NASHVILLE — Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp on Saturday spent much of his time at a Tennessee Republican Party unity event praising Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, who last week beat both Wamp and Ron Ramsey for the GOP nomination.
But even as he praised Haslam, Wamp issued a sort of warning to his fellow Republicans.
“I want to say this without stepping on any toes,” Wamp told assembled party leaders as Haslam, Ramsey and Republican U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker stood near.
“The future of this party and this country is not in Nantucket,” Wamp said. “The future of this party and our country is in Frog Jump, Tenn. What I mean by that is that’s where working families are. And that’s where just good grass-roots people who share our core principles are.”
Frog Jump is the home of Tennessee Republicans’ 8th Congressional District nominee Stephen Fincher. But why would Wamp, who often sounded populist themes in the campaign, mention Nantucket, an island filled with the summer homes of assorted millionaires located more than a 1,000 miles away from Nashville in distant Massachusetts?
One Wamp campaign operative insisted it was a dig at President Barack Obama. But the Obama family vacations at Martha’s Vineyard, the next island over from Nantucket. And at the onset of his campaign, Wamp vaguely alluded at one point to Nantucket ties.
So who has ties to Nantucket? Well, it just so happens several well-known Tennesseans do or did.
Haslam confirmed that his brother, Jimmy Haslam, president and CEO of Wamp’s favorite campaign target, Pilot Corp., has a summer place there.
And so does former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., whose decision in January 2009 not to run for governor triggered the 19-month primary fight. Frist, whose brother-in-law backed Haslam, has had a home on the island since 1983, according to the website of the Community Foundation of Nantucket on which Frist serves as a trustee.
Corker, whose circle of closet friends includes Jimmy Haslam, a one-time college roommate and fraternity brother, says he has no home in Nantucket.
But Corker, who said he “meticulously” avoided taking sides in the primary, acknowledged visiting Jimmy Haslam’s Nantucket home from time to time, the most recently over the Fourth of July holiday.
Alexander said he has no Nantucket ties. He sold the parcel of land he owned there some time ago, he said.
Asked why he chose to use Nantucket, Wamp said “the point is that Frog Jump in Tennessee is where grass-roots, middle class, working families on the ground are going to determine the future course of America.”
The “contrast I was drawing was the financial elite of this country is not the direction our party should head,” Wamp said. “It should head to the grass-roots, Main Street working families. And frankly, that’s going to determine our success in November” and afterward.
Wamp said he plans to “take that same message back to my colleagues in Congress.”
Bill Haslam noted he has no home on Nantucket and said “I don’t hang out there” when asked about his brother’s place.
“I think Zach’s right,” Haslam said. “The truth is in Tennessee people think of the Republican Party as being this elite party. But it’s really not. If you look at who really makes up the Republican Party in Tennessee, it really is your blue-collar, grass-roots worker, and I think the primary showed that.”
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, ...