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NASHVILLE - Feathers are flying in Tennessee's U.S. Senate race in the form of $46,000 in unpaid fees at a South Carolina resort and how a $1 option to buy into a newspaper later turned into a $620,000 personal profit back in 1981.
Toss a yellow fowl clad in a red-plaid shirt into the political fryer and the contest between Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democrat Gordon Ball seems as fiery as Tennessee hot chicken as the candidates sprint down the final stretch toward the Nov. 4 election.
The latest developments came Wednesday as the Knoxville News Sentinel reported that Ball, a multimillionaire lawyer, owes more than $46,000 in fees he owns on property in a resort near Hilton Head, S.C.
With a top Tennessee Republican Party official calling Ball a "hypocrite," the candidate sought to downplay the report as he kicked off a "No Show Lamar" bus tour in which he appeared with an aide dressed in a chicken suit and lambasted Alexander over his refusal to participate in a series of televised debates.
"In 2009 I bought a vacant lot in South Carolina in a place called Palmetto Bluff," the Knoxville attorney explained to reporters. "I was going to build a rental house on it. The market went south. I didn't build the rental house."
Ball said the money owed "are maintenance fees on a vacant lot. The lot's for sale and as soon as the lot sells, obviously I will have to pay all the maintenance fees, which we will do. And that's that."
Well, state GOP Chairman Chris Devaney later said, that isn't that. He charged that "Gordon Ball clearly isn't concerned with the fact he owes nearly $50,000 in fees and taxes, and that may be why he supports policies hammering Tennessee families with higher taxes and fees."
Devaney said it "takes a severe level of cognitive dissonance to be this careless with your own finances but then expect Tennesseans to pay taxes and fees to pay for big government policies immediately."
Meanwhile, Ball elaborated on a theme he first broached with Alexander in a Tennessee Farm Bureau forum last week where the Democrat criticized Alexander's role decades ago in the sale of the now-defunct Knoxville Journal.
As governor, Alexander had a $1 option in the newspaper.
"He's a career politician who admitted last week ... that he took a $620,000 fee in 1981 as a finder's fee," Ball said. "How do you take a finder's fee when you're the governor of the state of Tennessee? How do you take a finder's fee for bringing somebody in to Tennessee, some new business into Tennessee? He's done that for years."
Responding to the charge last week, Alexander told reporters, "That's pretty old. That was like a Realtor fee or a finder fee. A group of us including [then-U.S. Sen. Howard] Baker had a right to buy the Journal. We sold that to Gannett and they paid us for it. That's called capitalism. There was no conflict of interest in that."
As Ball was making his remarks on Wednesday, he standing next to a 6-foot-tall chicken wearing the same-style checkered shirt Alexander wore in two successful gubernatorial campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s.
"He won't come out, he won't come out and fight," Ball said of Alexander to a group of reporters as he kicked off a "No Show Lamar" bus tour. "He'll fight on TV, and he'll fight through his TV ads, but that's it."
Ball and Alexander made their only joint appearance last week before Tennessee Farm Bureau leaders. The Farm Bureau said it wasn't intended to be a debate. But nonetheless the event sometimes took on aspects of one as the two clashed.
Still, Alexander has refused to take Ball up on the Democrat's call for a series of televised debates across the state.
Ball didn't directly call Alexander a "chicken" Wednesday, but he referred to the chicken as "Lamar."
During the event, Ball was joined by former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., and Nashville businessman and prominent Democratic donor Bill Freeman. Handing the chicken a $5 bill, Freeman quipped the three wanted a similar deal.
"We're all three private citizens," Ball said. "You have to be governor to get it."
On Thursday, Ball and six independent candidates plan to hold their own debate in Nashville. Alexander, who has an earlier speaking engagement several blocks away, isn't participating.
Others participating include Joshua James, a Libertarian, whose campaign put together the debate as well Constitution Party candidate Joe Wilmoth; Green Party candidate Martin Pleasant; Danny Page, an independent constitutional conservative; Edmund Gauthier, a constitutional independent; and "anti-party" candidate, and Tom Emerson, a tea party member running as an independent.
Alexander's seat is considered solidly Republican by a number of neutral observers including the Cook Political Report.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.