Southern Man

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JANUARY 31, 2005

Southern Man

Trap-shooting rarely qualifies a candidate for public office, but,
in 2002, it helped decide the Tennessee governor's race. Sometime
that summer, a range owner in eastern Tennessee got wind that both
candidates--former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, and
Representative Van Hilleary, a Republican--were avid hunters. As a
way to bring his range a little publicity, he challenged the
candidates to what he called the Great Tennessee Trap Shoot, to be
held over the Labor Day weekend. A souped-up version of skeet, trap
involves shotgunning clay pigeons from a variety of positions as
they hurtle through the air. In other words, the shootout wouldn't
be your typical election season meet-and-greet. In fact, it is hard
to imagine why a candidate would actually agree to such a
contest--who wants to be publicly bested by his opponent over
something as tricky, and as trifling, as trap-shooting? But
Bredesen agreed immediately; after all, he told me recently, "I was
a reasonably good hunting wing [bird] shot, and that was something
you couldn't learn in a day. And so it would help me with the NRA."
On the morning of the event, however, Hilleary was nowhere to be
found. His campaign insisted he had already committed to a
fund-raising picnic, but the event in question didn't take place
until the afternoon, leaving Hilleary enough time to do both.
Bredesen showed up anyway, soaking in the free publicity and getting
in a good round of trap--while his surrogates had a free-for-all
with the Republican's misstep. "Van talks a big game about being a
sportsman," Bredesen's campaign adviser, Dave Cooley, told the
Memphis Commercial Appeal. "But ducking out of this event proves
he's more comfortable taking political shots at Phil from his
Washington, D.C., office."There are other reasons why Bredesen wound up winning the race. He
had been a popular two-term mayor; the outgoing governor, Don
Sundquist, was an unpopular Republican; and Hilleary ran a poor
campaign. But, in the end, Bredesen won for many of the reasons
crystallized by the Great Tennessee Trap Shoot: his unabashed
self-confidence; his down-home, red-meat appeal; and his ability to
morph from easygoing outdoorsman to skilled politician when the
opportunity arises. These qualities--as well as his aggressive
efforts to cut the state's deficit and rein in TennCare, its
fiscally draining Medicaid supplement--also explain why, since
taking office, he has achieved stratospheric approval ratings.
According to pollsters at Middle Tennessee State University, his
ratings have hovered between 63 and 72 percent--among both
Republicans and Democrats. "People just like him because of his
style," says Pete Sain, a friend of Bredesen who owns a
construction company in Manchester, Tennessee. "I've got some
close, die-hard Republican friends, and they feel like his approach
is needed." He is, by some accounts, the most popular governor in
state history.

Clearly, Bredesen has figured out something about Southern politics
that many national Democrats have missed, which is why a growing
number of them are looking to his career as a model for how to win
in the region. And, at first glance, he does appear to be the
perfect test case for those on the left trying to "figure out" the
South. Not only is he liberal, he is not even Southern--he was
raised in New York and educated at Harvard. The problem, however, is
that, while Bredesen has proved himself an able politician with a
bright future, his success will be hard for others to replicate.
Not only is Tennessee a political anomaly--a moderate state in an
often immoderate region--but, over the last decade, the entire
South, Tennessee included, has been falling further into partisan
extremism and cultural conservatism. Largely by appealing to
Christian conservatives, Republicans have won the last ten
open-seat Senate races in the region, and they hold a 40-seat lead
over Democrats in the House's Southern delegation. A recent
analysis of Southern voting patterns by the Los Angeles Times
concluded that, "under Bush, the GOP is solidifying its hold not
just on Southern white conservatives but white moderates as well,"
with more people willing to vote straight-ticket. Democrats used to
refer to their hold on the region as the "Solid South," and
"Republican" used to be a grave insult. These days, you scorn your
enemies with "Democrat."

