NASHVILLE - Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Thursday he is largely stepping away from electoral politics - at least for now - and will devote much of his time to a grassroots initiative aimed at dragging Tennessee's K-12 education system out of the basement.
Dr. Frist said he plans to shut down Volunteer PAC, the political action committee he started that has given millions of dollars to state and federal campaigns. He announced last month he would not run for governor in 2010.
"Not doing the governor thing, getting out of elective politics, taking my name off any lists that come through for appointive positions, the fact that VolPAC is shutting down ... that's just not where my focus is right now," the heart-transplant surgeon told reporters.
He spoke after a speech to the Tennessee Press Association where he sketched out his plans for a statewide, "citizen-driven" education improvement initiative he plans to unveil later this month. He said he hopes to enlist help from private citizens, teachers, academics, businessmen and foundations.
Dr. Frist said he intends to remain involved in global health issues. He said his desire to improve education was kindled when he realized that infant mortality rates are affected by lack of education.
"The gap in infant mortality, this basic measurement of health, is most dependent on education and the gap is bigger in Tennessee than it is in any other state," he said.
He said the state in 2007 ranked 41st in student achievement on National Assessment of Educational Progress exams. Only 17 of every 100 ninth-graders in Tennessee will complete college within six years, he noted.
Dr. Frist said his yet-to-be-announced educational organization hopes to build on work such as successful efforts by the Benwood Foundation to boost academic performance at high-poverty elementary schools in Chattanooga.
Asked whether he thought he could have a more significant impact on education with the grass-roots effort than he could as governor, Dr. Frist said, "it's really more of a personal thing."
"It's where my passions are right now," he said. "And to me it's where the needs are. But I can't say it's more important because obviously as governor, you can do all sorts of things. So it's really not a comparison. For me, it's absolutely the right thing."
Among those listening was Knoxville Democrat Doug Horne, whose interests include newspapers, and who is weighing a 2010 gubernatorial bid.
"You got to admire him really," said Mr. Horne, who noted he has a "lot of good reform ideas about education myself. I think that's got to be the key to the governor's race."