BOLIVAR — On Thursday night, this West Tennessee city, “ a small town with a population under 6,000,” as the sponsoring Bolivar Bulletin Times called it, undertook what the newspaper called “the first of its kind,” a debate forum including “candidates from all three major races under one roof in one night.”
The races in question were those for the 7th Congressional district, the U.S. Senate, and the governorship, and, while candidates for all three offices did indeed turn up, none of them happened to be the current incumbents. — a circumstance that, early on, became the major focus of the evening.
In the first encounter, involving the congressional candidates, Democratic hopefuls Dan Kramer and Credo Amouzouvik took turns lacerating incumbent Republican Marsha Blackburn for her absence, which both described as “disrespect” to the community, and demanding that her West Tennessee field representative, John Blakely, who was standing in for her, leave the stage. The beleaguered Blakely, apologetic and clearly embarrassed, was ultimately allowed to remain, though he declined to answer some of the policy questions asked by the debate moderators, pleading that he was not well enough versed in them to speak for Rep. Blackburn.
Incumbent GOP Senator Lamar Alexander took some lumps in absentia, as well, during the Senate debate. George Flinn, the Memphis physician/businessman who seeks the Republican nomination, apologized to the middling-sized audience in the Bolivar Middle School auditorium, for the absence of both Alexander, whom he described as ensconced, alternately, in “an ivory tower” and a “bubble,” and the Tea Party-backed Joe Carr.
The two leading Democratic candidates for the Senate, Knoxville attorneys Terry Adams and Gordon Ball, were both there, and both of them, too, took shots at Alexander for his absence, but both were more involved with the subject of their own rivalry. Adams took the offensive, chastising Ball for his support of the proposed Keystone oil pipeline and for a flat-tax proposal which Adams said would raise taxes for ordinary folks and cut them for the rich.
Adams called Ball, a successful class-action lawyer, a “multi-millionaire” who in previous campaign years had crossed party lines to support both Alexander and GOP governor Bill Haslam, and who, moreover, had previously represented Haslam’s company, Pilot Oil. Adams said he doubted that Ball and could “stand up” to Haslam, whom both Democrats excoriated for failing to accept Medicaid expansion and for other alleged shortcomings in office.
Ball’s response was that politics had nothing to do with his clientele, and he acknowledged making “mistakes” in past endorsements of the two Republican officials. Haslam, he said, was a “good man” and a good mayor but “totally wrong” as governor. Ball declined to counter-attack against Adams, other than to say his opponent was attacking him because he was “behind in this race.”
For the most part, Adams and Ball took similar positions on the issues, both backing Medicaid expansion in
At the end of the Senate debate, the two of them left the stage arm in arm.
In the gubernatorial debate, incumbent Haslam came in for criticism, too. The most memorable came from Mark “Coonrippy” Brown, the bewhiskered eccentric from Gallatin who affects a mountain-man garb and is a candidate in the Republican primary.
Said Brown: “I’ve been trying to get in touch with Governor Haslam for 11 months now with phone calls, emails, letters. He’s had 11 months to call me back. He could have called me back when he got through shopping at WalMart, he could have called after he’d eaten his supper, he could have called me back when he got out of church, he could have called me when he was sitting on the toilet.”
When the panel of gubernatorial candidates — who included Democrat John McKamey, independent Steve Coburn, and a stand-in for Green Party candidate Isa Infante — were asked what distinguished them from each other, Brown, whose snow-white beard is somewhere between a foot and two feet long, answered, “I haven’t shaved in three days.”