TOPICS > Politics

Southern Strategies

October 24, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: 6:45 in the morning, and Van Hillary already is up stumping for votes at a clothing factory in rural Huntsville, Tennessee.

REP. VAN HILLEARY, (R) Tennessee: Van Hillary, nice to meet you.

WOMAN: Nice to meet you.

VAN HILLEARY: I’m going to give you one of these cards.

WOMAN: Thank you.

VAN HILLEARY: It’s good to see you. I appreciate your vote.

WOMAN: All right.

KWAME HOLMAN: Stumping for votes is just what Steve Gill was doing the evening before at a Putnam County Republican barbecue in Cooksville.

STEVE GILL: We’ve got some new ones here. Who’s this one?

WOMAN: John.

STEVE GILL: John. Hi, John. You’re a big boy. That’s a $500 child tax credit right there. You’ve got over $1500 right here. Don’t spend it all in one place.

KWAME HOLMAN: Steve Gill and Van Hilleary have a lot in common. Both men are Republicans. They both believe in a smaller federal government and less taxes. Both ran for Congress two years ago from neighboring districts, and both came to Washington to sign the Contract With America. However, one big difference between Gill and Hilleary is that two years ago, Van Hilleary captured 56 percent of the vote in Tennessee’s 4th congressional district and joined the historic freshman class of the 104th Congress. Steve Gill, on the other hand, came up 2100 votes short in Tennessee’s 6th congressional district and had to stay home.

STEVE GILL, Republican House Candidate: Well, my mom gave me a T-shirt the next day that said, uh, “We didn’t lose; we were just a little behind when time ran out.”

KWAME HOLMAN: If the Republican revolution had a ground zero two years ago, it was in Tennessee. Republicans scored big victories here, taking from the Democrats two Senate seats, two House seats, and the Governor’s Office; a victory by Steve Gill in Tennessee’s 6thcongressional district would have completed the sweep.

STEVE GILL: If all the voters who’ve told me that they would have voted me if they just thought I was going to win, or had a chance at winning, had actually voted for me last time, we’d, we’d have won last time.

KWAME HOLMAN: So Gill is giving those voters another chance. He’s running again.

STEVE GILL: We pretty much started the next day working on this one, and we’ve been working hard to make sure that this time we are ahead when time runs out, not just a little bit behind.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the man who narrowly defeated Steve Gill two years ago also is running again.

BART GORDON: Sure do need all your help.

WOMAN: We’re senior citizens in Hendersonville.

BART GORDON: Good, good.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bart Gordon is a moderate Democrat who has served six terms in Congress and is predicting a more comfortable margin of victory than two years ago.

REP. BART GORDON, (D) Tennessee: Well, I think most people do consider that, since I was the only major Democratic officeholder in Tennessee that won election, the biggest Republican landslide in Tennessee history, that clearly it’s going to be a much different situation, and I think it will be.

KWAME HOLMAN: The situation is different because Bill Clinton’s popularity in Tennessee has rebounded from an all-time low two years ago, and Tennessee native, Al Gore, has made nine trips to his home state to support local candidates, on this day in his own former congressional district.

VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: Ladies and gentlemen, my congressman, your congressman, one of the hardest working individuals ever to serve in the United States Congress, someone who has represented Hendersonville and Sumner County and this whole 6th congressional district with great, great distinction, Congressman Bart Gordon. Thank you, Bart. Thank you. Stand up, Bart.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Bart Gordon doesn’t expect the Clinton-Gore team to give him a boost in his reelection bid. In fact, just the opposite.

BART GORDON: Traditionally, I normally run about, you know, ten or twelve points ahead of whoever the lead Democrat on the national basis is in this district, so I mean, there are–really, they’re going to be riding my coattails in this district.

KWAME HOLMAN: The big difference this year, says Gordon, is being able to link his Republican opponent, Steve Gill, to the policies of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And one way Gordon is holding Steve Gill accountable is through television campaign ads.

