The New Man
It's a Thursday noon at the Convention Center in Paris, Tennessee, a rural community in Henry County, up near the Kentucky border. It's on the northern tier of an 8th Congressional District that stretches all the way down into Memphis and Shelby County.
The town's Rotarians, numbering as many members in suits as in more casual attire, are meeting for lunch, and the best-dressed of the bunch today is a youngish visitor sitting up at the dais waiting to be introduced.
The program chairman does it this way: "Once in a millennium, about as often as Halley's Comet, we have an open seat in the 8th District, and our speaker today is a candidate for that vacancy." Good-natured laughter, the kind that includes the audience in on the joke, greets the further news that the speaker hails from a community called Frog Jump, which doesn't exactly match up with the well-tailored suit and fashionably trim haircut.
But he's a seventh-generation farmer from Crockett County, and he also sings with the Fincher Family Quartet, a gospel music group, and all of that matches up fine with the Rotary folks, especially since one of their own, Mark Archer — "as in Archer's Chapel Methodist Church," where the visiting speaker is a member — is a cousin. And the pièce de résistance? "He's got the best darn slogan you could have: 'My roots are deep in Tennessee, not politics.'"
Once at the podium, the speaker, Stephen Fincher, putative front-runner in a hotly contested Republican race for the congressional seat, indulges in some ritual humor of his own.
"Well, I didn't know Mark Archer was such a big shot. Is he a good guy or not?" Hearing yes, he says, "Okay, I'm not going to have to throw him under the bus today." And then he proceeds with the business that got him here — explaining "who I am, why I'm running, and how I'm going to right some wrongs that are going on with our country."
Fincher explains that, sometime last year, a friend named Carter Edwards approached him and said, "Someone needs to run against John Tanner; he's voted with Nancy Pelosi 96 percent of the time, Barney Frank, 95 percent. He's lost the conservative values that he once had."
Tanner, of nearby Union City, is the retiring 8th District Democrat, well known to all, and no further spelling-out is offered for the two other congressional Democrats named by Fincher and none, for the presumed emotive reaction of the Paris audience, is needed. The name of Californian Pelosi, speaker of the House in the Obama administration, has become a virtual curse word in the vocabulary of the conservative right wing and in the rhetoric of this GOP race. And Frank, the influential budget chairman from Massachusetts, is famously both liberal and gay. 'Nuff said in these parts.
So Fincher, this newly incarnated Cincinnatus, leaves his plow and, at Edwards' urging, goes down to Jackson to meet with Tommy Hopper, a former state Republican chairman, and Jimmy Wallace — no ordinary advisers but adepts of the Republican right, with connections to the National Republican Congressional Committee. A well-spoken farmer and gospel singer from Frog Jump who suits up nice? He might as well be from Central Casting, and the two senior Republicans waste no time in urging Fincher to run. Once he does, the NRCC and other national Republicans help him raise a respectable war chest in no time.
Fincher's first reaction: "Who would be crazy enough to run against John Tanner — 22-year incumbent with $1 million in the bank? I said, he can't be beat." But, as Fincher's story has it, he returns home and tells his wife. "She had one word: divorce. She said, 'You'll live in a box. I'll kick you out of Frog Jump, out of Crockett County, out of the state!" But, of course, Mrs. Fincher relents after a couple of days, telling her husband, "I've been praying, and I think we're supposed to do this."
Fincher dilates on what "this" is: "We need Christians in office. I'm not ashamed of being a Christian. It's who I am. We need good Christian leadership. We need conservatives. We need true conservatives who will stand for their principles. We need common sense. We need guys who know what it's like to make payroll, who know what it's like to have a short crop, or barely make ends meet. We need someone who respects the Constitution. It means what it says."
The more secular side of that is to follow the example of former President Ronald Reagan: "to cut taxes, ease depreciation rules ... to not restrict business."
Fincher bade his audience to "raise your hand if you have a small business." Responding to a modest show of hands, he said, "Well, I'm a farmer; I'm a small businessman. The years that we do good are the years when we get tax cuts, when we get tax breaks. We need incentives to make businesses grow. Not more regulations to push 'em down."
