Republican race for Tanner’s seat getting heated
Posted: Monday, July 19, 2010 9:02 pm
JACKSON (AP) — When Crockett County farmer Stephen Fincher decided to run for Congress last year, it was as a long shot Republican challenger to longtime incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. John Tanner of Union City.
Since then, Tanner has announced his retirement from the 8th House District seat, and three more Republican candidates — physicians Ron Kirkland of Jackson and George Flinn of Memphis and Randy Smith of Mercer — have entered the fray to succeed him.
Fincher, an early favorite of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has meanwhile had to deflect criticism that he is too close with the congressional incumbents who support him, that he has voted in recent local Democratic primaries and that he has taken federal farm subsidies while at the same time railing against out-of-control federal spending.
Fincher told reporters after a recent candidate forum in Jackson that “a lot of spin” has been put on his early conversations with GOP congressmen about his bid.
“I said: ‘Boys, no offense, but I’m a farmer from Frog Jump, and I’m going to stand up for my country,”’ Fincher said. “And a lot of things Republicans have done, I don’t like. But we need conservative leadership.”
Fincher has drawn contributions from House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio, Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana, among others.
Kirkland, an Obion County native, has been the most vocal critic of Fincher’s candidacy and said after the forum that he doesn’t believe Fincher wouldn’t be beholden to the Republican leadership if elected.
“I do not think it’s realistic; I think it’s a statement made for political purposes,” Kirkland said. “He is obligated to those people.”
Fincher has also grappled with ways to explain the federal farm subsidies and loans he has received over his two decades of farming, which the Kirkland campaign peg at $3.2 million. Fincher argues he has no control over the rules of the program and he has not been personally enriched by the federal money.
“It is a complicated program, there are many facets of the farm program, and the truth is we need a better system than we have,” Fincher said. “I do receive farm payments, it’s just the facts.
“But on average I make between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, net income,” he said.
Fincher has voted in four Democratic primaries in Crockett County since 2002 and only voted in the Republican contest in 2006. His campaign has noted there was no Republican primary for local offices in those years, but that didn’t stop one GOP activist from asking state party chairman Chris Devaney to consider stripping Fincher of his Republican credentials. Devaney declined.
The Fincher campaign has launched its own attacks on Kirkland for once making personal contributions to Tanner, who has served 11 terms in Congress, and to Democratic state Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson.
Even more damning, according to Fincher, were larger contributions made by a political action committee while Kirkland helped run the Jackson Clinic, including a total of $8,000 to the presumptive Democratic nominee in the race, state Sen. Roy Herron of Dresden.
Kirkland at the candidate forum hosted by talk radio host Mike Slater said the PAC money reflected the aims of the Jackson Clinic and not his personal political beliefs. The donations to Tanner and Finney were because of his personal relationships with them, he said.
“Many of you in this audience have voted for Democrats before, many of you have given money to Democrats,” he said. “I gave my friends a little bit of money — that money is dwarfed by the money I gave to good Republicans.”
Kirkland has also been challenged for his role as chairman of the American Medical Group Association in pushing for the inclusion of an $18,000 incentive for doctors to adopt electronic medical records. That money was part of the federal stimulus package that Kirkland said he opposed.
Kirkland said he now looks at that incentive differently than he did when he was in charge of the trade association, and that he would now refuse it if it was offered to him.
“As a joke, I was going to say I’ll give back my $18,000 when Mr. Fincher gives back his $3.2 million,” Kirkland said to a smattering of boos at the candidate forum.
Flinn, a Shelby County commissioner who owns dozens of radio and television stations, has been the least likely to go on the attack so far. He has had to defend questions about why he is running for the 8th District seat when he lives in the neighboring 9th District.
Flinn said he has long practiced medicine and owned property throughout the 8th District, and that the heavy Democratic advantage in his home district would make it impossible to win.
“This is where my heart is, this is the district where I can do the most good,” he said.
“If someone’s going to hold it against me because I live a couple miles outside an imaginary line, they’ll have to just hold it against me.”
The primary election is Aug. 5.
Published in The Messenger 7.19.10