NASHVILLE — State Sen. Todd Gardenhire extols his "Tennessee values" as a Chattanooga native and a Christian in a political mailer while taking a swipe at Democratic opponent Khristy Wilkinson.
"She has Detroit values and wants to bring its failures here," the direct mail piece charges.
Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, also ran the identical piece as an ad in the Cleveland Daily Banner in Bradley County, parts of which also fall in Senate District 10, along with the cities of Chattanooga, East Ridge and Collegedale, and parts of eastern unincorporated Hamilton County.
Detroit has been a longtime poster child for government dysfunction and went into bankruptcy in July 2013. Wilkinson, a Detroit native who says she was born in poverty and left the city at the height of the recession in 2009, has previously noted she understands firsthand what it's like to be disadvantaged and will consider it to be a strength if she's elected to the General Assembly.
The senator's mailer recently began landing in Senate District 10 mailboxes. It features a photo of a smiling Gardenhire, who is seeking a second term, standing on the Walnut Street Bridge with a backdrop of the Market Street Bridge in the background.
"Todd Gardenhire and his opponent couldn't be more different," the mailer says. "He's proven he shares our Tennessee values."
The mailer describes Gardenhire as a "fifth-generation local" who was born in East Ridge, attended Chattanooga's City High, graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and worked successfully in local business for four decades before retiring.
But without mentioning Wilkinson by name, the piece says "only a few years ago, Todd's opponent moved to Chattanooga from Detroit — so it comes as no surprise she wants to raise taxes and increase spending in Tennessee to fund the same kind of failed programs that ruined Detroit."
Wilkinson said she was "surprised to see that he [recently] said he was staying positive — he called me a nihilist in a poll call, which we now know he did because his disclosures have the name of the firm — and his mail piece attacks my 'Detroit' values."
Noting her sons are in local public schools, Wilkinson, who lives in Chattanooga and is a former UTC adjunct professor, said: "I value quality education. I know what it is like to worry about mounting medical bills, so I value affordable health care. I know what it is like to struggle to make ends meet, so I value a living wage. I believe in loving our neighbors, in treating others with dignity and respect, and that everyone deserves an equal chance at success.
"My opponent says that he and I couldn't be more different. I agree."
She charged Gardenhire's record "proves that he values defunding public education" by sponsoring pro-voucher legislation and that "he wants to restrict access to affordable health care — he fought against expanding TennCare even before InsureTN was on the table."
Wilkinson added that the way Gardenhire "treats his constituents and colleagues, and now me, proves that he only values those who look like him, agree with him, and vote the way he does."
When asked whether the mailer was in keeping with his plan to run a positive campaign, Gardenhire said that in a Times editorial endorsing Wilkinson in the contest, the editorial writer "mentioned that Khristy wanted to bring some of the Detroit things she learned up there down here."
"She brought it up, not me. So that's fair game. She is from Detroit. She was educated in Detroit and she mentioned it in y'all's editorial meeting," he said.
Last week, the Tennessee Democratic Party began attacking Gardenhire with a new website, www.firetoddgardenhire.com, to highlight what it called the lawmaker's "failures." Among other things, the website seeks to link Gardenhire's temperament to that of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Gardenhire defended himself at the time and said he intended to remain "positive" in his campaign.
The senator last year voted twice against Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee plan that sought to extend health insurance to some 300,000 low-income Tennesseans using federal dollars available under the Affordable Care Act.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.