Mike Padgett, the former Knox County Clerk, says he's in the hunt for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, and he has the backing of some of the state's top Democrats.
Padgett, who was term-limited out of the Clerk's office last year, says he's been out raising money and will be in the primary race no matter what former state party chairman Bob Tuke of Nashville does. Tuke has said he intends to run for the Senate seat and is making a formal announcement this week. Padgett's formal announcement will come March 4, his 59th birthday, in Knoxville, he says.
Among his supporters, Padgett says, are Randy Button, also a former state Democratic chairman, and Johnny Hayes, the former TVA director and long-time Democratic fund-raiser. His campaign chairman, Jed Brewer, is a founder, along with Button, of Blue Solutions, a Democratic grass-roots organization.
Ironically, Button is a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, while Brewer, who was political director of Harold Ford Jr.'s Senate campaign two years ago and has worked in Gov. Bredesen's administration, is Tennessee campaign director for the Obama bid this year.
Padgett himself is on the steering committee for the Clinton campaign here, saying he agreed to serve in that capacity as a favor to former Gov. Ned McWherter. "Whichever Democrat wins the nomination, I'll support them 110 percent for president," Padgett says.
With a political base formed by winning seven elections, including school board races, as a Democrat in Republican-dominated Knox County, Padgett says he's been crossing the state, making and renewing contacts. "I know every county clerk in the state personally," he says, and those connections should help him form a county-by-county organization. As the only Democrat holding constitutional fee office in the county for 20 years, Padgett was responsible for many innovations and improvements in public service as clerk. He came under fire late in his tenure for staffing excesses, but he was the only fee officeholder who bowed to the invocation of term limits by the state Supreme Court. The others fought vainly to stay in office.
Some Knox County Democrats were surprised by his move. Dennis Francis, a Democratic activist and former election committee member, says when Padgett called him and told him he was running for the Senate, Francis' response was, "Against whom? [Republican state Sen.] Tim Burchett?"
When told it was for Alexander's seat, Francis says, "You could have knocked me over with a feather."
Likewise Warren Gooch, a former county Democratic Party chairman, who says he himself was contacted by some state Democrats about running for the seat and decided not to, says Padgett's decision to go for it took him by surprise.
No person has ever jumped from county clerk to the U.S. Senate in Tennessee, in political commentators Francis' and Gooch's memory, but Padgett says he's up to it.
"It's a big step but I feel very comfortable doing what I'm doing," he says. He says he welcomes a challenge from Tuke. "I like a good competitive race," he says, "giving the people of Tennessee a choice."
"People are hungry for change," Padgett says, echoing the rallying cry of national Democrats this election season, "and I want to give it to them." He says his first question to people he'll encounter in his campaign against the popular Alexander, who's won four statewide races for governor and senator and served as University of Tennessee president and U.S. Secretary of Education, is: "What's Lamar Alexander ever done for you personally?"