The Man Who Would Be Governor 

Shelby County D.A. Bill Gibbons, holder of one "tough job," goes looking for another.

Ron Ramsey and Bill Gibbons wait their turn to speak in Chattanooga.

Jackson Baker

Ron Ramsey and Bill Gibbons wait their turn to speak in Chattanooga.

Bill Gibbons, the district attorney general for Shelby County and a candidate for governor of Tennessee, is the head of the largest single prosecutorial unit in state government, first named to that job by former Governor Don Sundquist and reelected twice since. He is a well-groomed, soft-spoken congenial man whose shock of pure-white hair gives him, at late 50-something, a paradoxically youthful look. If you didn't know he was a lawman, you might take him for a high school math teacher or a stockbroker.

Yet last Friday, in the course of a one-day run through East Tennessee, home of all three of his opponents for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010, Gibbons could and did boast offhandedly to a meet-and-greet audience in small-town Athens, "Got a death penalty decision yesterday," talk about the hard necessity of referring intractable juvenile offenders to the harsh justice of state prison, and note that his office handles no fewer than 100,000 cases a year with a work force that has been progressively trimmed for budgetary reasons.

"I can do a tough job. I've got one now," candidate Gibbons tells the small but avid circle of listeners gathered in the law office of Jerry Estes, a former comrade in the ranks of the Tennessee D.A. Association.

The brief talk, followed by a question-and-answer session, seems to register with his audience.

On her way out, Maxine Gernert, the newly elected chair of the McMinn County Republican Party, whispers to Adam Nickas, Gibbons' driver and (as they say in the political trade) "body man" charged with getting him to the places where he needs to be and making sure he shows up on time, "How exciting! He gives the sense of being authentic."

On the other hand, there are dissenters. Bryan Jackson, a retired economics teacher, challenges Gibbons on his opposition to a state income tax. "I can't support anybody for governor who'll take the income tax off the table," Jackson tells the candidate affably but firmly.

"Well, it's off the table," says Gibbons, who cites what he says is the haphazard condition of the state of California, which has the highest per capita state income-tax rate in the nation. Gibbons isn't about to espouse a remedy that engendered a long-running legislative war in the early part of this decade and virtually eroded the GOP base of Sundquist, the last Republican from Shelby County to hold the office of governor.

Gibbons is no brick wall, however. Soothingly, he agrees with Jackson about the repressiveness of the state sales tax. "I understand what you say about the sales tax, and I don't have an answer on that." He suggests some combination of a reduced sales tax on groceries with an enhanced tax on unspecified "luxury" items.

He will acknowledge later on, on his way to his next stop, a joint appearance with his three Republican opponents before a mammoth crowd at a Hamilton County Lincoln Day dinner in Chattanooga, that it's wise to say you don't know what you don't know.

One thing Gibbons does know is what it feels like to be the victim of crime. One late July afternoon some 20 years ago, the then Memphis city councilman was outside his longtime home on Vinton Avenue, getting ready to take a run and watching his daughter, Carey, ride her tricycle. (Now, as then, Gibbons is a serious, even a competitive runner, doing lengthy runs of four or five miles several times a week — though the campaign grind has made scheduling them more difficult.)

A car pulled up, bearing, as Gibbons says in laconic D.A. style, "four juveniles," all with guns pointed his way. Their message was succinct: "Give us your money, or we'll kill you." Says Gibbons: "They weren't the brightest bulbs around. I was wearing running shorts, and they should have known I wasn't packing a wallet." Failing to get his money, the interlopers demanded Gibbons' gold wedding band. When it wouldn't come off, they settled for "an $18 digital running watch."

Years later, in the mid-1990s, Gibbons' friend and fellow lawyer (and current candidate for U.S. attorney) Dale Tuttle called the then county commissioner one evening to tell him he'd just seen Gibbons' Pontiac sedan stranded at the intersection of Madison and Cleveland "with the doors open and the motor running." The culprits who had taken it were dim bulbs as well, running it with the lights off and catching the attention of the police, who ran the car down and forced the thieves to abandon it.

Not long afterward, at a time when Gibbons had been appointed district attorney general by Sundquist, another of his cars was stolen from his church parking lot. It was found two days later "totally gutted."

