published Monday, June 21st, 2010

Candidates balance public duties and campaigning

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NASHVILLE -- Republican gubernatorial candidate Zach Wamp was in Kingsport, Tenn., on June 14, pledging to battle the federal government's newly extended reach into health care.

"We can repeal the onerous sections of this bill and not have to live under this," he said.

A day later, however, the Chattanooga congressman missed a U.S. House vote in which fellow Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully sought to repeal the federal health law's mandate that individuals have health insurance.

Meanwhile, fellow GOP candidate Bill Haslam, Knoxville's mayor, missed a June 10 closed-door executive session of the Knoxville Pension Board, when officials reportedly discussed changes to the pension plan.

Mr. Haslam was in Maury County in Middle Tennessee, meeting with his campaign's county organizing committee.

And back at the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville, some Democrats still are grousing that state budget negotiations were delayed at times during the final weeks of the legislative session in part because Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Republican speaker and gubernatorial candidate, was not at the Capitol but out on the campaign trail.

With the Aug. 5 primary looming and early voting slated to start on July 16, all the Republican candidates are going full out, leaving some questioning whether they are paying sufficient attention to their taxpayer-funded jobs and duties.

All three Republican candidates insist they are tending to their day jobs while piling up mileage and time criss-crossing Tennessee in advance of the Aug. 5 vote.

Rep. Wamp's congressional spokeswoman, Laura Condeluci, in an e-mail last week defended the Chattanooga lawmaker's missing the U.S. House vote on the federal health care law.

Republicans, she said, are "trying to push back the sweeping health care reform using procedural tactics that are more of a statement than a policy change. While Rep. Wamp strongly supports his colleagues for any attempt to show opposition to the Obama health care plan, it failed by a solid margin."

Rep. Wamp has voted on 96 percent of the legislation coming before the U.S. House in his nearly 16-year tenure, Ms. Condeluci said. The congressman "has not missed any significant final votes this Congress that have major policy impact. Most have been largely procedural or deal with narrow interests like naming post offices or congratulating sports teams," she said.

But while Rep. Wamp's 16-year career percentage of voting may be 96 percent, an examination of U.S. House roll calls votes by the Chattanooga Times Free Press indicates that from April 13 through Wednesday the Chattanoogan missed 99, or 57.8 percent, of the 171 votes cast.

He was not present, for example, on April 27 when the House voted down a cost-of-living pay increase for members. Nor was he there at the April 29 House session, missing 11 votes on the Puerto Rico Democracy Act, which sets up a twofold process involving the political future of the commonwealth territory.

But he also missed votes on June 8 when House members were busy honoring the likes of the French underwater explorer, Jacques Yves Cousteau. Nor did he vote on May 13 when the House expressed "sympathy and condolences" to those affected by devastating flooding in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.

Haslam campaign spokesman David Smith said that, while Mr. Haslam wasn't at the pension board meeting, he "was in constant contact with Deputy Mayor Larry Martin, knew exactly what was going on, and his voice was heard."

The mayor, she said, was working on his campaign.

"The mayor was in Maury County attending a meet-and-greet and meeting with his county organizing committee," Mr. Smith said by e-mail.

He acknowledged the "mayor has missed meetings throughout the campaign but he's in constant contact, and he still managed to deliver a budget that reduces the number of city employees to its lowest total in 15 years, is nearly 10 percent smaller than 2008's budget and is the third consecutive city budget that's smaller than the previous year."

Both Rep. Wamp and Mr. Haslam put out campaign schedules. The Ramsey campaign does not and has turned down several reporters' requests to do so.

As for Lt. Gov. Ramsey, House Democratic leaders last week said the Senate leader's absence from the Capitol didn't help in trying to strike a bargain with Senate Republicans. The lieutenant governor could have sped the process along, they say.

"I think if he'd been here a little bit (more), yeah," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, as the chief House negotiator, House Finance Committee Chairman Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, nodded his head in agreement.

Rep. Turner said that, in budget negotiations last year, "nobody (Republicans) could make a decision without talking to him (Ramsey)."

Rep. Fitzhugh said that, as the election steam picked up, this year's behind-the-scenes budget negotiation "was just a little difficult situation, and I frankly think the gubernatorial thing was the difference."

Ramsey spokesman Taylor said "as far as I know, he hasn't missed anything this session."

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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