In Debate, McWherter Tars Haslam as Uncaring Technocrat



He's aliiiiiiiiiiiiiive! Mike McWherter showed a faint pulse and even a little brain activity in tonight's gubernatorial campaign debate in Cookeville. In his own bumbling way, he might have succeeded in dampening the ardor of some voters for Bill Haslam. For most of the hourlong debate, McWherter was content to repeat the mind-numbing monologues he's been forced to memorize for this campaign. But as things got interesting when the candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, the Son of Ned presented himself as the one who cares the most about families suffering in this economy. At the same time, he painted Haslam as a cold-hearted technocrat who can't see beyond the latest balance sheet.

It took a little help from Haslam, who played the caricature by harping on the necessity of cutting the state budget. He berated McWherter for casting the state's financial picture in a rosy light. Haslam was correct: McWherter is blowing off serious money problems and seems blissfully ignorant of some of the actual numbers. Unfortunately for the Knoxville mayor, he sounded like the ultimate bean counter in making the point, and that let even the drowsy McWherter come across as the forward-thinking can-do guy in the contest.

"You just said that the stimulus funds were used on truly one-time things," Haslam told McWherter. "I think your quote last week was on things like furniture and carpet. But I’ve been spending the last year traveling around and I’ve spent a lot of time on the budget. I know that higher education, like this institution here, has about $300 million in this budget that’s not going to be there next year that’s going away. TennCare, hardly one-time expenses, over $400 million. Are you really unaware of that? And if so, can you explain how you don’t know that?"

McWherter's comeback? "I believe if we can get people to work in this state, then we will have the revenue to move forward."

Haslam tried again, demanding to know how McWherter plans to pay for expanding pre-kindergarten classes, giving tax breaks to job-creating businesses or bringing broadband Internet access to rural Tennessee. McWherter took the opportunity to slap Haslam as miserly and uncaring.

"Yes, I have talked about putting broadband out into all of our rural communities. … It’s been key to our being able to recruit and maintain industry in West Tennessee. I don’t care if it’s from the private sector or if it’s from public utilities. We need to make sure that we’ve got that kind of access. You know, when my father was governor, it was all about building roads into our rural communities and being able to recruit jobs there. Now, it’s not only about roads. It’s about having that infrastructure in place. We have to have that in order to be able to recruit jobs into our rural communities. Bill, I’ve disappointed that you don’t understand what we’ve got to have out in our rural areas to be able to bring jobs in there. It’s absolutely key to being able to maintain jobs and being able to recruit jobs."

In closing the debate, Haslam stubbornly dwelled again on "making hard budget decisions." McWherter talked about struggling workers and businesses and gave his most succinct and persuasive statement yet for why voters should choose him instead of Haslam for governor.

"I’ve done things a little differently in my campaign. I’ve been out working side by side with Tennesseans. I’ve bused tables. I’ve stacked plywood. I’ve even shoveled a little fertilizer. And I can tell you, Tennesseans are hard-working people. They don’t want a hand-out. What they want is a decent day’s pay for a day’s work. And they want a governor who’s on their side, someone who is looking out for their interest. … There are too many Tennesseans who are out of work right now. There are too many Tennessee businesses that have shut their doors. There are too many people who have not had a pay raise in a long time. Bill says there is very little you can do to help. I think he’s wrong. I think the oil business teaches you all the wrong lessons, lessons like well we can jack up prices on gasoline when people are fleeing a hurricane. I think that’s just wrong, and I don’t care how you spin it. I quote Lamar Alexander when he said, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I learned an entirely different lesson from my father. The role of being governor is to work with Tennessee families."

Reports from Tom Humphrey ... Andy Sher ... Rick Locker ... and Chas Sisk.


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