Saturday, December 8, 2001



Posted By on Sat, Dec 8, 2001 at 4:00 AM

Former state Education Commissioner Jane Walters, who may be remembered by some Tennesseans for shedding tears while testifying to the legislature about the perils awaiting a financially starved educational infrastructure, felt some more vicarious pain Thursday night at a meet-and-greet which she hosted at her Memphis townhouse for gubernatorial candidate Andy Womack.

Recalling the difficulties which her former boss, Governor Don Sundquist, has experienced with the General Assembly. Walters recalled, shaking her head mournfully, “I saw what that did to him. He didn’t know how to deal with that legislature.” She went on to declare that the members of the legislature had become “so distrustful” in these fractious, fiscally challenged times that “only someone with legislative experience” is capable of reaching them.

The someone she had in mind, of course, was Womack, the former state senator from Murfreesboro, who hails from a family of educators and was known in the General Assembly as an advocate for educational causes. Womack gladly embraces the support of educators in his current campaign for governor and said at Walters’ event that he’d be happy to be represented to the public by the people gathered in her cramped living room.

The fact is, however, that the genial Vietnam War vet lacks either the judgmentalism that is so often the occupational vice of professional educators (and their detractors) or the desire, on this or other issues, to be confined to the narrow precincts of the permanently wise.

On the former score, Womack has declined to follow the lead of two other Democratic candidates in their attacks on the perceived party frontrunner, former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen; on the latter, he made it clear in Memphis, as he has elsewhere, that his outlook is increasingly moving beyond purely educational issues to encompass larger economic ones.

Womack is especially concerned, as he had said earlier at a luncheon meeting held in the working-class Frayser area of Memphis, that the state is not only losing quality jobs but that the “replacement jobs,” when and if these come, are less well-paying and have a more meager economic impact on the host community.

“We don’t have time for a vision that’s three or five years long,” Womack said at Walter’s townhouse concerning the need for action on the economic front. He stressed the need to provide support for “existing industry and small business” in addition to the standard preoccupations of attracting large new industries to Tennessee.

Similarly, he had noted at the luncheon meeting that, pending the development of sweeping new approaches to revenue at a time when the legislature is “resistant” to tax reform, there are ways of achieving results within existing formats. Teacher pay raises, for example, could be partly achieved in a de facto way by exempting teachers from contributions to their own pension funds-- a consideration already granted state employees.

As for Womack’s own financial future, he professed optimism Thursday that, when the first candidate financial disclosures are called for in January, the record will show his receipts to be far and above those of Knoxville District Attorney Randy Nichols and former Education Commissioner Charles Smith. He expects to be the survivor of an informal round robin among the three candidates to determine who will become the foremost primary challenger to Bredesen.

How much will that take in the primary? “Two million dollars,” Andy Womack says, and he promises to have it.

He has put his money where his mouth is in at least one visible way, establishing the first gubernatorial field office in Shelby County with a paid staffer, the energetic and capable Jeff Sullivan, who had previously toiled in the now abandoned campaign for Shelby County mayor of Womack’s former colleague, State Senator Jim Kyle of Memphis. When Kyle, facing strong opposition and the annual General Assembly curtailment of fundraising, dropped out, Sullivan shopped himself around. Womack was the only candidate able (or willing) to punch his ticket.



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