NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the last Democrat to win a statewide election in Tennessee, touted his problem-fixing credentials on Thursday in announcing his bid to succeed Republican Bob Corker in the U.S. Senate.
Bredesen was a successful health care entrepreneur before winning election to two terms each as Nashville mayor and Tennessee governor. He won every county in the state during his second run for governor in 2006, even after cutting thousands of adults from the state's Medicaid program to help stem exploding costs.
"I have the right kind of experience and the actual track record that it will take to start working across party lines to fix the mess in Washington and bring common sense back to our government," Bredesen said in a video posted on his campaign website.
Democrats are hopeful that Bredesen can buck the Republican trend in Tennessee, a state that famously denied favorite son Al Gore the presidency in 2000 by voting for Republican George W. Bush.
"Phil Bredesen is the kind of Democrat that can win in a state like this — he's done it before," said Will Cheek, a longtime Democratic activist. "I'm not sure he's not the front-runner at this point."
Corker publicly clashed with President Donald Trump both before and after he announced in September that he wouldn't seek a third term representing Tennessee in the Senate. The major Republicans in the race to succeed him are Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former Rep. Stephen Fincher.
Blackburn, 65, so far has emphasized her close alliance with Trump and has taken aim at fellow Republicans in the Senate for failing to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law. Her campaign was quick to criticize Bredesen's candidacy.
"Tennessee families want change and that is not what 74-year-old Democrat politician Phil Bredesen will bring to the United States Senate," Blackburn spokeswoman Andrea Bozek said. "Bredesen's views are out of touch with Tennessee values."
Bredesen grew up in rural Shortsville, New York. After his father left home when Bredesen was 7, he and his brother lived with their mother, a bank teller, and grandmother. He attended Harvard on an academic scholarship and earned a degree in physics in 1967.
After working as a computer programmer in England, Bredesen in 1975 followed his wife, Andrea Conte, to Nashville, where she had gotten a job directing nursing management information services.
Bredesen went $10,000 into debt in 1980 to start HealthAmerica, which bought and turned around troubled HMOs at a time when managed care was in its infancy.
"I was the CEO of a successful public company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, one that I started on my kitchen table and grew to 6,000 employees," Bredesen said in his video.
After selling the company, Bredesen made unsuccessful bids for mayor and Congress. He won the mayor's job in 1991, after Nashville residents grew weary of the harmonica-playing, philandering incumbent Bill Boner. Bredesen's terms were highlighted by attracting the NFL's Tennessee Titans and the NHL's Nashville Predators, and revitalizing the downtown district.
Bredesen narrowly won the 2002 governor's race to succeed unpopular Republican Gov. Don Sundquist, who spent much of his second term unsuccessfully trying to pass a state income tax to help bridge a widening budget gap due to exploding costs of TennCare, the state's expanded Medicaid program.
Once in office, Bredesen stemmed the escalating costs of TennCare by cutting 170,000 adults from the program and reducing benefits to thousands more.
"I have never been through anything like that in my life," Bredesen said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "I didn't run for office to tell people that they no longer have health care."
While those cuts didn't hurt Bredesen's re-election bid — he ended up carrying all 95 counties— they did become an issue when he was under consideration to become Obama's secretary of health and human services in 2011. That job ended up going to then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.
"Too many people can't afford health insurance," Bredesen said in Thursday's video. "The Affordable Care Act needs fixing."
Bredesen said in the video that his time as governor was marked by having to cope with "out of control" costs at TennCare and then with the meltdown of the Great Recession.
"With a lot of hard choices, we managed our way through all of that," he said. "We didn't just get through it, we prospered."
Bredesen noted that Tennessee achieved top bond ratings while bringing in major economic development deals to the state. They included Volkswagen's decision to build its first U.S. plant in decades in Chattanooga and Nissan moving its North American headquarters to the Nashville area.