NASHVILLE — Tennessee Democrats say they believe Barack Obama as president will bear no grudges toward the Volunteer State despite a less-than-warm reception during the campaign by Republicans, voters and even some prominent Democrats.
“He’s a man who will absolutely rise above whatever passions exist during the course of a campaign about this sort of thing and treat everybody fairly,” Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen said of President-elect Obama, who is expected to be sworn in today as the nation’s first black president.
Gov. Bredesen acknowledged in a Times Free Press interview that he himself is “not an insider in this administration. I mean, I was obviously very late to the party, among other things.”
During last year’s Democratic presidential primary, Gov. Bredesen took no sides. During the general campaign, the governor publicly advised then-Sen. Obama that he would be better off pursuing general election votes elsewhere than in Tennessee.
Still, said Gov. Bredesen, who actually did endorse then-Sen. Obama and campaigned for him Ohio, “I’ve been treated with perfect respect” during President-elect Obama’s transition “and I certainly see no issues for the state in terms of that.”
Then-Sen. Obama lost Tennessee to U.S. Sen. McCain in the general election by 56.89 percent to 41.82 percent — a 15-point difference. He also lost the state in the Democratic primary by a large margin.
Sen. McCain won some rural counties by as much as 30 percent. Many Democrats, who openly fled from then-Sen. Obama during the campaign, quickly blamed the loss of their state House majority on rural voters’ dislike of then-Sen. Obama.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., was among the few prominent white elected Democrats who publicly backed then-Sen. Obama early on. He dismissed the notion Tennessee would not be treated well by the new president.
“Get used to post-partisan politics,” Rep. Cooper advised. “This is not the Ray Blanton administration.”
Mr. Blanton was a former Tennessee Democratic governor known for his partisanship who was ousted from office in a “cash-for-clemency” scandal.
Rep. Cooper said he thinks the state’s five Democratic congressmen “will coordinate very well” in their dealings with President Obama. He hopes to “work closely with my Democratic and Republican colleagues” in areas such as appointments, he said.
As president, Mr. Obama will be in a position to impact Tennessee institutions ranging from the Tennessee Valley Authority to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., who refused specifically to endorse then-Sen. Obama during the campaign, said in a statement, “I don’t foresee Tennessee encountering problems in having our voice being heard. President-elect Obama will take the oath of office as president of the United States — not president of the 28 states he won.”
Among early Obama supporters was state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who was once a student of then-University of Chicago Law School lecturer Mr. Obama. He predicted President-elect Obama will reach out to all states.
“He understands this job is bigger than looking at which states voted in favor of him,” Sen. Berke said. “And furthermore, I’m guessing he wants to win more states next time than he won this time.”
State Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, an Obama convention delegate, said, “Those of us who have already made some contacts will ensure that Tennessee will receive the same kinds of support that other states receive. I just don’t believe that Obama would be vindictive to people.”
Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith said Tennesseans have “different expectations depending on what party that you’re in.”
She said “very few” prominent state Democrats other than Rep. Cooper and Democrats’ 2008 U.S. Senate nominee Bob Tuke openly backed then-Sen. Obama.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any special love here in the state of Tennessee,” she said.
Mr. Tuke, who served as statewide director for the Obama campaign before announcing for Senate, called Mr. Obama a “very unusual politician” who “doesn’t impress me as someone who holds grudges.”
He criticized the Tennessee Republican Party for its attacks during the campaign. They included a GOP news release charging “anti-semites for Obama.” It featured a picture of Mr. Obama in what it called “Muslim” garb. The robes actually were traditional clothing from Kenya, home of President-elect Obama’s late father.
The flap received national attention. The state GOP later attacked Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, regarding her patriotism, which prompted Mr. Obama to tell the state GOP on national TV to “lay off my wife.”
“Obviously they treated him very badly,” Mr. Tuke said of state GOP leaders. “It was embarrassing when you have people just make irresponsible statements, racist statements.”
Also during the campaign, federal agents in Tennessee foiled what they said was a plot by two white supremacists, one from Crockett County, Tenn., to kick off a killing spree that was to include an attempt to assassinate President-elect Obama.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...