Tennessee: Haslam gains backing from two Wamp allies

Tennessee: Haslam gains backing from two Wamp allies

May 30th, 2009 by Adam Crisp in Politics State

Two prominent Chattanooga men, who previously threw their support and money behind U.S. Rep. Zack Wamp in his congressional runs, are now backing Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam against the congressman in the race for Tennessee governor.

Scott L. "Scottie" Probasco, Jr. and Joseph Decosimo are both listed on Mr. Haslam's list of early financial backers and fundraisers. Both men gave thousands of dollars over the years to Rep. Wamp's congressional runs, but both say the Chattanooga Republican doesn't have the same level of experience Mr. Haslam has.

"I'm not an anti-Zach person, but you've got to make a choice," said Mr. Decosimo, founder of the accounting firm that bears his name. "Like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Mr. Haslam has business experience and government administration experience. That's important in politics."

Mr. Wamp said the local support for his opponent isn't unexpected.

"We have held the financial base of Southeast Tennessee remarkably well," Mr. Wamp said. "The Haslams are a family that have had a tremendous financial influence in the state for a long period of time."

Mr. Haslam, who also is facing Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons and possibly Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey for the Republican nomination, was president of the Pilot Corp. chain of travel centers and CEO of Saks Direct, the online arm of the Saks Fifth Avenue chain of department stores. First elected mayor in 2003, his current term ends in 2011.

His campaign on Friday released an 88-person list of early financial backers. The campaign has taken in $3 million in donations, according to the list, which is not to be published in its entirety until Sunday morning. More than half a dozen contributors are from the Chattanooga area.

"We're running a statewide race, and Chattanooga is a big part of the state," said Haslam Finance Director Kim Kaegi. "People like Mr. Haslam's proven executive experience in public service and private business."

Mr. Probasco said experience played a role in his decision, but family ties were a part of the process, too.

"I would love to see (Mr. Wamp) ... step out of this race and maintain his congressional seat for at least another two years," said Mr. Probasco, a retired SunTrust bank executive. "He's built up real seniority in Washington and could be so terribly effective there."

Often family ties matter in politics, but so does the appearance that one candidate is better financed than another, said Dr. Bob Swansbrough, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga political scientist.

"You have to question whether these backers see Mr. Haslam as the better or most viable candidate," Dr. Swansbrough said. "They like to bet on the winning horse. His family has considerable fortune, so on their own they can raise significant amounts of money, and so many times that matters in statewide races."