But Bredesen, thanks to a unique blend of personality and political
skill, has defied such attacks, and, in so doing, has positioned
himself as a potential White House candidate in 2008. Earlier this
month, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National
Committee (DNC) regional caucus, and he has quietly begun laying
the groundwork for a possible presidential bid. Given his
background, Bredesen is the last person you would expect to find
shooting trap on an East Tennessee farm or leading an increasingly
red state. And yet there he is. Now some Democrats are beginning to
think Bredesen is exactly the sort of person they want to see
leading the party in 2008.

Nashville has changed a lot since Bredesen first ran for office
there in 1987. Today, it is a bustling New South metropolis, having
added some 250,000 people, an NFL team, and a 3,000-employee Dell
plant over the last decade. A new symphony hall is going up just
south of Broadway, a few blocks from the soon-to-be-built baseball
stadium and in a neighborhood that, 20 years ago, was a seedy
district of empty warehouses and strip bars. Part of Nashville's
problem back then was a clique of hidebound conservative and urban
Democrats who were heavily invested--politically and
financially--in keeping the city a sleepy backwater. Many of those
politicians came out for the 1987 mayoral race, and so did a former
health care executive and political novice named Phil Bredesen.
"Nashville in 1987, although it was beginning to change, hadn't
yet," says Tam Gordon, a former political reporter who now works in
Bredesen's office. "And suddenly, there's this name. He had a lot
of nerve."

Those who knew Bredesen respected him for his business acumen. After
graduating with a physics degree, he spent several years as a
computer programmer in Boston before moving to Nashville in 1975.
In 1980 he launched a health care management outfit from a computer
in his den; when he sold it six years later, it was a
$700-million-a-year, New York Stock Exchange-listed operation. But
Bredesen's wealth and Northern roots proved a liability in what was
still a quiet Southern town, and his opponents effectively labeled
him a carpetbagger. The attacks caught Bredesen off guard, in large
part because his advisers were mostly businessmen, not politicos.
"That campaign had almost nobody who had any political experience,"
says Byron Trauger, a longtime Bredesen adviser. Bredesen tried to
ignore the taunts, pushing the focus back toward issues like a
proposal to allow pari-mutuel betting in the state. "He was
wide-eyed and somewhat awkward," Gordon says. "He was very focused
on what he wanted to say and what he wanted to do and what he
thought"--a fact Bredesen himself readily concedes. "I would go
into things like giving a speech back in 1987, and I would think
through the issues really carefully, but what I didn't understand
was, that's not the basis on which people select you."

Needless to say, Bredesen is not a natural politician. He lacks the
offhand charm of John Edwards and the back-slapping verve of Bill
Richardson. His stocky build and sandy blond hair betray his
Scandinavian heritage, as does his reticence when it comes to
self-promotion--a decidedly negative quality in Southern politics.
"I'm a very quiet guy," he says from behind his massive desk in the
governor's office. "I grew up in a family in which the strong,
silent type was upheld." Trauger recalls walking with Bredesen in
downtown Nashville just after that first mayoral race. "Several
people, as we walked along, spoke to him, and he turned to me and
said, 'I'm surprised that people want to talk to me.' And I said,
'Phil, we just spent a million trying to get them to want to come
talk to you!'" Despite his bashful wonkiness, Bredesen still did
well enough to make it to the run-off, though he was soundly
defeated by U.S. Representative Bill Boner a few weeks later.

