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VOL. 124 | NO. 149 | Friday, July 31, 2009

GOP Governor Contenders Highlight Differences

By Bill Dries

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CAMPAIGNING IN MEMPHIS: GOP contenders for governor Ron Ramsey (left), Bill Haslam (above) and Bill Gibbons were in East Memphis this week campaigning before a reception by the Memphis chapter of Associated Builders & Contractors Inc. -- PHOTOS BY BILL DRIES

Bill Gibbons, Ron Ramsey and Bill Haslam agree that one of them will be the next governor. When they are with Zach Wamp, he’s included.

But the four Republican contenders for Tennessee governor don’t agree on which one of them will be elected next year.

Gibbons, Ramsey and Haslam were together this week to speak to the Memphis chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. Wamp, U.S. representative for the 3rd District of Tennessee, was in Washington waiting for the August congressional recess.

Friends and adversaries

The GOP contenders have made so many joint appearances since the first of the year that they consider themselves good friends and they know the each other‘s standard stump speeches.

Haslam, the mayor of Knoxville, said he prefers small groups like the 50 people who were at Wednesday night’s ABC gathering at the Grove Grill in East Memphis.

“One of the occupational hazards is that you give a speech so often that you can’t be sincere about it, even though you really are,” he said after the event.

Ramsey, speaker of the Tennessee Senate, has been campaigning “full blast” since June 18 when the Legislature went home for the year.

The three men are friendly to each other and have senses of humor about the close quarters they’ve been keeping so far.

But there are differences in their emphases and directions even if they aren’t directly attacking each other.

Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons continues to emphasize the crime issue more than the others. He offered to give Haslam and Ramsey a tour of the Criminal Justice Center.

“Why is Tennessee not sharing in the national downward trend in crime over the last 10 years?” Gibbons asked the group, referring to crime in Memphis and the state’s other major cities. “I think the answer is pretty obvious. We have a broken system in our state. … We are failing as a state to adequately hold accountable serious offenders – violent offenders.”

Gibbons also vowed to “take on the education bureaucracy” to reform public education in Tennessee.

“The answer is not to simply spend more money doing the same thing in our schools,” Gibbons said. “The problem is not that we’re failing to spend enough money. The problem is that we’re not bringing about the kinds of changes in our schools that we need.”

Bottom line

Haslam and Ramsey have focused more on economic and budget issues. Both also were critical of the Obama administration’s fiscal policies.

“We seemingly have a national administration that is truly lacking in any business experience. … Nobody has run so much as a lemonade stand,” said Haslam, who before being elected mayor of Knoxville headed the family business, Pilot Corp., the country’s largest chain of truck stops, travel centers and convenience stores.

“While the country seems to be going in the wrong direction, Tennessee could have a leader that pushes us back in the right direction of fiscal responsibility in tough times. That would speak volumes about who we are.”

Haslam also took a shot at the Legislature’s balancing of the state budget with Ramsey as the leader of the state Senate.

“We took money out of the savings account … out of the rainy day fund and then we took money that came from the stimulus plan. … Neither of those is going to be around in two years when one of us takes office,” Haslam said. “We’re not going to have a state income tax in Tennessee. … That’s not going to happen. We’re not going to raise the sales tax. … So you’re literally in a position where you’re going to have to fundamentally restructure state government.”

Later, Ramsey pushed back.

“There was about a 13 percent across-the-board cut that we made in state government to make this happen,” Ramsey told The Daily News. “There were real cuts in state money. I think we were very responsible.”

Gibbons pointed out Ramsey’s support for further budget amendments that would have killed state funding for the megasite in Haywood County. State funding for infrastructure improvements to the 1,720-acre industrial site east of Memphis was cut in a last-minute set of budget amendments the Republican majorities pushed through.

Gov. Phil Bredesen called the amendments “stupid” and hinted that he would veto them before GOP legislative leaders backed down. Ramsey said there was a lack of communication with Bredesen about the purpose of the money.

Ramsey touted his experience as a small-business owner and said he is fearful about how Obama administration economic policies will impact the nation. He touted the work of the new Republican majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature.

“We set goals. We raised money. … I sold the message that it matters who governs,” Ramsey said of his rise to leader of the Senate. “I think I’m by far the most qualified of the three. … I’m a been there, done that kind of guy. I don’t need on-the-job training.”

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