In none of these cases was anybody ever apprehended, though Gibbons says he feels sure the offenders all "either ended up dead or behind bars."

In any case, the D.A./gubernatorial candidate offers these experiences as personal reasons — to go with the professional ones — as to why he's avid about crime control. "I'm the only candidate who makes public safety a priority," he contends. "The very first sentence of the first section of the state Constitution makes it the duty of government to 'provide for the peace and safety of the people.'" Yet, as he notes, Tennessee has the second-highest violent crime rate in the nation and is sixth in overall crimes.

As governor, he says, "I'll give law enforcement the hammer it needs." Among other things, that means "tougher sentencing laws," like those in a package he and other members of the "Public Safety Coalition," an aggregate of district attorneys, police chiefs, and sheriffs, has proposed to the current General Assembly.

click to enlarge Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons - JUSTIN FOX BURKS

If more prisons need to be built, at a cost to the public treasury? "So be it," he says, though he believes tougher enforcement and tighter incarceration is cost-effective in the long run.

On the way from Athens to Chattanooga for the Lincoln Day showdown with his GOP opponents, Gibbons' attention is called to a roadside golf course. Gibbons is asked if he plays the game, one favored by many politicians because it's desultory enough to allow them to form relationships and cut deals. "I'm a no-deals man" is the tongue-in-cheek reply of non-golfer Gibbons.

That's a reminder of his longstanding — and well-publicized — policy of no plea bargaining for violent crimes. Gibbons sees himself as resolute and believes that is how he's seen by the public, especially by "people who know me."

He is aware, though, that there are critics who see his tenure as district attorney as being overly concerned with public relations and who note there have been exceptions to the no-plea-bargaining policy — that there have in fact been "deals" — as in the notorious 2007 case which saw Dale V. Mardis given the option to plead guilty to second-degree murder in what would seem to have been the premeditated kidnap-killing of code enforcement agent Mickey Wright.

Conceding that there have been a few such cases, Gibbons says they are due entirely to evidentiary problems. In the case of Mardis, he says frankly, there were state's witnesses who recanted their testimony at the last minute. "We ran the risk of seeing him gain an acquittal," he says in defense of the lighter sentence offered Mardis.

His good name as a lawman is one way in which Gibbons seeks to distinguish himself from the candidate who is widely perceived to be the leader in the Republican race for governor, Knoxville mayor and Pilot Oil scion Bill Haslam, who, according to sources, already has raised some $3 million for his campaign and has a virtually unlimited private fortune to draw on.

Gibbons acknowledges that he and Haslam, a mild and well-spoken man with a palpable appeal to moderates, are competitors for what might be called the buttoned-down or country-club vote — as well as for Democratic crossovers in the general election in the event either gained the GOP nomination.

It would seem that Gibbons needs to broaden his appeal at Haslam's expense, meanwhile keeping at bay 3rd District congressman Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, an orator of sorts and a social conservative beloved by red-meat Republicans who is just now moderating his own message so as to stake a claim for the GOP middle. Also to be reckoned with is Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who has a solid base with the Republican establishment and rank-and-file alike.

Gibbons' immediate strategy, hatched in tandem with pedigreed advisers like John Bakke and Joe Hall, appears to be that of cutting Haslam down to size. An opportunity to strike came this past week in the wake of what would seem to have been a routine speech by the Knoxville mayor extolling the goal of educational reform.

Isolating a statement by Haslam that Tennessee would not rank 42nd among the states in education if "people cared," Gibbons issued a press release attacking his rival as an "out of touch" elitist who "ought to get out of the country-club set a little more often and talk to regular Tennesseans," who in fact did care.

At first blush, Gibbons' complaint seemed a stretch — not much of a hole to run through. But his statement, one of the first real barbs of the still-fledgling 2010 race, got considerable attention in the state press, avid perhaps to find some real drama in what, on the Republican side, has been one ho-hum Lincoln Day forum after another. (There have been almost 30 of these to date, and, as Gibbons and Haslam agreed in a brief pre-dinner meeting between the two in Chattanooga, both of them could give each others' stock speeches if need be.)