Early the next year, Bredesen ran for Boner's empty congressional
seat, but was again beaten. At that point, a lot of people would
have given up on politics. But not Bredesen--for him, it was merely
a problem to solve. "One of the keys to Phil as a person, as well
as a political figure, is that he is eager to learn," notes
Trauger. Five years ago, Bedesen learned to paint, and, in 2004, he
designed the state Christmas card. When he wanted a canoe, he
learned to build one--from scratch. That massive desk in his office?
He designed it himself. It's this sort of drive that, in the late
'80s, kept Bredesen in the city's limelight. "He consciously
learned the city more than he had," Trauger says. As a member of
the symphony board, he helped solve a musician labor dispute; he
founded a nonprofit that collected surplus food for needy
Nashvillians; and, all the while, he was touring small businesses
and talking to civic groups. One speech, Trauger recalls, began
with a whole line of thank yous: "'Thank you, thank you, thank you,
thank you, thank you, thank you,' in big, bold type so he would
remember that he needed to be thanking people." Bredesen learned
quickly, and, in 1991, he swept the mayor's race with 70 percent.
(It helped that Boner's mayoralty was plagued by scandal, including
his engagement, while still married, to a lounge singer named Traci
Peel.)

If Bredesen was the right man for the job, he was also in the right
place at the right time. Historically, Tennessee has been a
political anomaly, home to both the South's oldest Republican base
and a stable, moderate liberalism. From 1900 to 1950, Republicans
won only 80 of 2,565 House races across the entire South; 50 of
those came from two East Tennessee districts. These Republicans
infused state politics with a bipartisanship unseen in its
neighbors, and, after Barry Goldwater made voting Republican more
acceptable in the South, provided its first GOP senators and
governors. As a result, Tennessee's modern Republican
leadership--such as Senator Howard Baker and Governor (now Senator)
Lamar Alexander--has been much more moderate than that of
surrounding states. Baker, for example, broke ranks to support
Jimmy Carter's Panama Canal treaty and was one of the few
Republicans who sought votes among African Americans. Tennessee
liberals flourished as well: Cordell Hull, born in a small Middle
Tennessee town, went on to be a Roosevelt brain-truster, and, for
his role in creating the United Nations, a Nobel Peace
Prize-winner, while Senator Estes Kefauver ran for the White House
with Adlai Stevenson. Kefauver, alongside his fellow Democratic
Senator Al Gore Sr., was one of the few Southern legislators to
reject the Southern Manifesto, a document opposing the Supreme
Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Just as Tennessee was the most moderate state in the South,
Nashville was the most moderate city in the state. While it may
have gone quiet by the time Bredesen arrived on the political
scene, the city had boomed during the postwar period, attracting
migrants from around the country and developing a reasonably
tolerant social structure. It also helped that the city is home to a
number of large universities; in addition to Vanderbilt, three
major state universities lie within an hour of downtown Nashville.
"Nashville is, as southern cities go, a pretty open environment,"
says Phil Ashford, who worked for Bredesen in the mayor's office.
"I can remember going to some conference in Birmingham, and [former
Alabama Governor] Guy Hunt was introducing people, and he said,
'Now don't get mad just 'cause these guys are Yankees,' and I
thought, 'You'd never hear that in Nashville!' So it helped for
Bredesen that he came into such an environment."

It was in the mayor's office that Bredesen developed the other half
of his political persona, that of a supercompetent, growth-oriented
technocrat. During his two terms, he built an arena, a football
stadium, a new central library, and a Dell computer plant. Though
he had never been to an NFL game in his life, Bredesen relentlessly
pursued league franchises as an economic catalyst. After he
convinced Bud Adams and the Houston Oilers to move to Nashville,
newspapers across the country were filled with glowing features on
the city and, increasingly, on its successful mayor. In 1996,
Newsweek named him to its list of "25 mayors to watch." This
publicity, in turn, helped fuel Nashville's economic growth,
attracting businesses and highly skilled workers from around the
country. By the time he left office in 1999, Bredesen had
fundamentally altered Nashville's economy and culture. No longer a
moribund town ruled by old- money gentry, Bredesen had made it one
of the region's most dynamic cities. And he soon began laying plans
to do the same thing statewide.

