Tennessee: Junior Senator|
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R)
Last Updated July 14, 2003
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R)
1st term up 2008
July 3, 1940,
Vanderbilt U., B.A. 1962, N.Y.U., J.D. 1965
TN Governor, 1978-86.
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.
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Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee and Secretary of Education, was elected Tennessee's junior senator in 2002. 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 4 and still plays. Like Bill Clinton, he was elected governor of Boys State. He graduated from Vanderbilt, where he wrote editorials in the Hustler urging integration, and New York University Law School; he clerked for Judge John Minor Wisdom of the Fifth Circuit federal appeals court. Alexander was always a Republican, and in 1966 he wrote Howard Baker, then the Republican candidate for Senate, and volunteered for his Senate campaign against Frank Clement; Baker gave him a job--the critical connection in Alexander's career. In 1967 he served on Baker's staff in Washington; briefly he lived in a group house with a Democratic congressional staffer named Trent Lott. In 1969, on Baker's recommendation, Alexander got a job working for Bryce Harlow in Richard Nixon's White House. On a trip back to Tennessee to scout the possibilities of running against Senator Albert Gore Sr. 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. He decided that next time he would be the candidate, so in 1974, at 34, he ran for governor. He ran a conventional campaign and in that Watergate year lost 55%-44% to Democratic Congressman Ray Blanton.
He ran again in 1978, but differently this time: Wearing a red plaid shirt, he walked 1,000 miles across Tennessee. This time he won 56%-44%. After the election Blanton started issuing many pardons of criminals: It turned out that he was taking bribes. To stop him, the U.S. Attorney, a Democrat, urged that Alexander be sworn in three days early; 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 from 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; they became the sparkplugs of rapid growth in the counties around Nashville. He passed a Master Teacher program, with merit pay. He was reelected 60%-40% in 1982. In 1987, out of office and with young children, Alexander and his family moved to Australia for six months; he later wrote a book about the experience. In 1988 he became president of the University of Tennessee and in 1991 he became the first George 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 became $330,000. Alexander started a company called Corporate Child Care and is still part-owner. Critics said he benefited from good connections; he said, "I plead guilty to being a capitalist."
In 1993 he went to work at the Nashville office of Baker's law firm. The next year turned out to be a good Republican year in Tennessee: Fred 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; and he hired top notch political consultants and brilliant organizers in Iowa and New Hampshire. Alexander finished third in the Iowa caucuses, behind Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan and ahead of Steve Forbes. New Hampshire was his best chance for a breakthrough. He flew from Des Moines to Manchester the night of the caucuses and began rallying the impressive organization he had built. 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 into New Hampshire but obviously could never be nominated; the candidate who finished second in New Hampshire would likely be his chief rival and would easily win the nomination. So it turned out. But the second-place finisher in New Hampshire nearly wasn't Dole. Buchanan did win, with 27% of the vote, to 26% for Dole and 23% for Alexander. Alexander finished just 7,590 votes behind Dole; if those negative ads hadn't run, he might have finished second, Dole might have dropped out and Alexander might have been the Republican nominee in 1996. If he had run well--and he was the candidate Clinton strategists feared most--he might have had a head start in the 2000 presidential race, and a lot of recent history might have been different.
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 Steve Forbes's 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 within days and endorsed Bush. He didn't go to the 2000 Republican National Convention; he said he had run his last race for public office. He concentrated on his business interests and taught courses at Harvard in the 2002 spring semester.
Then, on Friday, March 8, just 27 days before the filing deadline, Senator Fred Thompson announced that he would not run for reelection. In 2001 Thompson openly pondered not running, then finally was persuaded to do so by Republicans who were confident he could win easily. Then his daughter died; he decided not to seek reelection. He gave Alexander a head-up on his decision, and on Monday, March 11 Alexander announced.
Alexander's candidacy was welcome to the Bush White House and to Bill Frist, chairman of the Republicans' Senate campaign committee; a 2001 poll by Alexander's pollster Whit Ayres showed that 93% of voters could identify him, though he had not campaigned in Tennessee in 20 years, and that 66% of voters had favorable feelings toward him and only 16% unfavorable. But other politicians wanted to run. Nashville's Democratic Congressman Bob Clement, son of three-term Governor Frank Clement, made it clear he was interested. Gore said he wasn't interested, but for a few days Tipper Gore considered running; on March 17, after a meeting with Clement, she said she would not. Clement announced the next day. When suburban Memphis Congressman Ed Bryant said he might run, some Republicans tried to talk him out of it; it was clear he would start out behind in a four-month race. But on April 1 he announced.
Bryant's campaign theme was that he was the real conservative in the race. "I'm emphasizing consistency," he said. "Depending on where he is in the country, he tends to get more moderate. It's a little like Al Gore." But Alexander campaigned as a conservative, backing individual investment accounts in Social Security, permanent tax cuts, school vouchers (a "G.I. Bill for kids") and a two-year federal budget cycle. On talk radio shows, whose listeners are very likely to be Republican primary voters, he ran a series of "plain talk" ads taking conservative stands on taxes, campaign finance, the Pledge of Allegiance, Judge Charles Pickering, 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 Governor Don Sundquist, unpopular with many of his fellow Republicans for his advocacy of a state income tax. Bryant charged that Alexander had favored an income tax when he was governor. Alexander replied that he had considered an income tax as one of several alternatives and "rejected it." Bryant noted that he did increase the sales and gasoline taxes. The results of the August 1 primary suggest that voters were divided not on ideological but on regional grounds. Alexander won overall 54%-43%; Bryant had made some gains from initial polls. But Alexander carried the smaller counties of East and Middle Tennessee by 2-1 margins and carried the Knoxville and Chattanooga metro areas by wide margins; he led narrowly in metro Nashville.
Alexander began running ads immediately after the primary and did not stop until November; Clement didn't put ads up until mid-September. But Clement started with good name identification: He had been elected congressman from Nashville, the center of the state's largest media market, starting in January 1988. He like Alexander was a university president (Cumberland University). Clement had a relatively moderate voting record: He voted for the Bush tax cuts and in October 2002 for the Iraq war resolution. They differed on Social Security, prescription drugs, and campaign finance regulation. 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 opponent in 1978, and whose banks imploded in scandal in the 1980s. Clement at first denied that he'd served on the board, then said it was just an advisory board, and that he had served a decade before the scandal. Alexander said that Clement had voted 143 times to raise taxes and attacked him for backing Senate Democrats' stand on homeland security; he said Clement would be part of "that crowd" voting against George W. Bush.
Alexander led in polls all along, though the lead narrowed as partisan lines strengthened: He 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, for 50% in this (ancestrally Democratic) region. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton introduced him at his victory party.
And so a politician who ran for governor at 34 became a senator at 62. As a former governor and cabinet secretary, he got a little seniority over other freshmen, and he joined his Tennessee colleague, Majority Leader Bill Frist, on the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee.
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