that the poll results were misreported and that Hilleary, too, had only a 34 percent showing, still professes confidence, though. Both he and Knoxville District Attorney General Randy Nichols, a Democratic contender, have logged serious time of late in Memphis. (Nichols spent an entire week doing meet-and-greets in the area.)

Both Henry and Nichols are reckoned as moderates on most questions. Henry has so far not determined his position on tax reform, other than to favor it generally but reserving judgment on a particular form. Nichols, however, took the bold gamble this week of all but endorsing the proposal for an income tax that may form the basis for a legislative special session beginning next week. And he hurled a charge of pandering at ex- Nashville mayor Bredesen, who has distanced himself from a state income tax and promised instead to "manage" the state out of its current financial difficulty.

"He's obviously afraid of taking a stand," said Nichols of Bredesen. Of the proposed special session, Nichols said, "I approve of it; it's obvious we have a serious revenue problem and the legislators who want to deal with it deserve support." Nichols said he also liked the dimensions of the plan, a 3.5 percent flat tax with corresponding reductions in the sales tax and elimination of the Hall income tax.

Of the weekend poll, Nichols said in the News-Sentinel : "With the limited name recognition I have outside of Knox County, that is very encouraging. I knew that name recognition is what we have to overcome, with Mayor Bredesen having run statewide in 1994. I've always thought that if we could be right behind him at the start of the year, we could be in a position to win the nomination."

Other Democrats were equally optimistic. Democrat Charles Smith professed to believe that the poll showed he had momentum. "I feel because we have been out campaigning hard in the past two weeks (after the poll was conducted), the race has tightened significantly. I think at this point the polls are not too meaningful but I think we've got momentum."

Former state Senator Andy Womack of Murfreesboro saw "a wide-open race" and declared, "There are a lot of uncommitted, undecided voters and that also applies to the Democratic primary, which is what I'm running in right now."

Republican challenger Henry, meanwhile, saw his double-digit showing as proof that he was best off among those challenging the front- runners.

John Branston contributed to this column.


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