A few months ago, Lamar Alexander was comfortably adjusted to a life largely removed from the public spotlight.
After two unsuccessful bids for president, his political days seemed over. But then Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., announced that he would not run for another term in November. And Mr. Alexander, 62, quickly decided it was time for one last go-round.
“It was an unexpected opportunity for me,” the former U.S. secretary of education said in a recent interview at the Madison Hotel here in Memphis. “I thought I was going to be a private citizen the rest of my life, and was enjoying it. But things change, and here I am.”
If Mr. Alexander wins Tennessee’s Republican primary and the fall election, he will be the first education secretary to serve in Congress, or to go on to any elected office after serving in that Cabinet post. But don’t expect most Tennesseans to take note of that fact. He’s far better remembered here as governor, an office he held for much of the 1980s.
Still, even for those who don’t recall his days in the Cabinet of the first President Bush, the issue he’s most readily identified with is education.
“Education, that’s exactly what comes to mind,” said Ginna Walker, an insurance agent from Bartlett, Tenn., who came to hear Mr. Alexander address several Rotary Clubs at a luncheon in east Memphis last month. “That’s what he’s stood for ever since I’ve been a resident of Tennessee.”
He is squaring off in the primary against U.S. Rep. Ed Bryant, a four-term Republican from western Tennessee. With Mr. Alexander’s strong name recognition, generally favorable ratings among Republicans, and a sizable war chest, political analysts say the Aug. 1 race is his to lose. Polling so far appears to bear out that conclusion, with one recent television poll giving him a nearly 3-1 lead.
The victor will take on Rep. Bob Clement, D-Tenn., whose father was governor of the state and who is expected to be a strong contender. The race has high stakes, and not just in Tennessee: It’s considered one of a dozen or so tight races that could tip the balance in the Senate, where Democrats now hold a one-seat majority.
Policy or Gimmick?
For months now, Mr. Bryant—a former U.S. attorney and one of the House managers during the impeachment of President Clinton in 1999—has been trying to chip away at the apparent lead of his primary opponent by attacking him.
“Ed Bryant is the real conservative in this race,” said his campaign manager, Justin Hunter. “Lamar Alexander is less than that.”
For his part, Mr. Alexander has taken great pains to cast himself as a true conservative, and tries to make the case that he has the broader background and experience to handle the job.
If elected to the Senate, Mr. Alexander vows that, beyond supporting President Bush in the war on terrorism, he will make education his chief concern.
“For me, my priority as governor was education, and it will be as senator,” he said. “And my goal would be to transform the federal Department of Education.” He said he hopes to serve on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee if elected.
Few would dispute Mr. Alexander’s claim to the education issue, even if some of his views, such as support for school vouchers, spark controversy. Education was a major focus of his work in Tennessee, where he was governor from 1979 to 1987. The centerpiece of those efforts was adoption of a “Better Schools” initiative that, among other provisions, created alternative schools and provided merit pay for teachers and administrators. Mr. Alexander served for about three years as the president of the University of Tennessee before being named U.S. education secretary in 1991. The “America 2000" agenda he crafted for the first Bush administration called for national education standards, federal funding for a set of “break the mold” schools, and a school choice program dubbed the GI Bill for Kids.
But while Mr. Alexander has long talked about education, his pitch has flip- flopped a bit.
A couple of years after he left the Education Department with the arrival of the Clinton administration in 1993, he wasn’t talking about transforming the agency, but rather abolishing it. “That didn’t work,” he now concedes of his call to scrap the department during his 1996 run for the presidency.
“My real goal is to ... increase autonomy of the local school and flexibility for teachers, and then let the federal government—as it has done with colleges and universities—pour in more dollars to the schools that serve middle- and low-income children,” he said last month.
Not afraid of a little recycling, he still talks about the GI Bill for Kids, though he’s reinvented it somewhat. The initiative as unveiled in 1991 would have cost $500 million and provided vouchers worth $1,000 each. Now, Mr. Alexander is proposing that every child from a middle- or low-income family receive a voucher for $250, which he estimates would cost about $7.5 billion a year.
Mr. Alexander sells it as a means of encouraging school choice and getting money to schools with no strings attached.. Parents could apply the money toward private school tuition or, in the case of children attending public school, the money would follow them there. At a school serving 800 students, he said, it could provide as much as $200,000.
Mr. Hunter from the Bryant campaign calls the plan a gimmick.
“He wants to give $250 to each child,” he said. “That’s [about] $20 a month. What kind of choice does that give parents?”
During Mr. Alexander’s recent June 25 visit to Memphis, the former governor made a morning stop downtown at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center to discuss a crime initiative. Then it was off to a racquet club in an affluent section of Memphis to talk with members of several area Rotary Clubs over lunch. The topic du jour was a familiar one: education.
It wasn’t quite the usual stump speech, as the Rotary Club has rules prohibiting campaign speeches. But Mr. Alexander made sure the crowd knew he wanted their votes. One supporter wore a necktie made of campaign stickers, and Mr. Alexander asked him to stand up.
“That hopefully speaks for itself and stays within the rules,” the candidate said.
In the speech, he repeated his interview line that education was his priority as governor and would be again as a senator. Then he offered a quick tutorial on federal involvement in schools and discussed his ideas about how to change it.
“There’s a fairly significant federal role [in] education,” Mr. Alexander said, “but I think education can be a national concern without being managed by the federal government.”
Some in the GOP-heavy crowd at the luncheon said they were solidly in the former governor’s camp. But, perhaps in part because the event took place near Mr. Bryant’s congressional district, not everyone had decided.
Richard A. Blount, an accountant from Memphis, said he was still unsure. Asked what comes to mind when he thinks of Lamar Alexander, he first replied: “Red and black shirt, walking across the state. That’s what I remember.”
It’s a familiar image here.
“He ran for governor once in 1974 as a traditional suit-and-tie Republican,” said Mark E. Byrnes, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “He got defeated by Ray Blanton. Four years later, he put on his plaid shirt and walked across the state. He got an enormous amount of publicity out of it.” And sure enough, he won that election, plus a second term for good measure.
The plaid shirt was revived for his 1996 run for president, but it didn’t seem to have the same effect, and was mothballed for good.
Just recently, the shirt found its way back into the campaign, but not on Mr. Alexander’s back.
“I’m Ed Bryant. ... You know, the one without the plaid shirt,” his opponent says in a TV advertisement. “I believe Tennessee is ready for new leadership—solid, conservative leadership that won’t change.”
Mr. Alexander quickly shot back in a radio ad, in which he says the shirt is associated with “good times that made us all proud,” as he proceeds to tick off some of his accomplishments as governor.
During his recent visit here, it was strictly the professional look for Mr. Alexander, who wore a charcoal-gray suit with a burgundy tie. After all, that’s pretty much the uniform on Capitol Hill.
“The Senate is the right place for the person with the largest number of experiences,” Mr. Alexander said to help explain why Tennessee voters should send him there. “If the issue is, what should the level of grants and loans for students be, why not have a former university president in the Senate? If the issue is right-to-work law, why not somebody who defended it as governor?”
And, he added, “if you want to pass a GI Bill for Kids, why not have an education secretary there?”
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Former Education Secretary Makes Run for U.S. Senate