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VOL. 41 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 27, 2017

Democrats look to Bredesen to run, reinvigorate party

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Tennessee Democrats are canvassing the state to find candidates at every political level, but their next star is a well-known veteran who has people of all political stripes holding their breath.

Phil Bredesen, the former mayor of Nashville and a two-term governor, could alter the landscape of Tennessee politics if he enters the race for U.S. Senate to fill the void by departing Republican Sen. Bob Corker in 2018.

The last Democrat to win a statewide election, Bredesen would have to consider the cost of a U.S. Senate race, expected to be in the tens of millions, as well as commuting to and from D.C.

But he likely understands the need for stable leadership and might even consider this a patriotic duty.

“Phil Bredesen would transform the race if he runs. He would bring national attention and big money to the race,” Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer says. “But no one should count out James Mackler. He has a great narrative, and 2018 could be a Democratic year. (President Donald) Trump’s popularity continues to slide, and while his base is intact now, that may not be true by the summer of 2018.”

A former health insurance executive who acquired so much wealth he declined his gubernatorial salary, Bredesen will turn 74 in November. But Geer says age isn’t an issue for Bredesen, nor is his absence from political office for eight years.

“That he has been out of politics for eight years could be a benefit to him,” Geer points out. “He is someone who is interested in making a difference and has not been advancing his own political ambition over the last few years. He is not a Washington insider, which is a plus this cycle – as it was in the last election.”

Bredesen recently conceded he is considering entering the Senate race, but he isn’t saying anything beyond that.

Political prognosticators say a Democratic ticket led by Bredesen for U.S. Senate and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean for governor could change the course of politics statewide.

Even though Gov. Bill Haslam is considered a moderate businessman more concerned with education and budgets, he isn’t Tennessee’s political bell cow. The far-right wing of the Republican Party is too busy chasing the coattails of President Trump to worry about Haslam as he enters the final year of two terms.

He opted not to run for the Senate [Corker’s seat] but could be a candidate for the seat held by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander in 2020.

With President Trump bullying people in his cabinet and across the country, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County and former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump in West Tennessee are both positioning themselves as right-wing conservatives, saying they want to advance Trump’s policies on everything from repealing the Affordable Care Act to building walls at the Mexican border.

In doing so, they could be opening the door for a middle-of-the-roader, even a Democratic in this state, where Trump carried nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016.

Rep. Sherry Jones, a Democrat who has served in the Legislature for more than 20 years, says a Bredesen candidacy will bring people back to the Democratic side of the ballot because they consider him a moderate.

“I feel like there are a lot of people out there that trust and respect him, and I think he can pull a lot of votes and he has a lot of money,” adds Jones, who is set to run for Davidson County Juvenile Court clerk next year but isn’t leaving the Legislature just yet.

Dean, who has Northern roots in common with Bredesen, is running in the same template as Haslam and Bredesen, two former big-city mayors considered pro-business pragmatists who focus on finances and leave the social squabbles to others.

As such, Dean wants to eliminate ideology and “polar extremes” from the election and stick with health care, education and job creation.

“Gov. Bredesen is somebody I admire greatly, and certainly he could make his own decision,” Dean says. “But I can tell you, again, based on my travels and talking to all different types of people, he is widely admired, not only for his service as governor and mayor, but for his personality and sort of his problem-solving approach to politics.

“He is admired by Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

Bredesen’s candidacy bodes well for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate too. Dean is squared off with House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh from Ripley in West Tennessee, who is trying to put his name out there and separate himself from Dean through his Tennessee roots and lifelong support for public schools. While mayor of Nashville, Dean was a proponent for allowing charter schools to open.

The Democrats have some other potential statewide winners, including state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville and Reps. John Ray Clemmons and Bo Mitchell, both of Davidson County. For now, though, the party’s hope lies with Bredesen and, most likely, Dean.

Mackler’s outlook

Mackler, a 45-year-old Nashville attorney, isn’t sitting quietly.

Mackler

He gave up a profitable law practice in the wake of 9/11, enlisted in the Army and flew helicopters for the 101st Airborne Division before taking on the job of judge advocate general officer, prosecuting cases for the military.

Having raised more than $750,000 even before Corker announced his decision to step away from the Senate, Mackler is unfazed by the Bredesen factor, calling himself an “outsider” who is more concerned about child health care and education than looking for the next political contribution or TV sound bite.

“It makes no difference to my plans. I got into this race against a popular sitting senator who people said I couldn’t beat,” Mackler acknowledges. “Here I am six months down the road with an incredible response from the people of Tennessee as someone who is not a career politician like Marsha Blackburn.

“And I believe that’s what the people of Tennessee want, someone who has that proven record of service and sacrifice but is not a career politician.”

Mackler isn’t afraid to go on the attack, either. He’s calling for Blackburn to step away from the Senate race amid reports she co-sponsored legislation making it more difficult for the DEA to catch people shipping illegal opioids into the country. He recently started a digital ad campaign urging her to withdraw.

His website also touts a column saying Democrats’ best bet is to look toward a future with young, energetic Mackler rather than the past with Bredesen.

The problem with that outlook is this: Bredesen has more name recognition than everyone else in the Democratic Party combined. And, the money.

And, one little important thing: He can win in a Trump universe, whether it’s strong or crumbling.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger, Hamilton County Herald and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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