Sen. Lamar Alexander (R)
Elected: 2002, term expires 2014, 2nd term.
Born: July 3, 1940, Maryville .
Education: Vanderbilt U., B.A. 1962, N.Y.U., J.D. 1965.
Family: Married (Honey); 4 children.
Elected office: TN governor, 1978-86.
Professional Career: Pres., Univ. of TN, 1988-91; U.S. Edu. Sect., 1991-93; Co-director, Empower America, 1994-95; Prof., Harvard U. JFK Schl. of Govt., 2001-02.
Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and Education secretary, was elected to the Senate in 2002 and is the state’s senior senator. Alexander grew up Maryville, in East Tennessee between Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains, the son of a principal and a teacher. He started piano lessons at age 4 and still plays. Like former President Bill Clinton, he was elected governor of Boys State, the high school summer leadership program run by the American Legion. He graduated from Vanderbilt University, where in the early 1960s he wrote editorials for the school newspaper The Hustler urging integration. He got a law degree from New York University, then clerked for Judge John Minor Wisdom of the Fifth Circuit federal appeals court. In 1966, he wrote Howard Baker, then the Republican candidate for Senate, and volunteered for his Senate campaign against Democrat Frank Clement. Instead, Baker gave him a job, establishing a critical connection in Alexander’s career. After Baker won, Alexander went to work on his Washington staff. In 1969, on Baker’s recommendation, Alexander got a job working for Republican President Richard Nixon’s congressional liaison Bryce Harlow. On a trip back to Tennessee in 1970, he met Memphis dentist Winfield Dunn, who was running for governor. Alexander agreed to manage his campaign and Dunn became the first Republican elected governor in 50 years. Alexander decided that next time he would be the candidate, and in 1974, at age 34, he ran for governor. He ran a conventional campaign and in that Watergate year, he lost 55%-44% to Democratic U.S. Rep. Ray Blanton.
|Lamar Alexander (R)||1,579,477||(65%)||($4,571,728)|
|Robert Tuke (D)||767,236||(32%)||($751,915)|
|Lamar Alexander (R)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (54%)
He ran again in 1978, but this time with a more colorful campaign strategy: Wearing a red plaid shirt, Alexander walked 1,000 miles across Tennessee. He won 56%-44%. After the election Blanton started issuing many pardons of criminals, who, it would turn out, were paying him bribes. The U.S. attorney urged that Alexander be sworn in three days early, and Democratic legislative leaders and the state’s chief justice agreed. In a hurried ceremony, Alexander took the oath and announced that he was naming Fred Thompson, famous for his work as Baker’s chief counsel in the Senate Watergate hearings, as a special prosecutor. As governor, Alexander got Nissan to build its first American plant in Rutherford County and General Motors to build its Saturn plant in Williamson County. The plants became the sparkplugs of rapid growth in the counties around Nashville. He was re-elected 60%-40% in 1982. After leaving office, he spent six months living in Australia, writing a book called Six Months Off. In 1988, he became president of the University of Tennessee and in 1991, he was appointed George H.W. Bush’s Education secretary. In these years, he also reaped big profits from small investments: An option to buy the Knoxville Journal was sold to Gannett and yielded $620,000; an option given for his consultant work at Whittle Communications earned him $330,000. Alexander started a company called Corporate Child Care and is still part-owner.
The year 1994 turned out to be a good one for Tennessee Republicans. Thompson and Bill Frist were elected to the Senate and Don Sundquist was elected governor. Alexander probably could have won either office. But he was after bigger things; he was running for president. His 1996 campaign was keyed to the mood of 1994: He campaigned as an outsider, wore his red plaid shirt and called, as Baker often had, for citizen-politicians. Of members of Congress, he said, “Cut their pay and bring them home!” His bumper stickers said, “Lamar!” But he also had a sophisticated message, based on the idea that the nation needed more decentralized government. He had a superb fundraising organization that made Nashville one of the leading Republican money sources in the nation. He hired top-notch political consultants and good organizers in Iowa and New Hampshire. Alexander finished third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Kansas’ Bob Dole and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and ahead of magazine publisher Steve Forbes. New Hampshire was his best chance for a breakthrough. Dole, the favorite, had been concentrating his fire on Buchanan. But five days before the primary, Dole began running ads attacking Alexander. This was shrewd strategy. Buchanan was likely to do well in New Hampshire, but probably could never be nominated. The candidate who finished second in New Hampshire would likely be his chief rival and Dole would easily win the nomination. So it turned out. Buchanan did win, with 27% of the vote, to 26% for Dole and 23% for Alexander.