The Good Doctor I
It might be something of a stretch for the co-owner of 2,500 prime acres of West Tennessee farmland and the recipient of bountiful federal farm subsidies to call himself a "small businessman," but this is now evidently the mantra of Tennessee Republicans. Fincher's major opponents in the Republican primary, George Flinn of Memphis and Ron Kirkland of Jackson, are both well-heeled physicians, with Flinn a broadcast magnate besides. Both were also invoking the mantle of small business last week in their talks with and to potential voters in the 8th District.
To be fair, Flinn gave a diversified and generally accurate account of himself last week to a moderate-sized group of attendees at a meet-and-greet event held in a onetime automobile showroom in Ripley: "I'm a businessman; I've got some small businessses. I'm a physician. I understand the physician-patient relationship. I'm also a legislator in Shelby County. I'm a county commissioner."
Before Flinn had gotten started, various members of his audience had declared themselves open to persuasion. As one of them, salesman Bill Davis, said, "I've been impressed by Fincher, but I met Flinn and I'm pretty well right on the fence right now. I think George is gaining ground, and I think the issues will determine whether it will be George or Fincher."
That the third GOP candidate, Kirkland, also had support in the room was made evident two days later when a couple of Flinn's Ripley auditors turned up on Saturday at the annual Big Sandy festival wearing red T-shirts endorsing the candidacy of the Jackson physician.
It is readily apparent that Flinn's way with voters owes something to his years of doctoring, to what used to be called "bedside manner" back in the days of house calls. Despite the fact that he has grown extraordinarily rich from his patents on ultra-sound technology and from a multitude of radio and television stations, radiologist Flinn still personally sees dozens of patients in the course of a week at his several Memphis-area clinics.
It might seem corny at first blush when he starts off talks, like the one at Ripley, by focusing on elderly members of his audience with lines like this: "I appreciate your being here. I appreciate knowing each one of you, though some of you are not old enough to vote, I understand." The oldsters seem to like it well enough, though.
A critic might also contend that Flinn's way with facts is also a bit easy sometimes. (As, for that matter, which politician's is not?)
Consider this passage from his talk at Ripley: "When the county commission wanted to raise its own salary, back in September, I was the only one to stand up. There were eight Democrats and five Republicans. It only takes seven to pass it. I was the only one to stand up and say, 'No, this isn't right. In these economic times, the people are losing their jobs, people are underemployed. They're unemployed. We've got to do something different.'
"When I got through with them, they didn't raise it 30 percent, 20 percent, or 10 percent. They cut everybody's salary 5 percent! That included the mayor. That included the sheriff. That included the county commission and the city council. And I don't know if they did it because I convinced them or they did it to shut me up. One or the other."
Well, that isn't exactly how it happened. Flinn did resist a pay raise, but he was by no means alone. He did, however, take a serious turn at stirring the pot, which at last boiled over in a frenzy of masochistic, symbolic self-sacrifice on the part of the commission, whose members did indeed vote to take a pay cut.
And it's no wonder that Flinn tells this tale. He can readily segue from it to an expression of concern over what he characterizes as an out-of-control Congress and national administration.
"Either we repeal ObamaCare or we defund it. Congress should live by the same health care that they're trying to cram down our throats. As a matter of fact, I think they should live by that health care one year before we have it, just to work out the kinks in it."
He went on at Ripley to repeat a version of the federal health-care bill's passage in which Speaker Pelosi allegedly said, "Just go ahead and pass it. We'll see what's in it once we pass it." (This account is also part of rival Kirkland's repertory.)
"I've created thousands of jobs," Flinn said of his several enterprises. "We don't spend more than we take in. We don't have any debt, and I want Congress to operate the same way, without debt."
His recipe for doing so was much the same as Fincher's and Kirkland's. "We need to cut the payroll tax, cut corporate taxes, and extend the Republican tax credits scheduled to expire at the end of the year."
In any case, job creation was his promise, and: "I have a plan to do it."
Meanwhile, the airwaves resound with Flinn's TV commercials. As his opponents well know, George Flinn will not be out-spent.
The Good Doctor II
It might seem like the punchline to a "Riddle Me This" exercise, but when Flinn and Kirkland met in the parking lot of Big Sandy High School on Saturday morning, prepatory to their taking part in the annual Big Sandy parade through this north Tennessee resort town, this is how Kirkland greeted his physician rival:
"I need some sun. Have your checked your Vitamin D lately?"