AD SPOKESPERSON: Newt Gingrich and national lawyer Steve Gill, two peas in a pod. Newt and Gill want to cut Medicare to give a $245 billion tax break to the wealthy.

NEWT GINGRICH: No, we don’t get rid of it in Round One, because we don’t think that’s politically smart, but we believe it’s going to wither on the vine.

AD SPOKESPERSON: Medicare, wither on the vine? Gill sold out Medicare to give a tax break to the rich.

STEVE GILL: And people ask me why I want to go to Congress to work with this guy. (standing next to Gingrich)

AD SPOKESPERSON: Good question. Steve Gill is wrong, wrong for us.

STEVE GILL: Congressman Gordon’s running an attack ad, claims I sold us out, and kind of implies I voted for Medicare, which comes as quite a shock to those of us who know that I didn’t win two years ago and hadn’t cast a single vote in the Congress.

KWAME HOLMAN: Watching this year’s election drama unfold in Tennessee is longtime Nashville political analyst Lee Smith.

LEE SMITH, Political Analyst: Democrats are doing everything they can to link the Republican candidates for Congress to Speaker Newt Gingrich. He probably is not as unpopular in Tennessee as he may be across the nation. Tennessee is, of course, a neighboring state to Georgia. Tennessee is a rather conservative state, and so his lack of popularity, while perhaps evident to some extent in Tennessee, may not reach the proportions that it does nationally.

KWAME HOLMAN: But that’s not stopping freshman Republican Van Hilleary from setting his record straight. He did vote for a Republican budget that called for a big Medicare savings but not cut, says Hilleary.

VAN HILLEARY: And this is making a concerted effort to scare older Americans into not voting for who they’re for, but they’re voting against us strictly because of fear because they’re afraid that they’re going to take away their very security or have taken away their very security which is in Medicare, and then they throw in Social Security in there for good measure every once in a while. It’s just low-ball politics, and there’s really no place for it, and I don’t care who’s doing it.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Hilleary’s 4th congressional district stretches nearly 350 miles from Southern Virginia to Northern Mississippi and includes 22 counties, three telephone area codes, and two time zones. So Van has leased a van in which he eats, sleeps, and plans campaign strategy as he campaigns from one end of the district to the other.

VAN HILLEARY: We’re out here just killing ourselves, and it’s because it’s important, and, you know, I made a pretty good salary before I ran, and I did it without going up and down the road in 22 counties every single weekend, but I think it’s important for the country. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Nobody should have expected that when we’re trying to change the very structure of government from the way it’s been for the last forty or fifty years. No one should have expected that those who’ve had it their way for so long at the people’s expense and at throwing debt to our children and grandchildren at their expense, nobody should have thought it was going to be easy to take it away from them.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hilleary’s Democratic opponent this year is lawyer and former prosecutor, Mark Stewart. Here, trying to sell his message to voters in the small town of Pleasant Hill.

MARK STEWART, Democratic House Candidate: As I watched them vote to raid Medicare, to give a tax break for the wealthy, as they voted to allow corporations to raid employee pension funds, and as I watched them vote to cut Meals on Wheels, I realized it was time that I get involved because if we don’t do something, this country’s going in the wrong direction, and we need to get it back on track. And that’s why I’m running for Congress.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Van Hilleary’s bigger opponent this year is the AFL-CIO and its multi- million dollar nationwide television and radio campaign aimed at defeating as many House Republican freshmen as possible.


SPOKESMAN: Our Congressman voted five times to block a minimum wage increase, and that’s after he voted to cut Medicare and college loans, all to give a big tax break to the rich.

GARY CEASE: That’s just wrong. Our congressman should stop playing political games and start voting for working families for a change.

SPOKESMAN: Tell Congressman Hilleary, raise the minimum wage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jim Neeley is president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO.

