Businessmen Want To Be Governor

Oct 7, 2010

Nashville, TN – Tennessee's two main candidates for governor both tout their credentials as businessmen, but--as businessmen go--they are competing from near opposite ends of the spectrum. Republican Bill Haslam's Pilot truck-stop company employs thousands. That dwarfs Democrat Mike McWherter's 50 person operation as a beer distributor.

At a business luncheon in Jackson, contractor David Watlington said any business experience is helpful, whether the company is big or small.

"Generally both of them have learned to work with people, and believe me, that's what your governor has to know. The ability to work with people is everything in business and it's also everything in politics." Watlington said.

Watlington builds banks, churches and hospitals, and employs a few hundred when times are good. But he says this past year saw a shift to smaller projects, and more repairs instead of new construction.

Watlington says a small businessman might have an advantage as governor, from being more hands-on and practical.

And small business is key, says Michael Yarbrough, because people will get back to work one job at a time. Yarbrough runs Laser One, a Nashville company that sells and services printers. He says he's not depending on the government to make jobs happen.

"Being an entrepreneur, you know I don't have the mentality that the government is going to help me succeed," Yarbrough said.

Yarbrough's headcount of 20 is about to grow - right now he's looking to hire someone to manage accounts and market, and will likely add a couple more over the next few years.

Yarbrough says he's not waiting around to see if the next governor offers a development program or big tax incentive.

"To be honest with you I've not depended or used a government program, and I haven't really found one that really fits," Yarbrough said.

Yarbrough sees himself as Independent, leaning Republican. Even so he voted for Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen, and says he'll be sorry to see him go.

Bredesen himself came to public office after founding a healthcare company. He says a business background is a huge advantage, because in many ways the state is like a business itself.

"I think it's particularly helpful when it comes to job recruiting, because you just have a little more of a sense of what really is going through the minds of these CEO's and these businesses who are doing the business relocations," Bredesen said.

At the same time, Bredesen warns the next governor has to approach the job with humility, "There are some powers that you simply don't have anymore in government. I mean, the number of people I can actually fire is much smaller than it would be even at a moderate-size business. And obviously the whole decision process is much more extended, I mean legislature's involved in things..."

And the legislature is not something the next governor will have room to skirt around.

McWherter has never held public office to face such a body, although he had a window to the process during his father's many years at the capitol. As mayor, Haslam has worked with the Knoxville city council, which has nine members.

For comparison, Tennessee's legislature has 132.