Mike McWherter, Democratic candidate for Governor, made a campaign stop in Smithville Wednesday.
During a town hall style meeting at the courthouse, McWherter, son of former Governor Ned Ray McWherter, laid out his vision for the state and why he wants to be the next Governor of Tennessee. During the question and answer session, McWherter was asked about his stand on education, roads and bridges, and elected versus appointed school superintendents among other issues.
Following the meeting, local reporters asked McWherter about specific issues. The following are the questions and his responses.
How is the campaign progressing?
"We've been visiting all 95 counties across the state and I've found we have a lot of family friends in all these counties and it's up to our campaign to build a winning organization around that."
Why do you want to be Governor?
"As you look across Tennessee we have seen literally thousands of jobs disappear. Our state unemployment is running right at eleven percent. That's the highest it's been in my working lifetime. I believe Tennessee needs a Governor who will put the retention and creation of jobs front and center on the agenda and that's why I'm running for Governor."
Won't that be a difficult task given the state of the economy?
"Everybody who pays taxes in Tennessee right now has an investment in three big signature industries, Hemlock, Wacker, and Volkswagen that have located in this state and are under construction right now. I think for all of us to get the return on our investment we have in those industries, the next Governor has got to go after the supplying industries for those companies, if it's seatbelts, head lights, or solar parts, we've got to go after those companies and get them to locate here in Tennessee. But to do that we've got to have our infrastructure in place. As a businessman, I well understand what it's going to take to be able to attract those industries and get the return on our investment."
Are Jobs and Roads going to be your top priority?
"In my administration, it'll be about job creation, but I don't ever want to imply that I don't take educational issues very seriously in this state. As a matter of fact, I think the two go hand in hand. One of the main things Industry is looking for is training and development for their work force at all times. You just can't go out and get a job today, a good paying technical job, and not expect to have updated training, so that's got to be a key component in developing jobs in this state as well as infrastructure."
Does the state's tax base need to change to create more revenue?
"If I can get Tennessee back to work and I'll be doing that with the help of the legislature and my cabinet, we will create consumers and consumers will create revenue. It was just three years ago that this state was running at a surplus, of course we had low unemployment in those days, but there was such a surplus that legislators voted for block grants for their districts giving money to various needy organizations. If we can get people back to work we'll have that kind of surplus again. We're making some tough budget decisions this year and as this economy turns around I don't want to see us go on a spending spree. I think once we get some of these cuts under our belt we need to evaluate how we spend any surplus money we will have in the future and make sure we build back our rainy day fund and any excess revenue we have, make sure it's utilized in such a way that it helps build this economy for the future."
Should state government be downsized?
"I don't know that state government has to be downsized dramatically. There are a lot of services that state government provides that are essential services. I believe we've done a pretty good job under Governor Bredesen of controlling the growth of state government and that's something I want to continue doing is to watch every penny and make sure we're getting the maximum bang for our buck. So I'm not so much worried about the size of state government as I am efficiency. I want to make sure that state government is efficient."
Do you support expansion of the Pre-K program?
"I think the pre-K program in this state has been a home run. It is a model for the rest of the country. If you can get these students to foster a love of learning at an early age, it will carry them through their entire education career. That's what we have to do. It's a voluntary program. A lot of people don't want to be in it because they'd rather have their kids at home. But it's a program that helps a lot of disadvantaged youth and fosters a love of learning in them early on and it's a whole lot cheaper to educate than it is to incarcerate."
Should Pre-K be mandatory rather than voluntary?
"I would want it to continue to be voluntary. As I said some people want to keep their kids at home at that age so I think it should totally be a voluntary program all across the state. There is a huge waiting list so as revenue returns that's one area where I would like to see us expand upon".
Why do you oppose elected School Superintendents?
"Teachers are accountable to principals. Principals are accountable to Superintendents. Superintendents are accountable to an elected school board. There is voter accountability in our school system through electing our school boards. I think it is a terrible mistake for superintendents to have to go out, take time away from the school, to raise money and then they have to go out and campaign."
What are your thoughts about the Hurricane and Sligo Bridges?
"I know the Hurricane Bridge and the Sligo Bridge are both big issues in this county. As the next Governor if I'm going to be successful in helping to recruit industry into these areas then you're going to have to have the infrastructure in place. I want to be very careful that I don't go out and start making a bunch of campaign promises but If I'm able to fulfill my vision for the state of Tennessee it's going to involve having the infrastructure in place so that we can go out and really sell these areas, recruit jobs, and get people back to work."
What is your business background?
"I'm a small businessman in Jackson, Tennessee. I own an Anheuser-Busch distributorship there. A lot of people think I went into a family business. I did not. My father has his company and I have mine. I borrowed the money and I remember paying it back so I know it's mine. I serve on the Jackson Energy Authority Board, which is our local utility there and it provides everything from wastewater to electricity and natural gas, to water and broadband services and I think that working with JEA has given me a unique background in what it takes to keep industry in your area and what it takes to recruit industry in your area. Industry today has to compete on a global basis and as a utility we constantly have to be mindful of the infrastructure that we have in place there so that our industries can be competitive on a global basis and we have to be mindful of what industry is looking for to come and locate in that area. I think it's important that we maintain our state as a low tax state. It makes us very attractive to industry all across the country and if we can be a low tax state and at the same time be mindful of building our infrastructure I think we are a natural location for industry to come."
How active will your father, former Governor Ned Ray McWherter, be in your campaign?
"My father always has been and I guess always will be my number one advisor. I'm 54 years old and I have learned after 54 years that he is much more frequently right than wrong so I listen to him a lot. He has been really engaged in my campaign. He is still probably more familiar with the state budget than anyone else in the state except for maybe Governor Bredesen right now. But he is very engaged. You will see him out on the campaign trail. He is very interested. He told me before I ever decided to run that one thing he wanted to do is visit all 95 counties again because there's a lot of projects he got underway and a lot that have matured that he got started. He said he wanted to go visit all the counties and see those projects brought to completion or maturity so I told him when we started this campaign that he would get that chance."