Republican congressional candidates Ron Bhalla, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and Weston Wamp answered questions from Chattanooga Tea Party members on Saturday at Woodland Park Baptist Church. Fellow GOP candidate Scottie Mayfield was absent, but was humorously represented by a bow-tie-bedecked yellow milk jug on stage.
Tea Party Vice President Gregg Juster and local talk radio host Brian Joyce co-moderated the discussion. Questions were solicited from Tea Party members prior to the event. The candidates were also allowed to submit one question to be asked of a specific candidate by the moderators.
The three candidates agreed on many of the issues presented in the questions: All said they would vote in favor of a bill that seeks to define human life as beginning at conception (H.R. 374); all affirmed a belief that the definition of marriage excludes same-sex couples; all stated that most of the Patriot Act’s provisions are necessary in the conflict against terrorists; and all agreed that reforms are critically needed in order to preserve Medicare’s viability.
Some differences arose in attempts by the two challengers to paint the incumbent as a “yes man” for party leaders. Wamp noted Fleischmann’s apparently changing positions on the 2011 vote to raise the U.S. debt ceiling as they related to the timing of a closed-door meeting with House Speaker John Boehner.
Fleischmann emphasized that he called the meeting with Boehner to ask that a balanced budget amendment be included and said that he could go along with raising the debt ceiling once he had secured that agreement. Fleischmann added that he voted against the eventual bill because it set up the so-called “Super Committee” to work on deficit reduction.
Bhalla said that his platform, which calls for a district-wide direct vote by constituents on every bill, would alleviate the problem he describes as having powerful lobbyists and party leaders divert a representative’s focus away from the district, even after the voters may “send the best candidate to Washington.”
Wamp, who claims both a deep understanding of and a deep disgust with Capitol politics, echoed in his closing statement that “if we keep sending the same kind of people to Washington, we will keep getting the same result.”
But some of the strongest accord of the day was in the shared criticism of Mayfield, who declined an invitation to debate. Fleischmann’s question, as read by Juster, asked Wamp why Mayfield chose not to appear.
Wamp’s impassioned response about the importance of full participation in the process hinted that the newly retired Mayfield may not have understood what running for Congress entailed and that the decision to run may have been made lightly—all to vigorous nods by Bhalla and Fleischmann.
After the debate, all three campaigns were upbeat as they met with audience members. Jordan Powell, a Fleischmann campaign staffer, said that it’s hard to see a reason 3rd District voters would not continue supporting the incumbent, given his conservative voting record.
Fleischmann added that he thinks he is “very much in line, as a representative of the people in the 3rd District, with [his] voting record” and that he has voted consistently with the fiscally and socially conservative platform on which he ran in 2010.
“Now, whether or how that lines up with leadership, or any other members in Congress, I don’t care," Fleischmann said. "My main goal and my main focus is to be a congressman for the people in the 3rd District of Tennessee.”
When asked what would, in fact, compel voters to choose him instead, Wamp smiled as he described his willingness to fight the party establishment, if needed.
“I’m gonna represent the interests and the people of this district, not what the Republican establishment wants me to do,” he said, adding that “there’s an autonomy” in the fact that each member of Congress, including Boehner, represents roughly the same number of constituents.
The primary is Aug. 2. Dr. Mary Headrick and Bill Taylor are seeking the Democratic nomination. The winner of each primary contest will be on the November ballot with Independent candidate Matthew Deniston.