Given the partisan bent of the 3rd Congressional District, the common assumption here is that the Republican party will again win the seat, as it has since Democratic Rep. Marilyn Lloyd stepped down at the end of her tenth term in 1994. Her departure ushered in Republican Zach Wamp's 16-year tenure, which he voluntarily ended two years ago in his campaign for governor. His voter base tells a distinctive tale.
Wamp won each of his eight terms with at least 64 percent of the district's vote, a margin that widened to more than two-thirds of the vote after the decennial redistricting that followed the 2000 Census. The Republican/tea party wave in 2010 entrenched the aura of GOP dominance in most state and federal elections in Tennessee.
The decennial redistricting after the 2010 Census substantially changed the shape of the 3rd District, however, and narrowed its partisan bias. The new line-up of counties appears to give independent voters potential swing vote leverage. But since it didn't affect Hamilton County, the main media center and still the district's most populous voter base, Republicans still confidently take the seat for granted.
So their focus in the 2012 elections is the internal challenge in the August GOP primary against one-term incumbent Chuck Fleischmann. He's widely painted by supporters of his chief GOP foes -- Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp -- as an unblinking and rather lightweight puppet for Speaker John Boehner's agenda in Washington. His voting record and stilted regurgitation of right-wing boilerplate blather largely substantiates that charge. Regrettably, his opponents are equally vague and superficial.
The Headrick-Taylor toss-up
With the limelight tracking the GOP contest and campaign money flow, little attention has been given here to the more substantive Democratic primary contest between Dr. Mary Headrick, a primary care physician, and Bill Taylor, an Ooltewah businessman and CPA who for more than 30 years held high positions in the health care industry in Nashville.
The irony of the lopsided focus is lamentable. Headrick and Taylor both stand head and shoulders above the GOP contenders in the range, quality and insight of their thinking on the issues that most affect the overwhelming majority of Tennessee voters and families: Health care, stagnant wages, tax inequity, declining public infrastructure, educational competitiveness for job growth, reasonable environmental rules, and support for Medicare and Social Security, the mainstay programs that more than 90 percent of Tennessee retirees and workers ultimately depend on.
Quality health care, they point out, is neither secure nor affordable for many, if not most, working Tennesseans, and it will become much less so if Republicans manage to dismantle the falsely maligned Affordable Care Act. Less than 55 percent of Tennessee employers now offer health insurance. And with or without employer help, the problems of insurance affordability, soaring deductibles, premiums, skeletal coverage and medical bankruptcy keep rising. That creeping crisis will become disastrous unless the ACA rules take full effect in 2014.
Tax inequity, as well, remains a major issue at both the state and national levels, yet Washington's Republicans pledge to end the Bush tax cuts for middle class if Democrats refuse to extend the unfair Bush tax-cut windfall for multimillionaires and billionaires.
Dr. Headrick and Taylor adhere to similar fiscal goals. They want to help cut through congressional gridlock with a balanced policy for debt reduction -- paring spending and cutting the gusher of corporate and high-end tax avoidance, along with threshold adjustments in entitlement spending.
Taylor focuses more on job creation, especially through infrastructure, research and development, high-tech manufacturing and educational linkages. His goal is to "bring people up the middle class, not down to the middle class." Headrick's focus tends more on Tennessee's high rates of poverty -- rural and urban -- and poor health, and the broad benefits of repairing the decline in social and educational infrastructure. Both cite abundant data that link improvement in educational attainment and improved health with better jobs and quality of life, and both would be notable advocates for such policies.
Headrick and Taylor are each easily superior to the Republican bench. Both are outstanding candidates: Voters can't go wrong in their choice in this primary election.
The Republican dilemma
Mayfield and his supporters tout his dairy business acumen and character as reason to abandon Fleischmann. But his public performance, lacking as it is, completely undermines that thesis. Mayfield initially admitted that he would have voted mostly like Fleischmann had. And since then, he has shunned public debates, failed to offer or explain his agenda and positions, and refused to come to this newspaper for interviews.
Given the campaign cash he has scooped off Lookout Mountain's GOP fortress, he apparently thinks he has Chattanooga wrapped up and doesn't need to say what his actual agenda would be in Congress.
He's wrong. If he's afraid of public debates and media interviews, his leadership, judgment, candor and stature for Congress remain untested, unproved and wholly unworthy of voters' trust.
Fleischmann's parroting of Republican caucus talking points could be delivered by a machine and it wouldn't make much difference: Authenticity and credibility escape him. He still fails to persuade us that his tenure in Congress will serve the core needs of Tennesseans, or trump the gridlock political agenda of Speaker Boehner.
Weston Wamp's easy delivery of his views outshines Fleischmann's skills, but it doesn't equate to solid views on essential policies to promote the health, well-being and economic competitiveness of District 3. Republicans' dilemma -- whom to support -- is understandable.