The two men then huddled for a few minutes of private conversation, whether to compare campaign notes or exchange home remedies or, mayhap, to discuss their mutual foe Fincher. At the end of it, Kirkland stepped away for a few minutes of conversation. He allowed as how this annual parade at Big Sandy was his first such experience since he was a band member back at Union City High School, participating in the Humboldt Strawberry Festival. "That was a long way back at a tender age. We thought that was a big deal."
At close range, Kirkland was approachable and friendly — anything but the ogre suggested by some of his campaign rhetoric, or by press reports of it anyhow. He was quick to distinguish himself from his two rhetorically similar GOP opponents. "I think there's quite a bit of difference," he said. "I offer solutions to problems, and they offer talking points."
He boasted his business experience. "I've worked in small business. [What else?] I've helped to manage a multi-special group of 120 physicians and over 600 employees. I'm on a bank board, and I have a master's degree in business administration. ... I've served on the board of national trade associations. I've helped form health policy at the national level, at the local level, and in the office with patients. I have health-care experience that no one else in this race has."
And there was the issue of military service. "I'm the only one," he said, "who has served this country in time of war." Kirkland was an enlisted man in Vietnam, the counter-intelligence corps. He left Vietnam with three stripes and a Bronze Star. He did not see combat per se, but he served in the war zone. "Rockets would fall within hearing distance. I was in airplanes and helicopters. We ran risks," he said.
That brought up a ticklish issue. Kirkland had been accused of advocating gay-bashing on the basis of remarks he had made at a Tea Party gathering at Paris some weeks back. On the subject of gays in the military, he said that, during his time of service, "They were taken care of in ways I can't describe to you."
He did his best to make that ominous-sounding declaration sound harmless — like something on the order of an administrative discharge. Whatever those "ways" were back in 1968, Kirkland avowed, "I never took part in it. I never witnessed it. It is my presumption that they [newly discovered gay personnel] were taken out of the military within that day or the next day."
Gay-bashing? "I didn't promote that at all. It was just a statement of the fact of how it was in 1968. I have no idea what would happen."
On another major controversy of his campaign, he rejected the notion that his brother had bypassed campaign contribution limits by spending massive amounts on advocacy advertising. "He exercised his constitutional right of free speech. He can say or do what he wants to. There's no connection to my campaign at all."
Kirkland's recipe for change is similar to that of Fincher and Flinn: "Repeal the health-care bill. We need tort reform. Get government out of the way of business. We need to seal our borders. Congress should always live under the laws they pass for the rest of us. Finally, Congress should not have benefits that we taxpayers can't afford. It's obscene that a congressman gets [full retirement benefits] after four years in office. I will not accept that and will try to change that."
Kirkland's most obvious frustration so far in this campaign is his failure to get Fincher to engage him in debate. Without elaborating, he suggests that he has been the victim of unfair attacks by the farmer/gospel singer. "The reason Mr. Fincher and I should debate is, he is attacking me. He's not attacking Mr. Flinn. He's not attacking Mr. [Randy] Smith. If he wants to attack me, let him do it as gentlemen do, face to face, toe to toe. That ability to debate is what's needed in a congressman, and if you refuse to debate, how will you ever perform when you get to Washington."
Fincher blithely declines such a debate unless all candidates seeking the office are invited. Kirkland sounds one note that is echoed, one way or another, by the rest of the field — a respect for the departing congressional incumbent, Democrat John Tanner. "John's a friend of mine. I would not have run if Tanner was the candidate. He practiced law with my brother-in-law and my father-in-law. That's a little too close to run against."
Toward the end of his 22 years in Congress, John Tanner came under more or less constant attack from both sides of the political aisle.
A leader of the "Blue Dog" coalition, Tanner was too conservative to satisfy progressive Democrats. Tanner generally supported George W. Bush's war measures, despite private misgivings about the alleged menace of Saddam Hussein; he also trucked with the Republicans on such matters as abortion, the Second Amendment, abolition of the inheritance tax, and bankruptcy reform. And, most recently, he opposed the Obama administration's health-care initiative.
