Last night in Knoxville, The Tennessee ConserVOLiance hosted the third Candidate Forum with Zach Wamp for bloggers and activists across the state. As with previous meetings in Nashville and Jackson, it was well attended with excellent questions and answers. With 16 months to go to the 2010 primary and 4 GOP candidates for Governor, a lot of questions will need asking to sort through the candidates and find the one best suited to lead Tennessee. It's not an academic question. The Book makes it clear a nation's quality of life is tied to its leadership. It's no stretch to see how that applies to a state.
Zach Wamp is quite personable with the talent every successful person has of connecting with people quickly and putting them at ease. He remembers names and details about the last time you met and makes you feel comfortable around him. He also has a passion about his purpose. He believes not only that Tennessee needs strong and principled leadership from the next Governor, he believes he is best qualified to deliver it.
I found much to like in his time with us. It began with his contacting The ConserVOLiance and asking if we would meet with him. That's not the usual way such things work. It ended with him spending far more time listening and responding to the questions and interests of the Tennesseans who gathered to meet with him than he did telling those gathered why he was the man for the job. Given the propensity Government has for telling us what to do, it was a refreshing change.
The most impressive things I took away from my time with Wamp were 3 keys he outlined as vital to leading Tennessee: Economic Development, Education and the Power to Convene.
His plan for Economic Development appears sound and he brings considerable experience in the matter to the table. Wamp would bring more manufacturing jobs to Tennessee and look for them in current and future growth industries without ignoring traditional manufacturing sectors. Noting Tennessee is 3rd in the nation in Automotive manufacturing, he sees no reason why we can't be 1st. Understanding that developing practical, affordable alternatives to fossil fuels is integral to both wise Energy policy and Economic prosperity, Wamp wants Tennessee to lead the way in making that happen. He points to announcements by Volkswagen and Wacker (pronounced "Vokker") to build plants in East Tennessee, bringing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment and opportunity, as just two examples of the ends he seeks when pursuing Economic Development for the state.
Such development has long been on Wamp's mind. While he had less direct involvement in the negotiations with VW and Wacker than some in the state, the deals would likely not have been possible without his work and vision. When Wamp got to Washington in 1994, one of his first projects was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Technology Corridor, stretching from the Tri-Cities area in Tennessee to Huntsville, AL, which looked forward to exactly these sorts of projects. The idea was for Tennessee cities and counties to stop competing locally and start collaborating; developing regional assets allowing the entire area to compete with other regions around the country. Regional success spreads wealth and growth across the state at the city and county level. Given the estimated 15,000 total jobs, $2 billion in immediate investment and $500 million in recurring annual revenue which just these two projects bring, not to mention future growth springing from these successes, it's hard to argue with Wamp's vision for Economic Development or his ability to lay the groundwork, infrastructure and collaboration to make it happen.
Key to such statewide and individual prosperity is Education. Noting Tennessee ranks 41st to 45th in Education, depending on what is measured, Wamp would work to change that. I liked his redefinition of education. Most plans to improve Education focus on K-12 and others add College to the mix. Wamp's vision is more expansive. Rather than limit himself to the age 5 to age 25 paradigm, Wamp urged a "conception to grave" strategy. This is not Big Government, "cradle to grave", nanny-state Entitlements. Rather it's a recognition that Education challenges are different at different points in life and solutions should be both mindful of and responsive to that fact.
That approach led Wamp to talk about the need for pregnant moms to be educated about what they can do to reduce risks to themselves and their child while in the womb and to also set that child up for later academic success. He pointed to research showing women who take folic acid while pregnant and breast feed their children pass on to their children the invaluable gift of an 8-10 point increase in IQ in adolescence. Wamp noted the basic skill of reading is key to both scholastic success and learning for a lifetime. He vowed to work on developing reading skills before 4th Grade so that by 10th Grade students retained learning skills to serve them long after graduation. Blending Economic Development with Education, Wamp made the often forgotten point that individuals are ... well, individual! As desirable as a college degree is, not everyone is interested in or suited for it. Wamp would work with Tennessee companies like VW and Wacker to determine valuable skillsets in tomorrow's high-tech manufacturing and then partner with those companies to train students in those skills to match quality workers with good paying manufacturing jobs. Finally, realizing not only does everyone not take the same Education track, few people stay on the path they choose at 18 for their entire life, Wamp's Education agenda would address career challenges later in life - after college or after age 40. Continuing Education, retraining and non-traditional students advocates will find a lot in Wamp's plans for Tennessee.
The devil, of course, is in the details. Wamp noted Tennessee's Governor had less political power compared to some Governors. For instance, overiding our Governor's veto requires a simple majority and not a super majority. Thus, Legislation is not the best path to success for a Tennessee Governor. Wamp shared a lesson he learned from Os Guiness, "The power to convene is greater than the power to legislate!" Wamp sees the office of Governor less in terms of Legislation and more in terms of Leadership; identifying Tennessee's strengths and weaknesses followed by a plan to enhance the strengths and improve the weaknesses.
16 months from the primary, it is hard to predict what issues will be hot in August of 2009, let alone the 4 years after that. However, I was impressed with what the "convening" approach accomplished in the Tennessee Valley Technology Corridor. I was impressed with Wamp's vision for Education and how convening might lead to a different result than legislating. To me "the power to convene" means less regulation and more responsiveness. Wamp promised to lead our state by identifying critical issues and then bringing together Legislators, Business Leaders, Educators and the Citizens of Tennessee to develop a realistic strategy to meet address them. That seems a better strategy than, say, promising to increase spending and taxes on Tennesseans because only the Government knows best how to bail us out of a crisis.
I greatly enjoyed getting to know Congressman Wamp. I hope he'll come visit with us again soon! My thanks to him and his staff for suggesting we get together and making time and resources available to make it happen. Looking ahead, the ConserVOLiance has 3 more candidates to host at upcoming forums. The next is Attorney General Gibbons of Memphis in April. But it's already clear that Tennessee will have some outstanding GOP candidates for Governor. If you would like more information on the upcoming forums with General Gibbons, Mayor Haslam and Lt. Governor Ramsey or if you would like to be put in touch with the Wamp campaign for ongoing information, please email me at [bluecollarmuse at gmail dot com] or check out the candidate websites: