One of the big issues in the 1978 gubernatorial race was when Jake Butcher called Lamar Alexander a "saloon keeper" because he was an early investor in the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain.
The issue didn't stick, probably because the guy in the plaid shirt who walked across Tennessee didn't really look like a saloon keeper.
In this year's Republican primary, Congressman Zach Wamp has raised the issue of "Pilot Casinos" against Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam. Somehow it is just not plausible to see Haslam wearing a green eye shade and he certainly doesn't have the flair of a riverboat gambler.
The Haslam campaign has said Pilot leases space for slot machines, in states where they are legal, but the company does not operate gambling casinos. Even in a state where their names are on the license. And Pilot Casinos is on the door. And Pilot-inscribed chips go into the machines. It's a technicality.
If you have a casino in your building and contract with someone to run it, are you still in the gambling business? We don't know because Haslam refuses to release his financial information related to Pilot.
The issue for the voter, I suppose, is Haslam being governor while owning part of a company that is heavily regulated by the state. Lottery tickets. Beer. Cigarettes. Gasoline. But former Gov. Ned McWherter owned a Budweiser distributorship, a trucking company, and nursing homes—all businesses regulated by the state.
Wamp's career in Congress has come under scrutiny. His Technology Corridor summits involve securing sponsorships from government contractors, primarily in Oak Ridge. This promotes Wamp's political career. He secured grants for government programs for the contractors. This is hardly a secret. But Ken Whitehouse and Stephen George at the Nashville City Paper have done an excellent job of connecting the dots and explaining the stops along the daisy chain. And the financial benefit to public relations honcho Darrell Akins, who works for Wamp and collects fees for handling the summits.
Akins, with the Wamp campaign, and Tom Ingram, with the Haslam campaign, are the staff infrastructure of the Republican Party establishment. Between elections it has been necessary to park them someplace to make a living in order to have them available for campaigns. Chamber jobs. Public relations firms with lucrative contracts. Staff jobs at the state and federal level.
This is an unusual campaign in that they are pitted against each other. In fact, Wamp has accused Ingram of being the source for the City Paper stories. Ingram denies it, but did suggest to the Chattanooga newspaper that Akins' fees would appear to be exorbitant. (Public relations specialists across the state spewed coffee on their keyboards when they heard Ingram had said that.)
Early voting starts in three weeks. If these issues are to resonate with voters they will likely have to be hammered home with television ads.
These two issues do raise some troubling questions.
Why was it left to the City Paper and to the Wamp campaign to raise these issues about local politicians that have been ignored by Knoxville media throughout their careers?
Why have local news organizations, who sue county commissioners and TVA at the drop of a hat, not demanded that Haslam release his Pilot financial information?No one has accused either candidate of doing anything illegal. It wouldn't be illegal even if the Haslams did directly operate the casinos. The Wamp/Akins daisy chain is the way business/politics gets done these days. It's why you should cringe and hold onto your wallet anytime a politician or chamber official says the words "public private partnership."
Perhaps, if Haslam wins the primary, the general election can be about serious issues. Like who sells the most Budweiser, Mike McWherter or Haslam. (McWherter has a Budweiser beer distributorship.) At least neither of them is a saloon keeper.