Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann: Against All Odds

When seven-term Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp announced he was leaving Congress to seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, no fewer than 11 candidates jumped into the GOP primary for his 3rd District (Chattanooga-Cleveland) House seat.  However, the smart money was on the “real race” for the nomination—between the two candidates best known in Republican circles, former State GOP Chairman Robin Smith and Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble.

All other candidates, concluded the political “experts,” were also-rans and need not apply.

But the experts, as was the case for many contested primaries in unpredictable 2010, were completely off the mark.  The smart money wasn’t so smart—it had not reckoned with Chuck Fleischmann.

“And, yes, it was a bit discouraging when we started the race and the press kept saying it was ‘between Robin and the sheriff,’ ” recalled Rep. Fleischmann during a recent interview in his Washington office.  “Quite honestly, it was nice just to read something that said ‘Robin and the sheriff and Chuck’—like Human Events.”

A graduate of the University of Illinois in three years (“I couldn’t afford the fourth, so I had to graduate early”) and University of Tennessee (Knoxville) Law School at 23, the young Fleischmann was a litigator with a commercial practice.  His political experience consisted of doing volunteer work for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign while an undergraduate, and campaign chores for fellow Republicans in the the Volunteer State such as Sen. Bob Corker.

Barely known on the political front, Fleischmann had a wide circle of friends from his years of involvement in the community.  A past president of the Chattanooga Bar Association who had years of pro bono legal work under his belt, Fleischmann was also active in local groups ranging from the Boy Scouts to FACES (Family Assessment, Counseling and Education Services, which helps parents and children deal with divorce).  From those activities, the fledgling candidate raised considerable money and attracted committed volunteers who would hold coffees at their homes, canvass door-to-door, and make phone calls on his behalf.

Was there any significant issue difference between Fleischmann and the two presumed front-runners?

“No, not at all,” replied Chip Saltsman, the former state Republican chairman and Fleischmann campaign consultant whos is now the freshman lawmaker’s chief of staff.  “Chuck was strongly pro-life, for repeal of ObamaCare, against any tax cuts, and not only favored major cuts in federal spending but wanted to put entitlements on the table.  If there was any difference, it was in the way he articulated these positions—never any harsh rhetoric and always upbeat and positive about the future.”

Recalling how opponent Smith had endorsements from many national conservative groups, Saltsman noted that his candidate contrasted his own record of community service with her background in politics.  And, he added, “We did say that Chuck was not the candidate of the political elites in Washington.”

Was the endorsement of former Gov. Mike Huckabee (whose presidential bid in ’08 Saltsman had managed) a major boost to Fleischmann?

“No question about it,” says Fleischmann, recalling how local supporters of the former Arkansas governor (who carried Tennessee’s 3rd District in the ’08 presidential primary) had been treated shabbily by then-State Chairman Smith in the delegate-selection process.  “Chip arranged for Gov. Huckabee and me to speak.  We hit it off and he not only endorsed me, but came into Chattanooga to campaign on my behalf.  We sure got a lot of publicity from that.”

Primary night stretched out into the next day and the day after that.  When it was all over, Fleischmann had edged Smith by a margin of 30% to 28%, or about 1,300 votes out of 80,000 cast.  In November, the first-time candidate for anything was elected to Congress with 57% of the vote.

Ultimately, Everything Has To Be on the Table

When Fleischmann sat down for an interview with Human Events, it was only days after more than 50 of his fellow House Republicans had voted against a Continuing Resolution out of frustration with spending cuts they considered too small and too few.  Fleischmann voted for the resolution.

“If we continue to cut something with each resolution, I would say we’re making steady progress and sending a strong conservative message,” he told us.  But Fleischmann quickly added that “it wasn’t an enthusiastic ‘yes’ vote, believe me.  The way I look at CRs, you can’t kick the can down the street every two weeks—especially when the last Congress didn’t even pass a budget last year and left us a mess to deal with.  Sooner, rather than later, we have to do something—and a lot more than a freeze on the non-defense, discretionary spending the President is always talking about.”

At this point, he is warming up to one of his favorite subjects: Putting entitlements, which consume the most federal spending by far, on the table and reforming them.

“Ultimately, everything has to be on the table,” Fleischmann said.

Although many politicians talk about this, the Tennessean has obviously thought about how the reform of entitlements would be executed.  In his words, “first, we change the law, call ‘Time out,’ and do not permit them to be simply mandated.  Then we do an audit on the status of Medicare, Medicaid, and all entitlements.  We determine whether we need these programs, and whether they are antiquated and we need something else.”

As if making a closing argument in a major case, Fleischmann said that “we must get all the facts on the table, and then determine where we go.  But we have to do it.”

Recalling what motivated him to give up a successful law practice and seek office, Fleischmann says without hesitation it was the election of Barack Obama in ’08.

“I didn’t eat for two days when Bill Clinton won, but after Obama’s election, I was genuinely depressed,” he said.  “I felt fear for the first time, because I sensed a true left-wing ideologue was in charge and this would be detrimental to our country in the long run.  As a conservative ideologue, I felt it was my duty to do something about this.  And I’m sure going to give it my best.”