(Note: This is part of a series of campaign trail profiles of Tennessee candidates for governor.)
DUNLAP, Tenn. – Bob and Ruth Fleming watched placidly from lawn chairs as the politicians passed by in the Dunlap Independence Day parade – until a red, white and blue bus appeared.
Then they rose, stepped to the front of the crowd with three youngsters in tow and began waving their hands back and forth and shouting.
U.S. Rep. Zachary Paul Wamp, who sometimes calls himself “a heat-seeking missile,” had been marching behind the bus with his wife, Kim. They smiled, waved and occasionally yelled, “Happy Fourth of July!”
The congressman often zipped off to the side to target someone in the crowd for a handshake or vote solicitation.
A band of following supporters wearing “I Back Zach” T-shirts – including son Weston Wamp, 24, and daughter Coty Wamp, 18 – tossed peppermint candy to onlookers, targeting the smallest youngsters.
The Wamps spotted the Flemings. A two-family group hug ensued as the bus paused.
“We got to know him and we got to love him,” Ruth Fleming said of the congressman who wants to be governor after the bus moved on in the slow-motion parade.
Gray-bearded Bob Fleming explained that Wamp – whom he and his wife met prior to moving from Hamilton County to Sequatchie County more than a decade ago – has impressed them in ways ranging from fair-minded mediation in a local development dispute to speaking at the high school graduation of one child and providing a flag for the school of another.
He’s heard the “Fleming Family” perform as a part-time bluegrass band. And he talks conservative Christian values they believe in, Bob and Ruth say.
Such are the folks converted to the cause of a congressman who is running against Washington, who once abused drugs and alcohol but now soberly quotes Scripture and calls for “a religious revival in America.”
Wamp has voluntarily made public his net worth – $830,000, mostly from the value of his Chattanooga home – but declines to say what kind of guns he owns because “that’s nobody’s business.”
Wamp grew up as a Democrat, politically, and a Lutheran, religiously.
He credits Ronald Reagan for converting his politics to Republican; his wife and the Lord for changing his church affiliation to Southern Baptist.
“The Scripture says that where there is no vision, the people will perish,” Wamp says in a standard stump speech line, part of discussing his “20/20 Vision” plan for service as governor. He can later tell you the line comes from Proverbs 29:18.
He wrote the “20/20 Vision” document himself, says Wamp, and – with the help of daughter Coty – wrote the script for the TV ad featuring recruited celebrities.
There have been other changes and contrasts in the life of Wamp, now 52. But it seems that high energy has been a constant and has been used, at least in the last half of his life, to take on and accomplish one goal after another.
“I can do something nobody else in this campaign can do, and that’s build relationships and inspire people,” Wamp says while sitting inside the bus after the Dunlap parade.
The bus has logged more than 45,000 miles since it was purchased 18 or so months ago at a bargain price to traverse the state as a backdrop for his campaign to become governor, Wamp said.
He has recruited six friends with commercial driver’s licenses who apparently know and love him and his political views to alternate on a volunteer basis in driving the vehicle.
“I fire people up. I activate the base,” he said.
In his campaign life, Wamp keeps two cell phones and uses both frequently.
Asked by a man shaking his hand for his strategy, he replies: “Don’t stop ’til you cross the line. Don’t look left, right or over your shoulder.”
His major opponents in the Republican gubernatorial primary began with an advantage in some respects, mostly financial, he said.
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam has an influential family and “immense personal wealth,” Wamp said; Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has “the ability to raise more special-interest money than anybody in the state except the governor.”
“We have two things going for us in this race, and they are passion and intensity,” he said. “Intensity and passion are what’s going to matter down the stretch.”
An insider’s insight
About 48 hours earlier and 120 miles to the northwest in Franklin, gray-goateed Dave Ramsey declared himself fired up and activated shortly after stepping out of the studio of Financial Peace Plaza, where he has spoken to an estimated 4 million radio listeners on one of his daily personal money management broadcasts.
Ramsey greeted Wamp with, “What’s up, governor?”
A bit later, he asked Wamp what the reaction had been to a Wamp campaign TV ad wherein Ramsey joined country and gospel music celebrities in endorsing Wamp.
“It’s been like a string of firecrackers going off all across the state,” replied Wamp.
Multiple celebrities have backed Wamp, ranging from gunmaker Ronnie Barrett to musicians Ricky Skaggs, John Rich, Michael W. Smith and the Oak Ridge Boys.
Personal finance guru Ramsey was among those who also hosted a fundraiser for Wamp. He and his wife both chipped in maximum donations themselves, he said, helping Wamp toward collection of $4 million for the campaign so far.
Ramsey met the congressman a few months earlier and decided, after listening and researching his voting record, that Wamp was “someone who’s got the backbone to say no” to an overreaching and overspending federal government.
“The bad news is, he’s spent a lot of time in Washington. The good news is, he’s spent a lot of time in Washington,” said Ramsey.
Ron Ramsey (no relation to Dave), Haslam and Mike McWherter, who is unopposed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, have questioned how Wamp can claim to oppose Washington when he has been part of Congress. Talk show host Ramsey said he understands.
“In order to protect state sovereignty, you have to know how the feds think,” he said.
Yes, said Wamp, he knows how the feds think – being personally acquainted with the likes of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – and that gives him “important insight that few people have to put together a plan” to combat their thinking as governor.
