Executive Material

Has the first mayor elected governor been an exception or will it be a trend?

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

Phil Bredesen is the first man in Tennessee history to go from being a mayor to the governor's office. Has Bredesen established a new tradition and started a trend, or will his tenure be an anomaly? The issue is of more than academic interest to various public figures with an eye on the 2010 gubernatorial race. There are at least three members of Congress giving it serious consideration. There may also be mayors wondering if lightning can strike twice.

It's strange we haven't elected a city chief executive before, given that running a big city would seem to be as good a job as any to prepare you to be the state's chief executive. Not that there haven't been mayors who triedâ"you will recall that Knoxville's Mayor Randy Tyree ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1982.

One advantage members of Congress have had is that they generally run in a broader geographic region than one town. They are also party leaders and campaign for other members of the party, attending political functions around the state. It is very helpful when seeking a party's nomination. Mayors are often identifiable unofficially by a party label, but they run in nonpartisan races and are generally less of a party animal than those in other political offices.

Congress-people are also able to glom onto a broader range of issues, from taxes to social programs to war and peace. Mayors have the problem of being identified with a city and thus being a rival for other cities. They are also little known outside the city in which they serve. OK, tell me: who is the current mayor of Chattanooga? Hint: It's not Bob Corker.

Mayors get a lot of coverage in their own media market. But their issues are largely parochial. Locals may love you for low garbage rates, but it isn't likely newspapers in other markets will be writing feature stories about it. Bredesen had run unsuccessfully for Congress and he had run unsuccessfully for governor. He had higher name ID outside Nashville than would be the case with most city mayors. He landed a National Football League team for Nashville, a pleasant association in a sports-mad state. He also was independently wealthy and could raise money and spend his own as needed.

There are those who believe Nashville's out-going Mayor Bill Purcell will run for governor next time. Purcell is a former majority leader in the state House of Representatives and is well respected among political insiders. But his tenure in Nashville's mayor's office has been steady but not spectacular. He didn't land another pro franchise, and, in fact is in the process of not building a downtown minor league baseball stadium.

There are those who believe Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam might give it a whirl, though Haslam is careful to tamp down any speculation on that front. He is a personable candidate and has skillsâ"but does anybody outside East Tennessee know who he is? There are also those who think Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale should make a run for governor. They all drive county-issued SUVs.

Congressman Zach Wamp, from Chattanooga, and Congressman Marsha Blackburn (yes, she uses congressman) from Brentwood are giving serious thought to running. On the Democratic side, Congressman Lincoln Davis from the Jamestown area is also said to be considering it.

So 2010 could be a laboratory to discover which path future politicos should take to the governor's office: big-city mayor or member of Congress?

We have that unique situation because we don't have any statewide elected offices except governor. If we pass a constitutional amendment to elect statewide offices like lieutenant governor and attorney general then we will have people with state government experience who have run statewide races and are proven vote-getters. At present it is very difficult to find a serious candidate for governor who has any experience in state government. Legislators have such a tiny base that a statewide race is a major challenge.

At present, your choice of a congressman or a mayor is like buying a pig in a poke. You don't know what you are going to get until they get there.

But who knows. There might be a dentist, a Howard Baker campaign manager or a member of the state House of Representatives out there who will come out of nowhere and win it all.

(Footnote: OK, all you eagle-eyed Tennessee history buffs. I know Andrew Johnson began as the mayor of Greeneville. But he served in Congress before becoming governor. That's also true of Jim Nance McCord, who served as mayor of Lewisburg, but he served in Congress before being elected governor. Bredesen is the only politician who went directly from being a mayor to being governor. And Ron Littlefield is the current mayor of Chattanooga.)

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .


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