NASHVILLE — The youthful son of a well-known Tennessee politician declares for public office and runs headlong into criticism about his inexperience and effort to ride the coattails of his famous father.
You may be thinking of Chattanooga Republican Weston Wamp. The 24-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., recently announced he will try to take the 3rd Congressional District seat his father held for 16 years from incumbent Republican Chuck Fleischmann, 50.
But then again, you could just as easily be talking about Harold Ford Jr.
The Memphis Democrat faced similar questions in 1996 when he announced, at age 26, that he was running to succeed his father, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., D-Tenn., in the 9th District.
Or try Al Gore Jr., the son of former U.S. Sen. Al Gore Sr., D-Tenn. At age 30, a journalist with no political experience other than what he learned from his father, the younger Gore squeaked through a hotly contested 4th Congressional District Democratic primary in 1978 with just 32 percent of the vote.
He easily won the general election, went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and then was vice president of the United States for two terms before losing the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.
There’s a good reason why any number of successful Tennessee politicians got their start, at least in part, by being the scions of veteran officeholders.
“No. 1, first and foremost, it gives you name recognition, and name recognition is expensive to buy. So it gives you a leg up,” said Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer.
And people who supported the parent may get behind the next generation.
Oppenheimer said these advantages can create a “feedback loop” that “gives you a sense of viability” that may help in fundraising, particularly in a party primary.
Other examples of successful offspring include former state Rep. Brenda Turner. The Chattanooga Democrat was the daughter of the late Chattanooga Police Commissioner James “Bookie” Turner. First elected in 1982, she lost her seat in 2004.
Just last week, Becky Duncan Massey, the sister of U.S. Rep. John “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., won the Republican nomination for a state Senate seat in Knoxville.
Their father was U.S. Rep. John Duncan Sr., whom Duncan Jr. succeeded in 1988. Duncan Jr.’s son is Knox County trustee.
Nonetheless, Oppenheimer said, Tennessee and the rest of America — despite various Kennedys and assorted Bushes — are by no means in the grip of some sort of “political aristocracy.” Any number of offspring seek office and lose, he said.
TURNING CRITICISM TO ASSET
When he announced, Weston Wamp acknowledged there would be criticism about a youthful son seeking his father’s former seat.
A managing partner in a Chattanooga-based public relations, creative strategy and social media firm he launched last year, Weston Wamp portrayed both his youth and his heritage as virtues.
Noting “faith in our country and Congress are at all-time lows,” he said. “It’s time for something different; it’s time for the next generation to show some leadership.”
As for being a former congressman’s son, Wamp said, “That’s fine, and I say let’s talk about it. I watched my father serve in Congress for most of my life and I learned from him what public service means. I learned how the Congress works.”
It wasn’t long before one of the first salvos in the campaign was fired by Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith.
“People want to judge our new leaders on their skills and merits rather than their family names,” Smith said. “He’s a very young person and has no past experience.”
Wamp’s retort was that “when the framers of the Constitution said you can serve in Congress beginning at 25, they knew the guys at 25 wouldn’t have a decade of business experience. There are strengths that come with being young and innovative.” He will turn 25 before the election on Nov. 6, 2012.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga political science professor Rick Wilson said there’s no question the Wamp name can be a benefit in the 3rd District.
“Obviously, name recognition is so important that any time you have a well-known name it’s helpful in establishing a base” for a campaign, Wilson said. “So in that sense, being the son of/ a former congressman is helpful to Weston.
“But after you reach over that threshold, you have to bring [to] the table substance, and it remains to be seen how well he will provide that substance,” Wilson cautioned.
“Both Albert Gore Jr. and Harold Ford Jr. ran and won in open seats without an incumbent the first time they ran,” Wilson said.
Though he called Wamp a “very pleasant young man [who] would be a very strong contender for another office,” running against an incumbent “makes the race more difficult.”
A CAUTIONARY TALE
And, as Oppenheimer noted, name recognition is no guarantee.
Take Democrat Mike McWherter, son of former Gov. Ned McWherter, in the 2010 gubernatorial election.
With aid from his father and the threat of a bad political year looming for Democrats generally, the younger McWherter, a businessman, succeeded in clearing the Democratic primary field of everyone but himself.
But many criticized McWherter’s campaign and public speaking skills. He lost in a landslide to better-funded Republican Bill Haslam, the Knoxville mayor whose father founded the national Pilot Travel Centers empire of truck stops.
But a number of successful sons, daughters or sisters in Tennessee have run for open seats with varying types of non-elective experience.
In Ford’s case, he had just graduated from law school and was running in an open contest to succeed his father, Tennessee’s first black congressman in modern times.
“All his campaign signs said ‘Jr.,’ which was an attempt to pre-empt the kind of disdain that political opponents would heap on the nepotism of it,” recalled Jackson Baker, a writer for the Memphis Flyer newspaper. “So they just hit that head-on. He ran as ‘Jr.’ that time.”
When Ford in 2006 reached for higher office — the U.S. Senate — he narrowly lost to Republican Bob Corker, of Chattanooga.
In 1982, the offspring of two of Tennessee’s most famous politicians squared off in the 4th Congressional District.
Democrat Jim Cooper, then 28, was the son of former Gov. Prentice Cooper (1939-45), who in 1958 unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Al Gore Sr.
The Republican was Cynthia “Cissy” Baker, 26, daughter of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, himself the son of a congressman.
State and national journalists had a field day, but Cooper won the Democratic-leaning district.
In 1972, Democrat Bob Clement, son of the late Gov. Frank Clement, beat 71-year-old incumbent Hammond Fowler for Tennessee Public Service Commission and become the youngest statewide officeholder in state history.
Having had a governor for a father “no doubt” gave him an edge in his own race, Clement said. “A lot of them [voters] knew the name Clement.”
Clement later lost races for governor and for Congress. In 1987 he was elected to Congress in the 5th District, but he lost subsequent bids for the U.S. Senate and Nashville mayor.
Clement knows Weston Wamp and said the young man meets people extremely well. The experience and contacts he got through his father “will be a great benefit to him,” Clement said.
But noting public frustration with the nation’s economic struggles, Clement said he isn’t so sure voters are looking for experience these days.
“We’re living in strange times,” he said. “They [voters] want something new and different. They feel that government’s not working, government’s not performing, government’s not delivering. Therefore it opens the door for a lot of people.”
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, ...