JIM NEELEY, President, Tennessee AFL-CIO: We started out back early in the minimum wage era. This Congressman Van Hilleary on four on five different occasions voted against a minimum wage. We ran some TV spots, pointing out his vote on the minimum wage. He changed his position, and he voted in favor of the minimum wage. Well, we were glad of that.

REP. VAN HILLEARY: It’s something that I struggled with for a long time. I caught heat for waiting so late to decide, and I caught heat for deciding the way I did, and, you know, it’s one of those no-win situations, but you just do the best you can.

JIM NEELEY: The total posture of the AFL-CIO in the state is that we’re going to hold anyone who is elected, whether it’s Mark Stewart or Van Hilleary, responsible for their voting records. If they vote against working families, we’re going to explain their positions to the workers in this state.

KWAME HOLMAN: The AFL-CIO also is spreading its message the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth. This Get Out the Vote meeting in LaFollette brought together union leaders from across Eastern Tennessee.

SPOKESMAN: There is a percentage of people that won’t vote. Are they your friend? Okay. The ones that won’t vote, don’t fool with them. The ones non-registered, don’t fool with. I know a guy that spent a week and a half talking to one that is not going to vote, and he could have got fifteen or twenty more that wanted to know about the issues. Work on the people that wants to know what the issues is, so they can vote. The undecideds we can win.

KWAME HOLMAN: With less than two weeks left to campaign, Van Hilleary continues his long road trip across the 4th congressional district. During one recent stop, Hilleary sat down with senior citizens for lunch and must have been pleased to find very little interest in the debate over Medicare.

VAN HILLEARY: I think I’ve heard a TV ad or something that says Medicare’s being slashed or cut or whatever like that. Has not everybody heard that?

MAN: I’ve heard that. Like I say, I heard something today bout the Meals on Wheels, you know, I heard that this morning.

KWAME HOLMAN: At Democrat Mark Stewart’s town meeting, the first five questions were about education, and throughout the evening, just two questions about Medicare and two about land mine treaties.

MARK STEWART: I haven’t heard anything about that.

WOMAN: Innocent rice farmers for the next 50 years will lose a foot.

SPOKESMAN: For all the candidates, do you believe that tobacco companies ought to be further economically restricted?

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Bart Gordon and Republican Steve Gill faced off in a 6th district debate at Williamson County High School. Students asked dozens of questions but there were no questions about Medicare.

SPOKESMAN: He’s voted for higher taxes. I will not vote to raise taxes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Going into the final campaign stretch, Republican Steve Gill believes he can fend off Bart Gordon’s attempts to link him closely to Newt Gingrich and the House Republican freshman. Gill even offers his own assessment of the 1994 class he almost joined.

STEVE GILL: Well, I’d give him an “A” on policy and a “D” on politics. I don’t think they communicated very effectively what was being done, why it needed to be done to get the broad public consensus and moved a little bit too quick.

KWAME HOLMAN: To win, Steve Gill is depending on the big increase in voter registration that has occurred over the last two years in the fast-growing and typically Republican suburbs around Nashville. But it might not be enough.

LEE SMITH, Political Analyst: Those counties are growing very rapidly in terms of population and insofar as Republican strength is concerned. But the fact that Gill couldn’t win two years ago may mean he’s lost his best chance.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, Republican freshman Van Hilleary appears to be holding a lead over Democratic challenger Mark Stewart. He was confident enough to stop at a grade school to explain how Congress works to a group of non-voters.

VAN HILLEARY: See, that’s what we go through all the time. Everybody wants ice cream. Nobody wants to pay for it.

KWAME HOLMAN: This election year, Tennesseans aren’t expecting the kind of sweeping change that two years ago turned state politics upside down. But with 12 days to go until the elections, most appear to be keeping one eye on the campaigns. In fact, some voters already are making their election day decisions. Tennesseans can cast their ballots casually during a two-week early voting period that will end on Halloween.