In 1999, Alexander started running for president again. But the plaid shirt and the 1994-style themes failed to resonate. George W. Bush, with his celebrity and his fundraising, dominated the race, and Forbes’ extensive, expensive campaigning in Iowa left little room for Alexander. His fundraising faltered and after his disappointing sixth-place finish in the August 1999 Ames, Iowa, straw poll, he dropped out and endorsed Bush. He didn’t go to the 2000 Republican National Convention, though, he revealed later, he was interviewed by Dick Cheney as a possible vice presidential nominee. Critical of the frontloaded presidential primary calendar, Alexander in 2007 was a chief co-sponsor of legislation to implement a system of rotating regional primaries. “If professional football were presidential politics, SportsCenter would pick the Super Bowl teams after two pre-season games,” he told The Tennessean.
Then, in March 2002, just 27 days before the filing deadline, Thompson announced that he would not run for re-election. He gave Alexander a heads-up on his decision, allowing Alexander to get his campaign underway shortly after Thompson made his announcement. He started with 93% name recognition in the state and 66% of voters had favorable feelings toward him. Republican U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant of suburban Memphis also got into the race even though some Republicans tried to talk him out of it. His campaign theme was that he was the real conservative in the race. But Alexander also campaigned as a conservative. On talk radio shows, he ran a series of “plain talk” ads taking conservative stands on taxes, the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, charter schools and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Bryant’s ads called him “the one without the plaid shirt” and urged, “Don’t be plaid. Be solid for Bryant.” Alexander was endorsed on March 12 by Gov. Sundquist, unpopular with many of his fellow Republicans for his advocacy of a state income tax. Bryant noted that Alexander increased the sales and gasoline taxes when he was governor. But Alexander won 54%-43%.
In the general election, his opponent was U.S. Rep. Bob Clement, who started with good name identification. He had been elected a congressman from Nashville, the center of the state’s largest media market, in 1988. Like Alexander, he had been a university president, of Cumberland University. Clement had a relatively moderate voting record, having supported the Bush tax cuts and the 2002 Iraq war resolution. But much of the campaign dialogue concerned their business investments. Clement said Alexander was a political insider who became wealthy through political connections. Alexander charged that Clement, while public service commissioner in the 1970s, served on the board of one of the banks of Jake Butcher, Alexander’s 1978 opponent, whose banks imploded in scandal in the 1980s. Clement at first denied that he’d served on the board, and then said it was just an advisory board a decade before the scandal. Alexander said that Clement had voted 143 times to raise taxes and asserted Clement would be part of “that crowd” voting against President Bush.
Alexander won 54%-44%. He won 63% in his native (and ancestrally Republican) East Tennessee, which cast nearly 40% of the votes. Clement carried Nashville’s Davidson County and rural counties in Middle Tennessee, but Alexander carried the fast-growing ring of suburban counties around Nashville and held Clement to 53% in his home area. In West Tennessee, Alexander made some inroads among Memphis blacks and carried the rural counties.
And so a politician who ran for governor at 34 became a senator at 62. On his office wall, he mounted not the usual array of framed photographs but a 27-foot authentic barn wall, with 40 antique items (a guitar made of matches, a banjo made from a fruitcake tin) on loan from the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn. As a former governor and cabinet secretary, he got a little seniority over other freshmen, and he joined his Tennessee colleague, Majority Leader Frist, on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. There he worked on successful bills to help states ensure special education teachers meet federal standards, to permit parents more choice in special education services, and to create summer academies for teachers and students to study American history. Another Alexander proposal was legislation creating $4,000 scholarships for private schools for students in failing public schools.
