Oh, Henry 

Van Hilleary may have a significant GOP challenge after all

Van Hilleary may have a significant GOP challenge after all

The rap on 4th District U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, who has essentially been running for the 2002 GOP gubernatorial nomination for the better part of four years, is that he’s arguably not a Republican’s Republican, much less a Democrat’s Republican.

In other words, key members of his own party regard him as a second-stringer whom they doubt can rise to next year’s general election challenge. But as it turns out, the state Republican Party may drop Hilleary like a bad habit yet.

That’s because of the possible candidacy of a Republican who is highly regarded in his own ranks and has been a longtime friend of Tennessee Democrats as well. He is Jim Henry, former state House minority leader and former chairman of the

“He is a very good person. He is my friend,” says former state House Majority Leader Tommy Burnett, whose comments aren’t insignificant, given his reputation for fervent populist ideas and Democratic rhetoric.

In fact, despite their partisan polarity, when they were in the Legislature together, Burnett and Henry shared a downtown suite that had an adjoining room where they used to entertain friends and fellow legislators. “We got on the House floor and had war, but when it was over, it was over, and that was the way it ought to be,” Burnett remembers. “We had an agreement that we didn’t take it back to the apartment.”

All of this is to say that if Henry, of Kingston in East Tennessee, decides to run, he would be a very real threat to Hilleary. He says he’ll make up his mind in the next few weeks about whether to seek the state’s top office.

Part of his attraction is that he seems not to have a phony bone in his body. While other potential candidates would say they’ve “been approached” about running and are considering it, Henry says, “No one can talk you into running for governor if you don’t want to run.”

He says it has become “very apparent that people were interested in the primary”—another truthful, if tactful, way of saying that many Republicans aren’t sold on the idea that Hilleary could beat the Democratic nominee. (Early bets are on Phil Bredesen.)

As House minority leader during Gov. Lamar Alexander’s tenure, Henry carried the administration bills in the Legislature, so he now enjoys the advantage of relationships with Alexander and other notable Republicans. Henry also points to his 12 years of state experience, which will no doubt be germane in the governor’s race, given a triennium of state budget boondoggles.

“I think the potential is very good for him to run,” Burnett says. “A lot of [Republicans] would be very happy to see him run. A lot of them are not necessarily happy with the congressman from the 4th District.”

A low bar

One wonders whether the reaction to Lt. Gov. John Wilder’s epiphany—that an income tax might be the right cure for the state after all—says more about him or the electorate’s expectations.

Last weekend, Wilder admitted to being a self-seeking opportunist during last year’s election, then went on to say that maybe he’ll consider doing the right thing now that it’s safe. The whole thing had The Tennessean hailing him as a great statesman. In an editorial titled “Leadership and wisdom from Lt. Gov. Wilder,” the newspaper said Wilder “this week demonstrated both a selflessness and a sense of responsibility to the state.”

It’s hard to know which is worse—the newspaper’s reaction or Wilder’s explanation for having earlier signed an anti-income tax plan: “Last year at this time, I was more interested in being reelected than doing what’s right.”

To reach Liz, call 244-7989, ext. 406.


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