Bredesen goes all out in Senate race with Blackburn

Former Governor of Tennessee Phil Bredesen and former First Lady of Tennessee Andrea Conte share a laugh during the Tennessee Democratic Party Three Star Dinner at the Wilson County Expo Center in Lebanon on June 16, 2018.

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories profiling the major candidates for Tennessee's U.S. Senate and governor seats. Next week, we will begin profiling candidates in the governor's race.


Name: Phil BredesenPolitical Party: DemocratAge: 74Education: Harvard University, undergraduate degree in physicsVolunteer/community service: Founded Nashville’s Table, The Land Trust for TennesseeFamily: Wife, Andrea Conte; son, Ben BredesenWhy are you running? “I love the people of Tennessee. Not only do we need and deserve something better than what we’re getting from Washington, we need and deserve a senator who can make that happen. That’s why I’m applying for the job.”Favorite movie: “If it doesn’t have swords or lasers, I’m less interested.”

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Accomplishments and achievements relative to politics: Recruited NFL’s Tennessee Titans, NHL’s Nashville Predators to Nashville, built football stadium, arena as mayor. Pushed tougher standards in K-12 as governor, expanded pre-kindergarten programs, revamped K-12, public college funding formulas, economic incentive, helped recruit companies including Volkswagen, Wacker.

Who’S running for U.S. Senate

Republican:› Marsha Blackburn, Brentwood› Aaron L. Pettigrew, MurfreesboroDemocrat:› Phil Bredesen, Nashville› Gary Davis, Nashville› John Wolfe, ChattanoogaIndependent:› Trudy A. Austin, Crossville› John Carico, Cleveland› Dean Hill, Franklin› Kevin Lee McCants, Murfreesboro› Breton Phillips, Gallatin› Kris L. Todd, MilanSource: Tennessee secretary of state, division of elections

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. - Over a lunch of hamburgers and tea in a sweltering, rural Bedford County barn on this family beef-cattle farm, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Phil Bredesen and a group of farmers talked trade, tariffs, soybeans and Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey.

"I think you use a scalpel, not an ax," the former two-term governor said of what he would prefer instead of President Donald Trump's use of tariffs against close U.S. allies and China as part of the president's hard-knuckled negotiating stance on fair trade.

David Womack, a farmer and former president of the American Soybean Development Foundation, was worried about the dispute's ramifications, noting "the trade war affects us in agriculture. It affects us first."

Farmers also fretted about the impact on the Jack Daniel's distillery in nearby Lynchburg. One farmer said corn used in the whiskey making process is later used by dairy farmers for their cows. The internationally known brand has already been the target of retaliatory tariffs.

The Flat Creek community gathering was one in an ongoing series of roundtable events Bredesen's campaign is holding across the state. He solicits views while also highlighting, through news coverage, his thoughts about Washington.

And Bredesen also uses the events to refresh Tennesseans' memories of his own record, first as Nashville mayor and later as governor, as he returns to the political stage after an eight-year absence.

It's a race the 74-year-old never envisioned making until last year when his longtime friend, Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Chattanooga, announced he wouldn't seek re-election.

Running largely unopposed in the Republican primary is U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, a long-time favorite of many GOP conservatives in the state.

Bredesen, known as a moderate, and Corker go back to the mid-1990s, when Bredesen was Nashville's mayor and Corker the then-state finance commissioner for Republican Gov. Don Sundquist. In various roles over decades, they worked together on projects, including the successful recruitment of the NFL's then-Houston Oilers to Nashville and, while governor, working with Corker and local officials in 2008 to bring Volkswagen to Chattanooga.

"I had no intention of doing anything else when I left the governor's office," said Bredesen, who later succeeded Sundquist as governor and served from 2003-2011. "When Corker said he wasn't going to run again, I had people calling me."

Seeing polling numbers showing Bredesen a few percentage points ahead of Blackburn, some Republicans urged Corker to reverse his decision not to run, which Corker briefly did before announcing he would not. He then made national news when he said that although he was backing Blackburn, he wouldn't campaign against Bredesen.

Public polling continues to show a tight contest. Bredesen hopes to pick up support from Republicans and independents like he did running for governor.

Bredesen says his approach to governance has "always been kind of bipartisan for lack of a better word. I mean almost everything I did as governor we managed to have significant 'D' and 'R' support for, if you look back at the votes."

He says he isn't reflexively anti-Trump and will support the president and Senate Republicans when he agrees with them and oppose them when they differ.

"I don't like this hyperpartisanship" in Washington, he notes. "I've never liked political theater and that's what it's become up there. And I'm not the only one who feels that way."

Tennessee has become increasingly Republican over the past 25 years. But with Republicans now holding a razor-thin margin of 51-49 in the U.S. Senate, the Tennessee race is shaping up as one of the hottest contests. Depending on the outcome, it could tip the balance to Democrats, a fact that Blackburn and fellow Republicans, including Trump, have hit upon repeatedly.