He differed with the Bush administration on the environment. He joined Delaware Democrat Tom Carper’s bill that would limit emissions of carbon dioxide as well as other pollutants, and created a system of emissions trading, both of which the White House opposed. Air pollution had been high in Knoxville and threatening the tourism industry in the Smoky Mountains area. To counter the effects of a federal court ruling, he also pushed to restrict emissions from coal-fired power plants. For his ongoing support of the Great Smoky Mountains and its environmental quality, researchers in 2007 named a newly discovered bug in the park after Alexander, calling it the lamaralexandrei. Its checkerboard markings reminded them of Alexander’s trademark red and black flannel shirts.
In the deliberations on the energy bill in 2005, Alexander proposed an amendment to give local governments a veto over wind power projects and to require environmental impact statements of such projects in offshore areas and within 20 miles of scenic areas and military bases. “At a time when America needs large amounts of low-cost reliable power, wind produces puny amounts of high-cost unreliable power,” he said. He won passage of an amendment providing a 30% solar investment tax credit for homeowners. Alexander has continued to champion alternative energy, and even purchased a Toyota Prius with a special battery making the vehicle entirely electric.
He took more traditionally conservative positions on immigration. After the well-publicized singing of the national anthem in Spanish (“Nuestro Himno”), Alexander sponsored a successful resolution stating that the anthem and similar songs should be sung in English, and he supported a measure designating English as the national language. In 2008, he introduced a bill to protect employers from language-based anti-discrimination lawsuits.
With his Tennessee colleague Frist retiring, and Whip Mitch McConnell likely to replace him as Senate leader, Alexander started in summer 2005 to gather votes for the position of Republican whip. His likely opponent seemed to be Pennsylvania conservative Rick Santorum, and in mid-October 2006, when Santorum was trailing badly in polls for re-election in Pennsylvania, Alexander said he had enough support to win. He said he wouldn’t run later for party leader: “I’m glad at this stage in my career to play second fiddle.” Santorum lost, but six days after the election, Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader from Mississippi, announced he was running. Alexander said he still had enough votes. But Lott won by a 25-24 secret ballot vote. “Senators, like most Americans, like a comeback. Trent proved he is a better vote counter,” Alexander said.
As consolation, Alexander was awarded seats on the Appropriations and Environment and Public Works Committees in the 110th Congress (2007-08). He formed a Bipartisan Members Group with independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to meet at breakfast every Tuesday. On the Iraq War, he and Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar urged Bush to set goals for troop withdrawals. While opposed to a fixed end date, Alexander pushed for troops to transition into training Iraqi forces to defend themselves. He angered both sides in the debate because he didn’t fit neatly into either camp. He told the New York Times, “We just can’t keep shouting at one another. I think it is inexcusable for United States senators to be lecturing Baghdad about being in a political stalemate, yet we can’t come up with a consensus ourselves.”
When Lott resigned from the Senate in December 2007, Alexander again saw a chance to move up in the party ranks. With Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona expected to become minority whip, Alexander announced he would run for the vacant Conference chairman slot. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr also declared his candidacy and began to pull some support from younger conservatives. But Alexander prevailed, winning on the secret ballot 31-16. As the party’s chief spokesman, he turned his attention to courting independent voters. He set a moderate tone, hoping to chart the same path for fellow Republicans as he had for himself in the past year—work with Democrats to get Republican policies passed rather than simply attack Democratic ideas. One of his first tests was the debate over the 2008 economic stimulus bill. As Minority Leader McConnell worked to block a Democratic bill and force Majority Leader Harry Reid to accept a simple tax rebate bill, Alexander promoted the idea that the plan should be bipartisan while also trying to hold together a diverse party. “We have 49 senators with very different points of view,” Alexander told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “My job is not to make us all sing the same note. It’s to make us sing at least in some harmony.” After Republicans suffered more losses at the polls in November 2008, Alexander argued that his bipartisan approach was even more salient and also urged GOP leaders not to give up on African-American voters. “You have to make it clear that you want to earn the respect and support of Democrats and independents,” he told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Alexander was up for re-election in 2008, but his path to a second term was relatively effortless. After more prominent Tennessee Democrats passed on the race, former state Democratic Chairman Robert Tuke got his party’s nomination, but mustered only slightly more than $700,000 in fundraising compared to Alexander’s $8.3 million. Tuke tried to paint Alexander as a Bush lackey, but the assertion did not ring true. Alexander prevailed 65%-32%, winning 94 of 95 counties.