Another means employed by Gibbons to set himself apart from Haslam — and from the rest of the field, for that matter, Republican and Democrat alike — is the recounting of "personal history," the Horatio Alger saga which is the core of his basic speech and which he related, almost identically word-for-word, both to the small group at Athens and before the massive assembly of a thousand-and-more at the Chattanooga Lincoln Day affair.

click to enlarge Gibbons and tax critic Bryan Jackson in Athens - JACKSON BAKER

It is a speech that provides a decided contrast to Gibbons' decidedly upscale image — one that would surprise many of those who have voted for or against a polished and poised Gibbons in his races to date for city councilman, county commissioner, city mayor, and district attorney (all of them winners except for his 1987 run for mayor against incumbent Dick Hackett).

As Gibbons tells it, he grew up in southern Arkansas on a farm, and when he was a small child, his father, an insurance administrator and an alcoholic, deserted his family, leaving it impoverished, which forced his mother to care for Gibbons and his several siblings by selling off the household property.

As he put it at the Athens meet-and-greet, "I watched as my mother sold our items of personal property, just to have enough money to walk down the road to the little grocery and to keep the lights on. Tables, chairs, dishes, silverware. It all went. At times, we had rice and water and nothing else."

One saving grace: His mother held on to a collection of books, even after the bookcases which held them had gone to the highest bidder. Among the books was Carl Sandburg's six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. "I have no doubt that was one of the things that influenced me to become a Republican," he says.

Ultimately, as Gibbons tells it, the family farm was foreclosed on, and the family was forced to take a modest dwelling across the road from the old homestead. Miraculously, it would seem, the man who ultimately bought the foreclosed-on property and who employed Gibbons as a farm hand, one Frank Humphries, was a major figure in Arkansas Republican politics. Humphries took Gibbons under his wing, becoming one of a series of mentors in the young man's life.

There came to be others, after an older brother packed the family up and moved everybody to Memphis in the mid-1960s. There was Lamar Alexander, for example, then a young Republican activist running Howard Baker's underdog campaign for the U.S. Senate, who greeted Gibbons, a walk-in in the candidate's Memphis campaign office, and on the spot made the young Central High student the director of Teenagers for Baker in Shelby County.

Baker won, and Alexander, later governor and now Tennessee's senior senator, took on Gibbons as a protégé, and the rest of the saga scans almost like the happily-ever-after portion of a rags-to-riches fairy tale:

A scholarship to Vanderbilt, where Gibbons was president of the College Republicans at just the point that the once-somnolent GOP was making its bid to become a dominant force in Tennessee politics. Marriage to Julia Smith of Giles County, whom he met in a math class at Vanderbilt, cajoling a classmate to trade seats with him so he could make contact with her.

Julia Gibbons, whose upwardly mobile career path parallels her husband's, would become a Circuit Court judge, then a U.S. district judge, and finally a federal Appeals Court judge, which would allow her, says her husband, to keep her judgeship while serving as Tennessee's first lady.

Bill Gibbons himself alternated his law practice with a series of plum jobs with Republican luminaries, notably serving from 1979 to 1981 as policy adviser to Governor Alexander and as his liaison with local governments. Both roles led Gibbons to oversee Alexander's Memphis Jobs Conference, which in the early 1980s would lead to the development of Beale Street and the resurrection of the Orpheum among other efforts to revive Memphis' urban core and slumping economy.

From thence issued the almost hitch-free upward spiral of the Man Who Would Be Governor.

What are his chances? At last summer's National Republican Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, there was considerable talk among insiders that Gibbons' prospects were as good as anybody's — though at the moment he has to be rated an underdog.

Even should he gain the Republican nomination against the present stout competition, Gibbons would still have to match off against one of the current Democratic hopefuls — including Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, son of the revered former governor Ned Ray McWherter; state senator Roy Herron of Dresden; Nashville businessman Ward Cammack (like Haslam a possible self-financer); former state House majority leader Kim McMillan; and very likely another home-grown Memphian, state senator Jim Kyle.

A telling point in Gibbons' favor is that, in all of his local races, he has enjoyed considerable crossover appeal with Democratic voters — this despite the fact that, as he acknowledges, the only Democrat he personally has supported was Shelby County mayor A C Wharton in 2006. And that was a reciprocal arrangement.

Getting the nomination and getting elected will both prove difficult. But, like the man said, "I can do a tough job. I've got one now."

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