Zach Wamp sure can talk in code sometimes.
Wamp was answering a question Monday night at a gubernatorial forum at Lipscomb University about how to keep young talent in the state when he said, “This is no time for a status quo governor. I’m running because I have an agenda, not because I finally found something to do.”
Found something to do? What was that about? Who’s he needling?
Wamp can always be counted on to get in a veiled little dig at an opponent. Was this supposed to be a knock on Mike McWherter, the only Democrat in the race, who is just now running for public office after a business career? Don’t think so. That left only Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam as the target, since Haslam was the only other opponent on the stage. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, one of the three Republican contenders in the race, wasn’t there.
A few minutes earlier, Haslam had answered a question about his aspirations to be governor by recounting his career.
“I didn’t grow up wanting to be governor,” Haslam said. “I didn’t grow up thinking I would be in public life. I went to school thinking I might teach, then go to seminary. After awhile, I decided I would go into business and see if I liked that, and for 20-plus years I did that, and I loved it. I loved being part of a growing company and being challenged in that way.”
Haslam continued by saying people approached him to run for mayor and explained how every now and then you do something and say, “This is what fits. This is where my gifts and talents fit best, where I can help the most.”
He went on about how when he ran for mayor, he ran with the idea that years as a successful businessman were great preparation for being mayor. He explained, as he often does, how executive experience in business and in government may be different but have many similarites, affecting how you make decisions, how you budget, how you prioritize. It was the kind of stuff a candidate with executive experience in the public and private sectors would be expected to say.
So while Haslam was explaining how different lessons in the public and private sectors have prepared him to be Tennessee’s next governor, Wamp might have heard something different. What Wamp heard might have been a guy who sounded like he couldn’t make up his mind about what he wanted to do in life, a guy who drifted from one good break to another, a man who sort of fell into one nice job after another. Aimless. Unfocused. Fortunate.
Wamp never said any of that. He might not have meant it. But you have to fill in the blanks with Wamp. You never quite know if you’ve got it right. Wamp speaks in code. The burden is on you to figure it out.
So, Zach, just what did you mean?
“I had been listening to the debate, and I had laid out a clear reason as to why I was running for governor, and I heard another candidate saying basically, ‘I finally found something to do,'” Wamp said after Monday’s forum.
“This blows my mind here. We’re 16 and a half months into the most important decision our state is going to make for a long time, and you better, our party better, nominate a candidate with a clear vision of why they’re running and what the purpose is, and I have laid it out in clear terms, and 67 days til early voting I think it’s pretty clear, the contrast.”
At least there’s your answer. If it’s about party it’s about a Republican, and since there was only one other Republican on the stage…
So, Mayor Haslam, what did you think? Was the gentleman from Chattanooga talking about you?
“I have no idea,” Haslam said. “I have plenty to do. I’m not looking for something to do. I am looking to serve the best way that I can, and I honestly feel that I’ve done that as mayor, and I think I can do that as governor as well.”
When one candidate in a race is trying to stay above the fray and another is cleverly sneaking in jabs, it leaves the rest of us to fill in the blanks. And among the blanks to be filled would be that one candidate is in control — that is, probably in the lead — and the other is the underdog.
Is Haslam leading nothing more than a charmed life? Is he a man who can’t make up his mind? Is Wamp the man with a plan but unappreciated for it? And is Ramsey’s famous boot intended for Washington in general or Wamp in particular?
Candidates are leaving a lot to de-code between now and Aug. 5, the primary date, with early voting before that. And while everyone deciphers who means what about whom, you do get the feeling that running for governor matters a lot to the people seeking the job. It’s a pretty big to-do.