Bredesen learned early on that statewide respect is different from
statewide popularity--after all, rural Tennesseans are as wary of
Nashville politicians as Nashvillians once were of Northern
businessmen. In fact, no Nashville mayor had won the governorship
since World War II. In 1994, Bredesen ran unsuccessfully for
governor. He lost in part because he made the same mistake he had
made in his 1987 mayoral run, emphasizing those technocratic skills
that had made him a good mayor rather than the engaged everyman
image that had gotten him into office in the first place. "He
didn't have a real clear message about what he really wanted to do,
and he was not willing to articulate one," Ashford says.

So, when Bredesen ran again in 2002, he changed tactics, turning to
veteran state political consultants like Cooley (later his deputy
in the governor's office) and the wellconnected fund-raiser Johnny
Hayes. With their help, he crafted a two-step campaign that focused
first on biography, then the issues. He began not with a barrage of
ads touting his economic achievements, but a long series of chili
dinners and coffee stops in small-town diners, always highlighting
his rural upbringing, something he had been wary of discussing
before. Sure, I'm from the North, he told some 1,600 audiences
during the campaign. But, like many of you, I grew up in a tiny
town--Shortsville, New York, just north of the Finger Lakes and 100
miles from nothing. And sure, I'm rich now, but I grew up poor; my
father moved away when I was young, and my grandmother, who lived
with us, had to take in sewing to help keep us afloat. And, yes, I
went to Harvard--but on a scholarship. That company I made millions
on? I started it from scratch. "He always went back to the notion
of, 'I'm like you guys. I'm not this guy from Harvard. I grew up in
Shortsville,'" Ashford says. "That doesn't make people feel he's
just another good ol' boy, but it does make someone who's uneasy
with him because of his wealth and education look at him and say,
'Yeah, I like him.'" And, while this folksy demeanor didn't come
naturally to Bredesen, his friends say he took to it readily.
Stryker Warren, a Nashville executive, recalls going with him a few
years ago to Home Depot for some building supplies. "We went in his
pickup truck, with no security, looking like the average guy who
needs something on a Saturday afternoon. And he'd stop and speak to
people, take time for anyone who wanted to chat with him." So, when
Hilleary tried to paint Bredesen as, according to the Tennessean,
"a millionaire outsider who did not share the values of hard-
working Tennesseans," rural voters knew better. In 1994, he won only
19 of Tennessee's 89 rural counties; this time he netted 50,
including many in and around Hilleary's district.

To be sure, Bredesen wasn't just playing the good ol' boy manqu--he
talked issues as well. But, what he realized is that, in the South,
people won't listen to you on the issues until they are comfortable
with you as a person. Or, as Brunson puts it, "Southern voters go
through a two-step process. The first is a credentialing filter,
which asks if a candidate shares their values. The second is on
issues--education, health care, the economy. Bredesen understands
you have to go through step one before you even start step two."

Bredesen actively appealed to Republican politicians and voters as
well. "Here was a man who was willing to call Republican leaders in
a county and say, 'You may not vote for me, but I'd like to pick
your brain and share ideas,'" says his 2002 campaign manager,
Stuart Brunson. It paid off: Bredesen brought in $22,000 from the
Frist family, perhaps the state's leading GOP clan (Senator Bill
Frist did not contribute). Even Ted Welch, a Bush "pioneer" and a
Republican heavyweight, has nothing but praise for Bredesen. "I
admire him," he says. "He will consider both sides and then pull
the trigger."

Bredesen's ability to play both the number-cruncher and the
small-town boy done good explains his high approval ratings,
numbers he has achieved even while embarking on a decidedly
unglamorous agenda, cutting the deficit and tackling TennCare. In
fact, he seems to be so well-liked that voters trust him to make
the right decision, regardless of whether they like the results.
When, earlier this month, he announced that he would cut more than
300,000 enrollees from TennCare, people across the state expressed
concern, but many of them also told reporters that they believed
the governor when he said it was the only solution to the state's
budget crunch. Bredesen's success, then, lies in his ability both
to govern effectively and communicate his decisions to the public
via a political persona that appeals to rural voters. "He has a
style that wears well whether in a packed auditorium, with TV
lights on him, or in a small town-hall meeting," says Warren, who,
although a Republican, has supported Bredesen since his 1987 race.
"He has convinced an inordinate number of Republicans that he will
do what is right, even if it's not popular or along party lines."

