Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, now a U.S. Senate candidate, visited Bradley County on Wednesday as part of his campaign tour.
The Democrat, who had served as governor from 2003-11, toured the Wacker Polysilicon plant in Charleston. In his capacity as governor, he had helped encourage the German company to invest in Tennessee, beginning in 2009. This was his first seeing the finished plant, which he called “impressive.”
Though he has not spent much time in Bradley County, Bredesen said he has long considered it “a vital county that had a lot of good prospects.”
Following the visit to Wacker, Bredesen spoke to the Cleveland Daily Banner about why he decided to run, what his thoughts are on various issues and what he would do if were to be elected.
"It’s not something I had intended to do, but I had been getting more and more unhappy with what was going on in Washington. When [Sen.] Bob Corker started to leave, people started calling me saying, 'You really ought to just consider this.'"
“I decided I could either sit on the sidelines and complain, or I could try to do something to help fix it," Bredesen said. "I decided on the latter."
After speaking to some who have served as senators, doing some research and talking things over with his wife, he decided to have his name added to the ballot.
Bredesen, 74, said some of his unhappiness stems from the United States' current political climate.
“I think the big thing that overlays everything else is this way in which we have let our political life turn into these tribes and opposite sides of the room yelling at each other, without any real progress,” Bredesen said. “People I talk to across the political spectrum … share this concern that we’ve lost this ability to work together."
Bredesen said he is not naïve enough to think he can single-handedly change this, but he wants to help.
“I think if you have a dozen or 15 senators — I think from both parties — trying to get us back to where we were 10 or 15 years ago, that you can start to make things happen. I would like to be part of that. I have a lot of experience doing that when I served as governor."
Bredesen has been actively campaigning for about 1 1/2 months, and he said many Tennesseans seem to agree that they are frustrated about some of the things which have occurred because of partisan politics.
He said his stint as governor taught him the importance of working with others across the political aisle — even if it means agreeing to a compromise.
“I definitely believe in getting some of what you want rather than getting nothing of what you want because you’re in these hard, partisan positions,” Bredesen said.
He also shared thoughts on a few of the concerns would-be voters have expressed to him so far.
Bredesen said many are concerned about the state of the nation's health care system, particularly when it comes to the affordability of health insurance.
“It’s kind of a mess right now,” Bredesen said. “Tennessee did not expand Medicaid; ‘Obamacare’ has had some difficulties in terms of its implementing. That is an area I have a lot of experience in, both in the private sector and then as governor, both in terms of working with Medicaid services — TennCare — and other health insurance services.”
He said the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the law which currently dictates how health insurance works in the U.S., is in need of revision. However, he said he would not be in favor of repealing it, because many Americans now get their insurance through the federal health insurance marketplace.
“I would like to help stabilize it at whatever level the government feels comfortable subsidizing it, just so people who are depending on this for health care don’t get jerked around by politicians in Washington," he said. "I think Congress has gotten so caught up in playing power games that it forgets who they’re representing and the people who are out there. I think this shows up very clearly in health care."
Bredesen said Tennesseans have also expressed concerns over the United States' budget deficit, which is nearing $1 trillion.
He said Tennessee has long been frugal with its budget, and he hopes to help foster this mindset on the national level.
“As governor, we had eight successful state budgets," Bredesen said, noting the state also took its rainy day fund to a historic high and regained its AAA bond rating. "That was even during the ‘Great Recession’ when a lot of states struggled."
He said he believes the nation getting its budget under control will help with economic development nationwide.
Some companies may worry that a high national debt translates into an unstable financial situation for them, he explained.
“One of the things these companies are looking for is a stable environment where they know what the rules are and that they aren’t going to change,” Bredesen said. “You had one set of rules under Obama, and you have another set of rules under Trump, and the next president who comes along will have another set of rules."
“What companies who see that deficit look at is — it takes money out of the private sector to fund it, when this money could quickly go to build more Wacker plants and other things. Also, [they think] that if there’s going to be something changed in tax policy, it’s going to hurt their profitability.”
Bredesen said he would like to see lawmakers become "more disciplined" about creating sound policies related to financial matters, environmental regulations and other issues which affect companies looking to invest in the U.S.
He also said the U.S. needs to make sure it is taking actions which are in the best interest of companies involved in international trade. He said he was not in favor of President Donald Trump deciding to have the U.S. pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“I am certainly all for a foreign policy where we don’t let anybody push us around, but I am concerned about some things like this trade agreement in the Far East that we stepped out of. I think we’re allowing China to step into a vacuum and take our place in what in what, before too long, will be largest set of economies in the world."
Though education is “much more a state issue than a national issue," Bredesen said Tennessee has done a good job fostering innovation in education, which can also help the economy. He said he would support policies at the national level which would allow states to continue to innovate.
Bredesen knows going into his Senate race that many of Tennessee's voters are conservatives and Republicans. However, he said he hopes voters will keep in mind that he is willing to work "across party lines."
“Even though I’m a Democrat, on a lot of these issues I’ve been sort of a careful conservative,” Bredesen said. “It’s hard to be a more prudent conservative than I’ve been on financial matters, and I’ve been willing take some hard actions to fix TennCare that were definitely not in line with my party’s views on what ought to happen. … I like to be up front about how I feel about things, but I’m not following anybody’s playbook about the issues. I want to try to understand what Tennesseans want, and what is most advantageous to Tennesseans."
People often ask Bredesen if he is running in response to Trump being voted into office. He said no. While he does not agree with the president on everything, he is willing to listen to the ideas he proposes to lawmakers.
“If he’s proposing something that is good for Tennessee, then I need to support it, irrespective of where it comes from. ” Bredesen said. “Likewise, if he’s proposing something I think is not good for Tennessee, I need to oppose it.”
The former governor added he “will not be a foot soldier for anybody” — except for his constituents in general.
Bredesen is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Corker, who has announced he does not plan to run again after his term ends this year. However, there has been speculation that Corker is reconsidering his decision.
“It would not be something that I would have hoped for, but I am in the race to stay, whoever the Republican in the race is,” Bredesen said.
He pointed out Corker would first have to win the Republican primary before the two would truly be vying for votes. Still, he said he is serious about his desire to represent Tennessee in the Senate.
He added he has enjoyed his interactions with would-be voters in this area, and he hopes they will trust him with their votes.
“Even though this is a conservative part of our state, I have enjoyed great support here,” Bredesen said. “I hope to earn that support one more time.”