Last month, the president came to Nashville for a rally in which he praised Blackburn and blasted Bredesen as a "total tool" of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. After seemingly forgetting Bredesen's last name, Trump gifted him with one nickname, dubbing him "Phil whatever-the-hell-his-name is," before finally settling on "Philbert."

Bredesen says he's nobody's "tool" and will oppose Senate Democrats if he disagrees with their stances, just as he went against fellow Democrats as governor in areas ranging from cutting 180,000 low-income people from TennCare roles - the program was unsustainable he said - to once calling President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act's impact on states "the mother of all unfunded mandates."


Born in New Jersey, Bredesen's father left his mother for another woman. His mother moved to tiny Shortsville, New York, where she, Bredesen and his brother lived with the boys' grandmother. His mother worked as a bank teller while his grandmother took in sewing to support the family.

Getting into Harvard University on scholarship in the early 1960s, Bredesen earned an undergraduate degree in physics. He later worked for several companies, married and then divorced.

He then met Andrea Conte, a nurse. The couple married, then moved to Nashville in 1975 when Conte was recruited to work for HCA, the Nashville-based hospital company. After arriving, Bredesen focused on creating his own company, HealthAmerica Corp., an insurance company.

When the company sold in 1986, he became became a multimillionaire at age 43.

The businessman says he got his taste for politics while at Harvard, inspired by President John F. Kennedy, also a Harvard graduate. Bredesen ran as a Democrat in 1969 for a Massachusetts Senate seat against a Republican incumbent. He lost.

It wasn't the last time. Twelve years after coming to Tennessee, he ran for Nashville mayor in 1987, losing to then-U.S. Rep. Bill Boner. Bredesen immediately turned around and ran for Boner's congressional seat, only to fail again.

Boner didn't seek a second term. This time, Nashville was ready for an outsider, and Bredesen won the 1991 mayoral race.

During his terms, Bredesen pushed economic development, built schools, a new downtown library and successfully enticed the NFL's Oilers to relocate to Nashville, as well as the NHL franchise now known as the Nashville Predators. Along the way, he built an arena, now home of the Predators, and a stadium for the Titans.

While Bredesen was still mayor, panicky state Democrats persuaded him to run to succeed Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter in 1994. He lost to Sundquist in a year when Republicans not only won the governor's mansion but both U.S. Senate seats. The seats have been in GOP hands ever since.

Eight years later in 2002, Bredesen ran again, this time to succeed the term-limited Sundquist.

In the governor's race, Bredesen's campaign deftly exploited GOP divisions - a number of Republicans backed him over U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, a hard-line GOP conservative. The Democrat won, narrowly. Armed with a track record and high favorability, Bredesen easily won all of the state's 95 counties in his 2006 re-election.

As the new governor entered office, Bredesen benefited from a previously passed major sales-tax increase rammed through the General Assembly by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to avoid approving Sundquist's income tax proposal.

But he still had to make cuts. Before long, he realized his hopes of fixing the ailing TennCare program wouldn't work and he successfully pushed changes leading to disenrollment of tens of thousands from the program.

"That was difficult but it was essential," Bredesen said.

In his last year in office, his administration shepherded through Tennessee's application for Obama's Race to the Top education grant program in which the state won a $500 million federal grant to implement comprehensive school reform plans over a four-year period.

Bredesen said he also was able to bolster the state's Rainy Day reserve fund, which stood the state in good stead when the Great Recession struck in 2008, and made cuts as well.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat, said that when he served in the state Senate he "saw Governor Bredesen work with anyone, no matter the party, to get things done for Tennesseans. In a time of so much polarization, Gov. Bredesen is a leader who will push past politics to focus on health care, education and economic prosperity."


Since leaving office, Bredesen has served as chairman of Silicon Ranch Corp., a solar company he co-founded with two former commissioners from his administration. Earlier this year, Royal Dutch Shell oil took a 44 percent stake in the firm for up to $217 million.

After Bredesen announced his candidacy in December, the Cook Political Report's senior editor, Jennifer Duffy, wrote the former governor put Tennessee's race in "toss-up status," noting that "for Republicans, this seat which seemed like a very safe bet at the start of the cycle is now one of its most vulnerable."

Six months later, Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said the outcome of the contest remains unclear.

"My big concern about Phil Bredesen as a candidate - and the same for Marsha Blackburn - is not having run in a competitive election for a long time," he said, noting neither has had a tough race since 2002. "Is the fire still there? Do you still have what it takes?"

Still, he said, "so far it looks pretty good" at this point for Bredesen. "He's getting aid from some Republicans, ambiguously in the case of Corker.

"It looks like he'll be competitive, but whether that will overcome partisan ties of voters remains to be seen," Oppenheimer said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.