| LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON – Mike McWherter (left) stands as the lone Democrat in the race for Tennessee governor. The position was held for two terms by his father, Ned Ray McWherter. The 54-year-old businessman and Palmersville native will vie for the seat in November during the general election. |
Butcher, baker, candlestick maker.
A childhood rhyme, yes. Yet those few words symbolize a unique strategy used by Jackson businessman Mike McWherter in his quest for the Democratic nomination for governor.
As a newcomer to the fine art of running for public office, the Union City High School graduate is out and about, learning the ropes, pressing the flesh, meeting Tennesseans, listening to vox populi, the voice of the people.
In other words, it’s full speed ahead.
He runs as if he were the novice underdog in a field of seasoned opponents. However, such is not the case at all.
He’s out there on the campaign trail all by his lonesome.
McWherter is certain that even before the first votes are cast or counted in the Aug. 5 primary election, he will be his party’s nominee for the high honor of becoming Tennessee’s 49th governor.
“If I vote for myself, I’ll be the Democratic nominee, and I plan to vote for myself,” he told The Messenger.
How can this be? A website tells the story. It lists all those who met the April 1 deadline for filing qualifying papers to run for governor.
On the list are one Democrat (McWherter), five Republicans and 14 Independents. What we have here is one of the most unusual situations in the annals of Tennessee politics.
“I don’t remember any time in the modern history of Tennessee that a major (political) party had only one candidate at this stage of the game on the ballot,” McWherter said.
“I am the only Democrat who qualified to run for governor.”
And as such, it gives him a “huge advantage.”
“It means I can start working on the coordinated campaign right now as opposed to having to wait until after the Aug. 5 primary,” he said.
“It really is a huge advantage, one that I did not anticipate happening, but I will certainly take full advantage of it.”
McWherter, 54, is the son of former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, a native son of Palmersville in Weakley County, and the late Bette Beck McWherter.
The elder McWherter began a public service career in 1968 when he was elected state representative; he finished it on Jan. 21, 1995, the last day of his two terms in office as Tennessee’s 46th governor.
He was Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives 1973-1987, and governor 1987-1995.
Now 79 and fully retired, he lives in Dresden. He is generally viewed as a venerable statesman and a popular public figure.
And yes, he retains a keen interest in all things political, especially his son’s gubernatorial campaign.
Preparing for battle
You could say that Mike McWherter grew up in a political family and that, thanks to his father, he has the luxury of instant name recognition. You could say that, and you’d be right.
But McWherter would be quick to tell you he isn’t resting on anybody’s laurels, he’s working hard to write his own script.
Although he may be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, he knows the day will come when he must face opponents who survive the Aug. 5 primary.
Up for grabs are the hearts and minds of the voters and the high honor of being Tennessee’s next governor. The campaign will undoubtedly include televised debates and a lively discussion of the issues.McWherter knows this, and he’s preparing himself for battle.
For Mike McWherter on the campaign trail, a wide smile and a strong handshake are not enough. He takes getting-to-know-you to a new height, working right alongside Tennesseans in their everyday jobs.
With a goal of visiting all 95 counties in the state by the April 1 deadline to file qualifying papers, he hit the road, so to speak.
“I’d made up my mind that I was going to run. I thought it was very important to be able to say I’ve been in all 95 counties by April 1,” he said.
The long haul, his personal odyssey to seek statewide support and endorsement for his campaign, includes a sobering statistic that would exhaust the average motorist.
He asserted that between Feb. 20 and the April 1 qualifying deadline, he put 14,000 miles on his car, “just making sure I went everywhere.”
He characterized visiting all 95 as “a big accomplishment,” and it was not just a drive-through thing, a ‘Hello. How are you?’ thing. It was a quality time thing.
“I didn’t want to be in a rush,” he said. “When I say that I’ve been in all 95 counties, I don’t mean I just drove through the county seats and blew the horn or bought gas or had lunch. I’ve tried to talk to the leadership about what their infrastructure needs are to create jobs.”
Jobs and jobs
What’s the one topic that keeps raising its head from county to county?
