It started off as a pretty standard day in the world of gubernatorial campaigns.
There were the three major Republican candidates for governor — U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam — and members of their campaign staffs, glad-handing at the May 22 Hamilton County Lincoln Day Dinner, a party fundraiser held in Chattanooga.
Weston Wamp, son of the gubernatorial candidate, was there working for his father. And he was quite upset, according to handwritten accounts gathered that day by the Haslam campaign and later provided to The City Paper, about a copy of his father’s mug shot that had run in The Tennessean. The mug shot was from 1983, when Zach Wamp was arrested on misdemeanor charges for disorderly conduct.
Weston Wamp approached Haslam staffer Jonathan Bryant while Bryant was passing out campaign materials, issuing an accusation about the mug shot. According to the account Bryant later shared, Weston Wamp grabbed his right arm and yelled, “You didn’t have anything to do with this, did you?”
“Don’t hit me again,” Bryant said, according to the account. “I don’t know anything about that.”
“I didn’t hit you,” Wamp allegedly replied. “If I hit you, I’d bust your teeth in.”
The two continued to argue until Zach Wamp noticed the fracas. He approached and, according to Bryant’s and other accounts, proceeded to join in, calling the man and other Haslam supporters “trash.”
Obviously the account of one campaign over another in a situation such as this is suspect, so The City Paper sought to verify the incident with other sources. A private message sent by Weston Wamp via Facebook a few days after the fundraiser — and provided to The City Paper — seemed to offer some clarity.
Weston Wamp wrote to Bryant the following:
Apologize for accusing you on Saturday night. Feel like we were all kind of set up on that one. It was meant to make our people mad and make it look like you guys did it. Hope you understand why, in the heat of the moment, it seemed like your people.
My dad would have never said a word, he just saw me and was defending his son …
Intimidation tactics and threats seem to be par for the course on the Wamp campaign. While multiple sources within the major gubernatorial campaigns —as well as some in the business community — have relayed examples to The City Paper, they have so far been reluctant to go on the record for fear of retribution and/or loss of employment.
Quick to rise
When U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Knoxville, announced that he was endorsing Haslam for governor, he got a taste of the Wamp temper, according to multiple sources. Wamp personally telephoned Duncan and verbally accosted him about his support for Haslam and not him.
Asked about the incident, Patrick Newton, Duncan’s spokesman, said, “Rep. Wamp was obviously not happy when Rep. Duncan endorsed Mayor Haslam for governor, but they have moved beyond the endorsement and continue to have a good working relationship in the House of Representatives. Rep. Duncan is a lifelong friend of the Haslams, and he knew them long before he met Rep. Wamp.”
Prominent supporters of former GOP gubernatorial candidate and current Shelby County District Attorney Bill Gibbons have told The City Paper that when they decided to endorse candidates other than Wamp and informed him of their decision, they were treated to insults and a tirade of epic proportion.
Ramsey himself has said that when he threw his hat in the ring, he too got a phone call from a “very disappointed” Wamp. The congressman was “halfway aggravated” over his decision, Ramsey said.
“He said, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this.’ It almost aggravated me. I said, ‘Let me make sure I understand this, Zach. I’ve been toiling in the state legislature for 17 years and took us [from] three seats down to five seats up [from Senate minority to majority] … and you’re going to be upset?’ ”
One of the more widely circulated recent exchanges occurred between Wamp and Ramsey supporter Joe Kirkpatrick, himself a former candidate. Kirkpatrick sent an email to friends and then blogged that Wamp was in a “temporary state of rage” and had accused Kirkpatrick of disseminating false claims about his record in Congress. Wamp also claimed Kirkpatrick was paving the way for a Haslam victory by supporting Ramsey, adding that the lieutenant governor is doomed to a third-place finish in the primary.
The list goes on.
In April, at Columbia’s annual Mule Day Festival, Wamp got into a heated argument with Mule Day Parade organizer D.C. Neeley. The argument was actually a spillover from the previous year’s parade, when Wamp and his campaign allegedly did not follow safety rules. Wamp had gotten a little hot under the collar, according to Neeley, and said “I make my own rules!” and “You can’t tell me what to do!”
This time around, Wamp simply called Neeley a “Democrat.” Representatives from every rival campaign, as well as independent sources, confirmed that the argument took place — and in front of a large crowd.
Conservative talk radio personality Phil Valentine shared a Wamp run-in on his show. According to Valentine, Wamp refused to shake his hand at the end of a candidate forum that he had moderated.
Then, at a Tax Day tea party rally, Wamp confronted Valentine. On his show, Valentine relayed the following:
“I said, ‘Hey Zach, how ya doing?’ And he said, ‘I just wanted to come over here. I know that you’re the most influential man on the radio in Tennessee, but I wanted to come over here and look you in the eye and tell you to your face that I will be your next governor of Tennessee.’ And I said, ‘Great.’ Man, he’s intense, isn’t he? And then he walked off. And I’m going, ‘OK fine, but it doesn’t change the fact that you voted for the bailout, Zach.’ ”
Just a couple weeks ago, Jim Rogers, CEO of Eastman Chemical, alluded to Wamp’s strange intensity after the congressman spoke to some Eastman employees. “I’m guessing he’s never had a cup of decaf in his life,” Rogers said.
Finally, there are the brash public statements that suggest some level of emotional instability. At a tea party candidate debate earlier this year, Wamp bragged that he slept with a gun next to his head, later describing himself as a “no exceptions, no excuses kind of guy.” He went on to tell the crowd not to “elect some sissy wannabe as your governor.”