Can Bredesen translate his success in Tennessee to the national
scene? In some ways, he already has. He dominated the recent DNC
regional caucus in Atlanta; not only did he deliver the keynote
address--in which he excoriated national Democrats for not pursuing
Southern voters--but he later interviewed each of the candidates
for the DNC chairmanship individually. Along with John Edwards and
Virginia Governor Mark Warner, Bredesen is often mentioned as a
potential Democratic presidential candidate who could do well in
Dixie. That has given Bredesen plenty of cachet in a party
desperate to win beyond its blue- state base. And, while he remains
publicly noncommittal about a bid for the presidency in 2008,
Bredesen has quietly been reaching out through his surrogates to
potential allies in the event he decides to run. When I asked him
what he thought of his name popping up as a potential candidate, he
cagily replied, "The people who have the opportunities are the ones
who put their heads down and do the best job they can at the job at
hand, and that produces the kinds of opportunities that people who
put their heads up don't have."

Perhaps what makes Bredesen most unique as a political figure is
that he came of age during what may, in retrospect, have been a
fleeting moment in Southern politics: the generation or so between
the late '60s and the mid-'90s, between the decline of the
hidebound Democratic machines and the rise of the right-wing
conservatives. This increasing conservatism has even enveloped the
historically moderate Tennessee electorate. Predictably, Tennessee
tilted to Bush in November. But the surprise came in exit polls
showing that 46 percent of voters considered themselves
conservative, up from 35 percent just four years ago--a drastic
departure from the state's once-solid three-way split between
conservatives, liberals, and independents. "We're at the end of a
long transition in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama, but
it's less than complete in Tennessee," says Vanderbilt History
Professor David Carlton. "But it's trending that way. The
short-term outlook for southern Democrats is pretty bleak."
Tennessee Republicans are already pledging to turn the next
legislative session into a referendum on cultural issues,
announcing a renewed push for a gay marriage amendment and bills to
restrict abortion access--even while Bredesen and other Democrats
try to keep the state focused on health care, jobs, and education.

But, even if the Republicans continue to make gains in Tennessee,
Bredesen's own political future doesn't seem much in doubt. His
approval ratings are so high that few Republicans are even
discussing the 2006 gubernatorial race. And he seems unconcerned
about the GOP's planned offensive on cultural issues. "That's just
the noise of politics," he tells me. "I'm perfectly capable of
keeping [cultural conservatives] somewhat at bay. I tell people, 'If
you want to go do that, fine. If you think your playing a game is
going to elect you or elect the next president out of Tennessee,
you're welcome to try and do that. Now, when you're finished
messing around with that, let's sit down and talk about what we've
got to do about the state of education.' I think I'll just keep
doing that, and that we'll be successful."

Indeed, Bredesen owes his political survival to his unique ability
to win on pocketbook issues, such as health care and education,
among voters who otherwise rely more and more on cultural
conservatives to represent their interests. It's an ability that,
should he decide to run for president, would allow him to attract
swaths of economically challenged rural voters in places like
Virginia and North Carolina, the very voters who commentators say
should be prime Democratic constituents but who nevertheless
repeatedly pull the lever for GOP candidates. Toward the end of our
conversation, I ask the governor what sort of Democrat could win in
the South. "You have to have some clarity of vision about why a
Democrat should be elected that goes beyond anything we achieved in
the last election," he says, leaning back in his chair. "There are
a lot of people who would respond to a Democratic candidate, but
that someone's got to articulate a vision." For those wondering
just what such a candidate would look like, a visit to the
Tennessee governor's office might be in order.

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