Straight answers rare in Tennessee's 3rd District GOP primary debate

Straight answers rare in Tennessee's 3rd District GOP primary debate

May 23rd, 2012 by Chris Carroll in News

Republican candidates for the 3rd Congressional District, from left, Weston Wamp, Ron Bhalla and current U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann participate in the 3rd Congressional District Republican Debate held on Monday, May 21, 2012, at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Roland Hayes Concert Hall in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

POLL: Who do you now support for Tennessee's 3rd district?

Yes-or-no questions don't always get an easy answer from U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and his Republican challengers.

At Monday night's 3rd District GOP primary debate, WRCB-TV anchor David Carroll asked Fleischmann, Ron Bhalla and Weston Wamp to assume they had won the Republican nomination. Would they debate the Democratic nominee?

Bhalla and Wamp said yes. Fleischmann praised "the debate process," described it as "very, very informative" and said it was "what our Founding Fathers wanted."

Carroll swiveled to a clearly confused Wamp.

"Did he commit to debate?" Wamp asked.

"I believe he did. You have committed to it?" Carroll asked Fleischmann.

The congressman nodded "yes" 45 seconds after the question was asked, setting the dominant trend in a debate that often lacked clarity.

Since he entered the race last year, Wamp, the 25-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, has accused Fleischmann of bending to "pay-to-play expectations" from industry-backed political action committees, also known as PACs.

The younger Wamp turned up the heat Monday night after Carroll asked Fleischmann to square his $363,000 in PAC donations with a campaign pledge from 2010 in which he said "special interest groups in Washington will not find a door in my congressional office."

"I think you're naive if you don't understand that PACs have an expectation when they give you money," Wamp said. "That's a basic relationship that I think we all understand."

But Wamp said he would accept donations from PACs "whose principles and values are aligned with mine."

"Any expectations that I would vote in favor of them because they give me money -- I will not do that," Wamp said. "That's business as usual in Washington."

Bhalla said he would not take PAC money under any circumstances.

The candidates later eluded questions on term limits and federal spending.

Asked if he would serve a set number of years, Fleischmann immediately expressed his love for "the United States Constitution," saying a constitutional amendment should be employed "if we're going to change any process in America," congressional term limits included.

Pressed to clarify his own stance on term limits, Fleischmann effectively declined to discuss it. "I'm going to stick with the United States Constitution and the people," he said.

When Chattanooga Times Free Press business editor Dave Flessner introduced local issues, Wamp praised improvements at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and work to establish Chattanooga's gigabit Internet speed.

Federal stimulus money funded both projects, which Wamp acknowledged. Later he described the stimulus as "a terrible idea."

"I certainly would have voted against it," he said.

Scottie Mayfield, the fourth Republican candidate, declined to debate Monday.

Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are the Democrats in the race, while independent Matthew Deniston also is running.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at or 423-757-6610.