Yet Tanner was a steady proponent of affirmative action and stem-cell research. He raised doubts about the Patriot Act and stoutly resisted Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security. On most bread-and-butter issues he was a down-the-line Democrat. The Republicans, wary of tackling him for most of his tenure, increasingly had him in their sights for removal in a mainly rural district tilting ever more conservative.
Like centrist Democrat Bart Gordon in the 6th District, Tanner decided late last year to opt out of a 2010 race, seemingly concluding that, while a maximum effort would probably gain him reelection, a state legislature now controlled by Republicans in both chambers would so gerrymander the 8th District after this year's census as to make it unwinnable by a Democrat.
Roy Herron of Dresden, a lawyer, former minister, and longtime legislator (member of the House from 1987 to 1997 and of the Senate since then), always hankered to serve in Congress and would have run in 1994 (which turned out to be a landslide Republican year) had Tanner accepted an appointment to Vice President Al Gore's vacated U.S. Senate seat that was being dangled by then Governor Ned McWherter.
The ambitious Herron, equal parts charm and discipline (he's a marathon runner who rises no later than 4 a.m.), was running for governor in late 2009 and doing well, prevailing in most of the straw polls held for the Democratic field. Taking time out from some vigorous campaigning at the Big Sandy festival on Saturday, Herron recounted his rapid change of plans.
"I got the news about John from a friend, while I was having dinner. When word came that he had made his decision, I got with family and my closest friends, and we talked about it. Some people said if I wanted to run for that seat I needed to decide quickly. So I did, sometime before 10 o'clock that night."
He'd already raised nearly $1 million for the governor's race, but, prohibited by statute from using it in his Senate race, he returned all the individual contributions, some 2,000 of them. By the March 31st financial-disclosure date, starting again from scratch, Herron had raised $1.2 million for the 8th District congressional race, from many of the same donors.
He'll need every penny, plus more, no matter who his GOP opponent turns out to be. As Herron points out, "On the Republican side, they obviously are going to spend an enormous amount of money. The national campaign is helping one [Fincher]. A second one [Kirkland] ... his brother's writing the checks, and a third one [Flinn] ... he's writing his own checks."
Asked about the fact that his campaign signs and literature don't contain the word "Democratic," Herron says, "No, they never have, in any of my races. I'm seeking the vote of every citizen in the 8th District. Before that, I was seeking the vote of every citizen in the 24th senatorial district. And before that, I was running to seek every vote in the 76th House district."
Herron says he doesn't buy the notion among the Republican candidates that public sentiment in the 8th is shifting away from the Democrats. "John Tanner's been elected all those times. Phil Bredesen's carried it. Bob Clement carried it against Lamar Alexander. Harold Ford Jr. carried it. It is as it has always been, somewhere that a common-sense conservative Democrat can win. I believe 18 of the 24 legislators representing a part of this district are Democrats."
Even so, a good deal of Herron's campaign rhetoric is reminiscent of the candidates on the other side. "I believe the greatest threat to national security since my father fought in Europe and my father-in-law in the Pacific is fiscal irresponsibility," he says. "The trillion-dollar deficits risk the future of this country and my children's future." Herron is somewhat vague about whether he would have voted for President Obama's 2009 stimulus program, but he opposes an additional stimulus package, and he is certain he would have voted against the Wall Street bailout.
He would also have opposed the health-care act "in that form," though he is gratified by provisions of the bill prohibiting denial of health insurance to persons with prior conditions and preventing insurors from arbitrary cutoffs of faithful premium payers.
As a state senator, Herron has conspicuously and consistently opposed income-tax legislation, and he calls himself "pro-life" on abortion, though he admits exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother. Those who doubt his sincerity on the issue should know his personal history. His 19-year-old twin sons, John and Rick Herron, the latter a Yale freshman who accompanied his father to Big Sandy, would have been aborted had Roy and Nancy Herron, who had pregnancy complications, heeded medical advice.
John and Rick are both Eagle Scouts, as their younger brother Ben is about to be and as their father was before them. There is still something of the Boy Scout in Roy Herron, and it shone forth in the bright-eyed greetings he bestowed on the nonstop parade of well-wishers who kept stopping by to interrupt his interview at Big Sandy.
He believes he can win, but so do all three of the Republican contenders. As far as we can tell, the seat's up for grabs, and whichever way it finally goes will tell us much about the shifting shape of a nation in turmoil.