“No question about it. It’s about jobs, it’s about unemployment, it’s about what they need from state government to help them move their counties forward,” McWherter said.
“That’s why I thought I’d go to all 95 counties, so I could understand individually, county by county, what they need and what support they’re looking for and what I need to do as the next governor to help them be successful.”
And that brings us back to the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.
“Now as I go back and visit different regions of the state, one thing I do is stop off and work with Tennessee people,” he said.
“Last week I was at a (plant) nursery in Chester County. I spent the morning with their guys, shoveling mulch, talking to them about what their concerns are and what they want the state to do.
“Yesterday (June 2) I was in Columbia, working with a heating and air conditioning company. They’re putting in a new air conditioning unit in a church there. Tomorrow (June 4) I’ll be in Murfreesboro, working for a lumber company.”
His rationale? Quality time with everyday Tennesseans.
“I want to know what their concerns are, what they want to see state government produce, what they expect out of the next governor,” he said.
It is a strategy he likes, so much so that when he finishes one, he looks forward to the next.
He tries to fit one in his schedule every week and he’d like to work alongside John and Jane Doe in all 95 counties.
“I want to spend time with all kinds of different industries,” he said. “Next, I want to work at a car wash. Just do a little bit of everything.
“As I travel the state, I want to get a real-life perspective from people and what they expect Tennessee state government to deliver to them. It’s been a great experience. When you’re shoveling mulch, you get a chance to listen a whole lot. You get common-sense (suggestions) from real people who understand the realities of the budget crisis the state faces. Yet they help you establish what the priorities need to be.
“If you’ll listen to Tennesseans, you’ll find they know what they’re doing. They want (a governor) who understands the needs of working people and the needs of business. “If you listen more than you talk, you’ll find out a whole lot.”
“When my father was governor, it was important to open up rural areas to highways and roads,” he said.
“Now it’s equally important to be able to put infrastructure in place. The high-speed, broadband network (is something) that we’ve got to have to be competitive. And frankly, Kentucky is way ahead of us in that regard. Tennessee is still playing catch-up.
“The next governor needs to make sure there’s a focus on developing those kinds of infrastructure services that industry needs to be able to be competitive in this state and for us to attract industry in here.”
McWherter, 54, owns the Anheuser Busch distributorship in Jackson. He is a member of the First State Bank board of directors and former chairman of the board.
He is also a member of the Jackson Energy Authority board of directors.
“I’m proud of that service, too,” he said. “We do everything from natural gas to electricity to wastewater. An important thing we do is provide a high-speed broadband Internet access to our commercial and residential customers. That has really been important for Jackson’s ability to retain industry and make it competitive and able to attract new industry.”
He and his wife, Mary Jane, have a son, Walker Ray McWherter, and a daughter, Bess.
“Their mother has done a really good job of raising them,” he said. “I’ve tried to be supportive, but I give the credit to my wife.”
If Mike McWherter wins the Nov. 2 general election, he will make history in more ways than one. It may be the first time in state history that a father and son were elected governor. “Yeah, but I’m not interested in that,” he told The Messenger.
“What I’m more interested in is the future of Tennessee. I know this state needs strong leadership and I think I’m the one who’s best positioned to provide it.”
A lot of thought
He said he’s given the jobs issue a lot of thought, that he has consulted UT economist Bill Fox about what needs to be done to move Tennessee forward.
“I’m convinced we need somebody who has a business background, has met a payroll, who understands what it is to provide health care benefits and someone who has actually written a budget themselves and had to live with it,” he said.
“Those are qualities I bring to this race. These are things I’ve thought about long and hard. We need strong leadership to do this.”
But what if?
What if Mike McWherter loses the general election on Nov. 2?
Has he thought about it?
He has. And he’s not worried at all.
“I had an extremely nice life before I decided to run for governor,” he said. “I have a lovely wife and two wonderful children.
“Regardless of whether I get elected, they are all going to be a major part of my life, and I will enjoy spending the rest of the years God gives me with my family, either as governor or not as governor.”
Editor’s note: John Brannon is a staff reporter for the Union City Daily Messenger.