Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will not run for Tennessee governor next year, but three other Republican office holders said Sunday that they may enter the race this week and several Democrats could launch campaigns later this year.
Mr. Frist, a 56-year-old heart surgeon who served as a U.S. senator for Tennessee from 1995 to 2007, said Sunday he "decided to remain a private citizen for the foreseeable future." The withdrawal of one of Tennessee's most popular politicians from the 2010 gubernatorial race immediately opened the door for others to run.
Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons announced Sunday night he will be a Republican candidate for Tennessee governor next year. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam both said they plan announcements about their gubernatorial plans this week.
"I have been looking forward to this for a long time, but the first people I am going to talk with are my supporters tomorrow morning," Rep. Wamp said Sunday night. "I'll have a statement about my future plans, but that is all I am going to say tonight."
The 51-year-old Chattanooga Republican, who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1995, previously has indicated he would run for Tennessee governor if Mr. Frist did not.
Mr. Haslam, a 50-year-old millionaire and son of Pilot Oil Co. founder Jim Haslam, also promised an announcement of his plans this week.
"Stay tuned, we should have something later in the week," he said Sunday night from his Knoxville home. "I am weighing the right next decision."
Mr. Haslam was re-elected last fall to his second term as Knoxville mayor. He said he has enjoyed serving in elected office and wants to help Tennessee deal with its budget challenges.
Mr. Wamp and Mr. Haslam praised Mr. Frist, who called Republican leaders across the state Sunday to tell them of his decision.
A statewide survey conducted last fall for the Chattanooga Times Free Press by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. showed Mr. Frist was the best known possible candidate for governor, with 58 percent of Tennesseans polled saying they had a favorable opinion of the physician-turned-senator.
FRIST EXPRESSES GRATITUDE TO CITIZENS OF TENNESSEE, COMMENTS ON POLITICAL INTENTIONS
NASHVILLE, TENN. - Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist, M.D., issued the following statement today:
"For 12 years, I had the tremendous honor of representing the interests of more than six million Tennesseans in the U.S. Senate. I pledged in 1994 to serve two terms and then, consistent with being a 'citizen legislator,' return to my childhood home in Nashville. After honoring my word, my wife Karyn and I, along with our three boys, returned to private life as active members of Tennessee's civic and business communities.
"After significant reflection and conversations with loved ones, I have decided to remain a private citizen for the foreseeable future. I will, however, continue serving the people of Tennessee.
"My long-standing efforts both as a doctor and policymaker to improve access to quality, affordable health care throughout our state will carry on. I will also launch a statewide, nonpartisan, grassroots education initiative to improve K-12 education in Tennessee late this month.
"I will never enjoy a privilege greater than serving the people of Tennessee. I know the citizens of our great state will identify a tremendous leader to serve as our next governor, and I stand ready to assist in any way that benefits Tennessee."
Frist, who served as a faculty member at Vanderbilt University for nine years prior to his election, returns to the school this week as a University Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Business. He is teaching under a joint appointment between the Owen School of Management and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
In addition to serving as a professor, Frist will remain a partner with Cressey & Company LP, an investment firm focused on growing quality health service companies throughout the United States. He also continues to chair and expand the global reach of Hope Through Healing Hands (www.hopethroughhealinghands.org ), a Tennessee-based charitable foundation seeking to improve health and education around the world.
But Dr. Frist said he is looking forward to returning this week to teaching at Vanderbilt University, where he served as a faculty member for nine years before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994. Mr. Frist said he also will launch a statewide grass-roots education initiative later this month to improve K-12 education in Tennessee, and he promised "to carry on my long-standing efforts" to improve health care.
Within hours of Dr. Frist's announcement, Mr. Gibbons entered the GOP gubernatorial race, promising to work to cut crime and improve education. The Memphis prosecutor said Tennessee has the second-highest violent crime rate in the nation and he pledged, if elected governor, to fix what he said are "deep flaws" in the state's criminal justice system.
"Wide open field"
Tennessee Republican Chairwoman Robin Smith said it's still "a fantastic time to be a Republican in Tennessee with a deep bench of qualified candidates" eager to run for the state's top post.
"This will set in motion a tremendous amount of activity and opportunity for Tennesseans to make their state government better," she said.
Her Democratic counterpart, Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Gray Sasser, said Dr. Frist's decision "makes it easier for a Democrat to win" next year.
"It's going to be a wide open field on both sides," Mr. Sasser said.
Mr. Sasser said Dr. Frist's personal wealth and his willingness to spend it when necessary would have made it difficult for anyone to run against him.
So far, there is one announced Democratic candidate - former state House Majority Leader Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville.
"It really doesn't change anything so far I'm concerned," Ms. McMillan said Sunday night of Dr. Frist's announcement. "I was going to be in regardless of whether Frist was or not."
U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., also has expressed interest. Rep. Davis, who last month gained a coveted slot on the House Appropriations Committee, recently said he would make a decision soon about whether he would run for governor.
Other names being discussed include state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, as well as former Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Doug Horne and Nashville venture capitalist Andrew Byrd.
Sen. Berke, who was first elected to the Senate in a November 2007 special election, would say only "I'm getting focused on getting ready for session" when asked about reports he has been seeking advice about a potential gubernatorial bid.
Asked if he would rule out a gubernatorial bid, Sen. Berke said, "right now my most important task is to serve the constituents by getting ready for session."
Despite Republican victories in the presidential contest, U.S. Senate race and state legislature last fall in Tennessee, Mr. Sasser said Democrats can still be competitive.
"A Democrat can win the state if they're well funded and run a statewide campaign," he said. "(Gov). Phil Bredesen proved that twice."