Would two in a row be a trend? What would it portend for the future?
Phil Bredesen was the first governor in Tennessee history to go from being a city mayor to governor, without any other political jobs in between. There were a couple of guys who had been mayors but they did stints in Congress before winning the top spot in state government.
If Bill Haslam (who is leading the field at present) is successful, he would be the first sitting mayor to be elected governor.
It seems odd when you think about it. Being the chief administrator of a city would seem to be a natural position to run for chief administrator of the state. But for some reason, Bredesen was the first.
What office has produced past governors? It’s a mixed bag. Since Tennessee doesn’t elect any statewide office except governor, there is no natural path to the top chair. Winfield Dunn did not hold elected political office before being elected governor. Neither did Lamar Alexander. Both won their spurs working within the Republican Party and electing other people—like U.S. Sen. Howard Baker.
Since World War II there have been two governors from Congress. Ray Blanton had two terms in Congress before being elected governor. Don Sundquist did six terms before winning the governorship.
The Legislature would seem to be a place to get state government experience to run for governor, and most governors in the first century of the state’s history came from there. But former House Speaker Ned McWherter (he did seven terms as speaker) is the only veteran legislator to have made it to the governor’s office since World War II.
Buford Ellington served in the Legislature, but he was more a protege of Frank Clement, serving in his cabinet and as a placeholder in the days when Clement couldn’t succeed himself as governor. Clement also did not hold elected political office before being governor.
At least in this election, it appears we will have a governor who grew up in Tennessee. Since World War II the state has had eight governors. Four of them moved to Tennessee from another state.
So looking at the current field, Haslam is following the path of Bredesen. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, as Senate speaker, hopes to follow in McWherter’s footsteps. Mike McWherter, though he is Ned’s son, is from the Dunn, Alexander model of running for governor as a first elected office. Zach Wamp is running from Congress (no pun intended), as did Blanton and Sundquist.
What has changed in politics that seems to have pushed the door open for mayors to be governor? I suspect in past years, when political parties were more powerful, nonpartisan city mayors were not part of the inner circle. You paid your dues working in campaigns and winning office for your party before you were anointed as the party’s standard-bearer.
In the days before ever-pervasive media, it was also more difficult for a local mayor, involved in local issues and local politics, to be well-known statewide. Just a few years ago it would be unlikely for a newspaper or television station to do stories beyond their coverage area on some other city’s mayor.
Perhaps being mayor doesn’t have a damn thing to do with it. Yes, it gives you a credential. But would Bredesen have been elected, and would Haslam be a leading contender, were it not for their personal wealth? Recall that Knoxville Mayor Randy Tyree ran for governor in 1982 with money borrowed from Jake Butcher. Alexander defeated him easily. Did Bob Corker win his Senate seat because of his mayoral credential from Chattanooga, or because he had the personal wealth to outspend his rivals?
Will we see an increase in ambitious young politicians with an eye on being governor looking at their local mayoral office? Anybody lining up to run to replace Haslam as mayor next year have higher ambitions?
Just to be safe, make sure you are also worth millions of dollars.