NASHVILLE — As Jackson businessman Mike McWherter noted almost matter-of-factly last Thursday, in a brief speech from the steps of the Capitol after filing his papers to run for governor, "I'm going to be the Democratic nominee."
He will, because the last remaining obstacle to his nomination, former House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville, dropped out of the governor's race the day before to run instead for mayor of Clarksville. McMillan's departure followed previous ones from state senator Roy Herron of Dresden, Nashville businessman Ward Cammack, and state Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.
In leaving the race, both Cammack and Kyle signaled their recognition that ultimate victory for them this year would be difficult. Herron's departure was another matter: He dropped out to pursue a race for Congress in the 8th District following incumbent Democrat John Tanner's announcement last year that he would not seek another term.
Since Herron's hankering to be in Congress was a long-known fact, there were some, both in the media and among state politicos, who speculated openly that Tanner might have had some persuasion to exit, at least two years earlier than expected, from a onetime mentor. That would be former Tennessee governor Ned McWherter, the current candidate's father, who served from 1987 to 1995.
Whether true or not, the former governor's presence is an inescapable component of Mike McWherter's campaign. He is sure to be on the stump with his son from time to time, and he was referred to twice by candidate McWherter on Thursday. One mention included the phrase "a lesson my father taught me"; the other cited "an important lesson I really learned from my father growing up."
One thing Mike McWherter might have learned was the importance in a Tennessee statewide election of appearing as down-home and locally oriented as possible.
Hence the candidate's emphasis in his remarks Thursday on "Tennessee jobs," in the pursuit of which he promises a tax break to those entrepreneurs and Tennesseans who create job opportunities for citizens of the state.
Hence too, McWherter's emphasis in a "hard times" environment on debunking the job-creation claims of Knoxville mayor Bill Haslam, the well-heeled Pilot Oil scion who could well be his Republican opponent.
"Tennessee needs a governor who actually knows what you're going through," McWherter said, then took a shot at claims made in Haslam's widely seen first statewide commercial.
"These are times that require more from a candidate than juggling numbers on a TV ad to inflate his accomplishments," McWherter said. "Tennesseans will see through those tricks. They'll take the measure of the man, and they'll say, 'If he's gonna stretch the truth about jobs, then how can we trust him on this economy?' We need a governor who has met a payroll, who knows what it's like to provide health-care benefits for the people that he works with in good times and in bad, a governor who's created jobs, a governor who from day one knows what it will take to create more jobs."
And, just to be on the safe side of a once and possible future issue, McWherter vowed to oppose a state income tax.
Elaborating on that latter point in a session with reporters after his speech, McWherter said the state had a "consumption-based" economy and noted that three years ago, during a favorable business climate, had enough spillover revenues from the state sales tax that members of the General Assembly were able to vote themselves surplus sums to bestow on projects in their districts.
Though his public remarks had included no reference to Republican candidates other than Haslam, McWherter contended he didn't know who the GOP nominee might be but noted that the other Republican candidates — Chattanooga congressman Zach Wamp and Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville — had also been critical of the veracity of Haslam's long-running first television ad.
McWherter said he probably will wait until after the primary to start his own television advertising.
Although up until now McWherter has been somewhat less visible than other candidates, he contends that he has already visited all 95 Tennessee counties. In any case, McWherter's Monday statewide flyover looks to be the start of a long-term acquaintanceship.