VOL. 132 | NO. 252 | Thursday, December 21, 2017
By Bill Dries
Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga came to Memphis this week for the first time in seven years to call for a new generation of independent candidates for office he says can stop 20 years of elected leaders in Washington putting “party before country.”
Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga speaks to the Memphis Rotary Club on Tuesday, Dec. 19. He wants to see candidates shun the two parties and run for office as independents. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
The last time Wamp was in Memphis he was running what would ultimately be an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for Tennessee governor that went to Bill Haslam.
“Poli Sci 101 for you young aspiring politicians – try to avoid running against a billionaire if you can,” Wamp told more than 100 people Tuesday, Dec. 19, at the Memphis Rotary Club weekly luncheon at Clayborn Temple.
As Wamp ate lunch with Rotarians, a group of candidates on the 2018 ballot sat at the next table, including Shelby County commissioner Terry Roland.
Roland is running for Shelby County mayor next year. He backed Wamp for governor in 2010 but the two parted company in 2016 when Roland went for Trump and Wamp went for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“You might not like what I say,” Wamp began. “But I just tell it like it is now because I have nothing to gain and nothing to lose except my children’s future and my grandchildren’s future.”
Wamp, who gave up his congressional seat to run for governor in 2010, now co-chairs the group “Issue One” – a bipartisan not-for-profit pushing for a group of about a dozen elected officials in Congress with no party affiliation – and by Wamp’s definition that’s not one-time Democrats or Republicans but younger newcomers who are independent from the start.
“I don’t believe we are going to permanently change Washington until we have a generational shift in a bloodless political revolution where younger Americans in their ’30s and ’40s replace the people that are there,” Wamp said. “I believe that the best way to do that today is outside of the two-party structure. It needs to be challenged in a serious way.”
Also in the luncheon crowd was former city council member Shea Flinn, who is considering a run for Shelby County mayor next year as an independent.
“What he’s talking about is opposing the politics of the past,” Flinn said before turning to his own political calculations for 2018. “I’m not anywhere near a decision on that.”
“If we don’t have the generational shift ... the American republic will come unraveled in our lifetime.”
Former U.S. representative
And Roland called for an end to partisan county primaries.
Wamp kept his focus on Washington, D.C., and congressional leaders he said demand loyalty to the party first, and then the country.
His speech was interrupted several times by applause, which is unusual for a Rotary appearance.
“The question was asked 240 years ago can people actually govern themselves if you give them this much freedom. I want to tell you that the answer is still an open question,” Wamp said in the part of the speech that drew the most applause. “Today we’re making a real mess out of it in Washington, D.C. … If this question is not answered, if we don’t have the generational shift, this experiment in freedom and democracy known as the American republic will come unraveled in our lifetime.”
Wamp, who served in Congress for 16 years, said in an interview after the speech the movement he is talking about is not a third party.
“The problem with a third party is you have to hammer out a platform and the devil is in the details. It’s very hard to reach agreement on a platform for people that are not part of the two-party system,” he said. “But I believe you can get people elected as independents that aren’t in a third party because an independent from Tennessee is going to look very different from an independent from Maine. They could meet and swing the balance of power every day.”
The closest Congress has come to such a group was the “Blue Dog” caucus of conservative Democrats in the late 1990s co-founded by Tennessee Congressman John Tanner of Union City.
“Basically redistricting set in, 24/7 news television propaganda set in to where blue dogs or moderate Republicans are gone,” Wamp said when asked about the caucus. “There is no such thing anymore. People have to step out of the two-party system and say where can we come together.”
Tanner, himself, complained that the redrawing of congressional districts by the Tennessee Legislature contributed to his decision not to run for re-election in the rural West Tennessee district in 2009. Tanner is also involved with Issue One.
Redistricting reform, as well as a ban on legislators day trading and a ban on lobbyists contributing to the lawmakers they lobby, are among the reforms the group is seeking.
Locally, both parties are trying to find ways to take advantage of the new political energy from the 2016 presidential race and those new to political involvement beyond voting.
“The insurgencies were run in 2016 from within the parties. I believe by the time we get to 2020, the insurgencies will be run from outside the two parties because the need for the insurgencies is still there,” Wamp said. “Ironically, President Trump has probably made anger and dissatisfaction greater. Instead of draining the swamp, people are now more concerned about the swamp. (Democratic presidential contender) Bernie (Sanders) has hijacked the passion of the Democratic Party to the progressive movement, which is out of the mainstream.”