Wamp lost his first race for the 3rd Congressional District seat in 1992 to Democratic U.S. Rep. Marilyn Lloyd. Before that he had worked in the campaign of former Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts, served as chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party and as a regional director for the state GOP.
Lloyd did not seek re-election in 1994 and Wamp then defeated Democrat Randy Button, pledging at the time not to serve more than 12 years.
The pledge was tied into the “Contract with America that was the fad of 1994,” Wamp said, and he voted for term limits in accord with the promise. But term limits failed to pass and, at the urging of friends and supporters, he decided to go beyond 12 years.
“I never really felt whole about it, and that’s one reason I decided to run for governor” instead of continuing to hold a safe seat in Congress, he said. Another reason, he said, was that his son and daughter said it was time for him to give up the seat, which includes a Washington-coveted position on the House Appropriations Committee.
He also once declared that he would not accept political action committee money but found that politically impractical.
“If you tie your hands, wealthy people have even more of an advantage,” he explained.
Born at Fort Benning, Ga., while his father was in military service, Wamp grew up in the Chattanooga suburb of East Ridge with his parents, Don and Beth Wamp, two brothers and an adopted sister.
He attended The Lutheran School, a parochial elementary school, and got his high-school degree from The McCallie School in 1976.
Don Wamp, an architect, coached baseball, basketball and football youth teams, and his sons were active participants in sports. The congressman says they were challenged to excel – and did.
His family roots in the region run deep. If you go back to the 1820s, he said, two of his ancestors – Nathan Aldredge on his mother’s side and Enoch Aldredge on his father’s side – were brothers.
“The family tree is a circle – which means I’m Southern,” he said.
His maternal great-grandmother was a full-bloodied Cherokee Indian and, as a congressman, Wamp has sponsored legislation to recognize the “Trail of Tears” removal of Cherokees from their ancestral home to Oklahoma.
But he takes no position “at this time” on the Tennessee Indian issue of the day, the move to grant state recognition to six tribes over objections of the Cherokee Nation, which is fighting the move in court. Lt. Gov. Ramsey, as a legislator, sponsored a bill to grant state recognition.
After high school, Wamp attended the University of Tennessee and the University of North Carolina, though he never graduated – largely, he said, because he decided to return home and help his father and brother in a “Wamp Alliance” architectural and development business.
That was also the period of his problems with substance abuse, including a publicized episode of his arrest on assault charges in a dispute at a bar. The charges were later dismissed and Wamp went into a rehabilitation program.
“I was too wild when I was young,” he said. “I walked out of the Lord’s will and wasted my talents. … I put that behind me.”
He has since served as a counselor to others with problems and has not had a drink himself for 26 1/2 years, he said.
Four months after rehab, Wamp met a bank employee and asked her to lunch. When she agreed, he sent flowers and asked her to dinner, too. And, by the end of the ensuing evening, he had told Kim Wamp, as she recounted in a recent campaign walk in Franklin, “You are going to be my wife and we will live together the rest of our lives.”
“It was kind of scary … or at least made me a little bit nervous,” she said. But Zach Wamp was right.
At the time, he recalls, “I was really pursuing the Lord to start a new life, mentally, physically and spiritually … and I just knew the Lord was going to bring me a new wife.”
Besides the family business, Wamp also has worked for Olan Mills, a photography company, and then became a commercial real-estate broker. He was a vice president of Charter Real Estate Co. and served with Fletcher Bright Co. in the 1980s and early 1990s, while keeping up an interest in politics.
“I killed what I ate,” he said, meaning that he drew no salary in commercial real estate, only commissions. He earned a six-figure income, handling 75 major commercial and industrial transactions in five years, he said.
Living on commission is “good for anybody,” he said, and honed instincts that have helped in politics and helped build relationships.
Prayer and fellowship
In Washington, relationships at least once brought unwanted attention for Wamp – namely those established at the “C Street House,” a townhouse that in turn has been linked to The Fellowship Foundation, a religious organization that hosts prayer meetings for members of Congress.
C Street made national news after Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford acknowledged receiving counseling on extramarital affairs there.
The Office of Congressional Ethics last month dismissed a complaint by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that contended several members were receiving below-market rent at the C Street house, according to The Roll Call newspaper.
“It was all wildly distorted and incredibly unfortunate,” said Wamp. “To meet with good people on a regular basis, a spiritual basis, is a good thing. … People have the right, even while holding elective office, to associate with who they choose in their private lives.”
Also, Wamp said, he finds it “ridiculous” and “disingenuous” that his success in pushing for economic development in his congressional district has come under attack, as with Ron Ramsey calling him “king of earmarks” and media reports questioning the Tennessee Valley Corridor, which is represented by the AkinsCrisp public relations firm that also is retained by his campaign.
“I didn’t create Oak Ridge; I inherited it. I inherited Chickamauga Lock,” he said, naming the home of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and related entities dependent on federal funding and the aging navigational passage through a TVA dam near Chattanooga that is in need of federally-financed repair.
“I can’t control how much people despise the United States Congress. … I can’t control how much Haslam spends or the decisions Ron Ramsey makes,” he said.
But if elected governor, Wamp said, he can use knowledge of Washington to confront the federal government on its excesses and push at the same time, for example, for creation of a “Defense Corridor” in Middle Tennessee to tap into supplying the needs of the federally-financed military.