JACKSON, Tenn. - Jackson's Steve Bowers said at outset of the 8th Congressional District debate he moderated at Lane College Thursday night that the decision facing the district's voters is an important one for the region. "These congressional seats don't open very often," Bowers said.
The last time the seat had no incumbent running for re-election was 1988 when John Tanner won the seat. He replaced Ed Jones, who won it in 1969. And Jones succeeded Robert A. "Fats" Everett, who won it in 1958. Everett frequently uttered the memorable phrase, inscribed on his statue at the Obion County Courthouse, "If a man don't want to work, he hadn't ought to hire out."
Which is relevant in this election, given Republican Stephen Fincher's failure to show up at the Lane College debate - or any of the other half-dozen or so debates, forums and joint appearances that were either held or proposed to be held for the 8th District candidates since the Aug. 5 primary. Since winning the GOP primary, Fincher's backers have run the most expensive Tennessee congressional campaign in history, thanks to hundreds of thousands of dollars cascading in from Washington special interest groups either contributing directly to his effort or spending money "independently" on his behalf.
Lane College emphasized Fincher's absence by setting up a lectern with his name on it, like the other three that had actual candidates standing behind them - Democrat Roy Herron and independents Donn Janes and Mark Rawles. Unlike Union University, which folded its tent after Fincher refused to debate there and substituted separate appearances by only Fincher and Herron before small groups on different nights.
At Lane, before an audience that grew to nearly 100, Herron, Janes and Rawles engaged in a spirited but civil discussion of the issues for an hour and a half. Bowers allowed the candidates to engage with and rebut each other. Unlike the pseudo debates televised in our statewide elections, Bowers simply presented the candidates with the topics and let them go at it rather than engage himself in a self-aggrandizing game of "gotcha" with them.
Fincher, 37, came under fire from all three for boycotting the event. "Stephen Fincher has said we need someone with courage to stand. I couldn't agree more," said Herron, 57, a state senator and lawyer from Dresden. "If you send me to Washington I'll show up and I'll stand up. I won't be afraid to release my tax returns and to list my asset and liabilities on legally required forms. I won't be afraid to stand up for you."
Janes, 45, a computer consultant from Brighton, landed a zinger. Referring to a recently released list by a congressional watchdog citizens group, Janes said "There's a website that I believe Mr. Fincher is going to get on soon - it tracks the 15 most corrupt politicians in Washington."
But actually the attacks on the vacant lectern were a small part of the evening. Herron, Janes and Rawles discussed in some detail their views on topics like the national health reform, Social Security, immigration, jobs, education, American competitiveness, the national debt, government spending and the spiraling budget deficits, energy policy, gays in the military. They agreed on some, disagreed on others.
The audience left Lane College last night having a pretty good feel for how Herron, Janes and Rawles feel on those topics and what they'd do if elected to represent the 8th District's people in Congress. Fincher and his Washington backers are spending a lot of money on TV ads that tell very little about his positions on much of anything.
Janes told the crowd at one point: "This is a job interview, folks. If an applicant didn't show up for a job interview would you hire that person?"