Overall brings star power, honest bluntness to campaign

Robert Houk • Apr 23, 2012 at 8:22 AM

“Nurse Laverne is running for the U.S. Senate.” So read one clip on the Internet following news that Park Overall, the actress who played the sassy, down-home nurse on the 1980s sitcom “Empty Nest,” had filed as a Democrat for the seat held by Sen. Bob Corker.

Overall — a Greeneville native and environmental activist whose distinctive Southern accent has helped her land many plum stage, TV and movie roles — is one of eight Democrats seeking the nomination. She is undoubtedly the best known of the field and should be seen as the frontrunner in the race.

That doesn’t mean, however, Overall is even money to face Corker in November. First of all this is a Democratic Primary we are talking about, so anything can happen. Secondly, too many Democratic voters in this state have been MIA in recent decades when it comes to showing up at the polls.

And I wouldn’t be surprised to see some GOPers crossing over in August hoping to pick a weak opponent for Corker, who faces a token primary challenge from four other Republicans, including two self-proclaimed tea partiers.

Overall’s candidacy offers the Senate race a bit of star power that it would definitely lack otherwise. Democrats are still disappointed with the outcome of the 2006 contest, which saw Corker narrowly edge out former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. Many believe it was a blatantly racist TV campaign ad (“Call me, Harold”) from a third-party group supporting Corker that put the Republican over the top.

Overall is the first to say she was heavily recruited by state party officials to make this race. She is a plain-speaking, down-to-earth person who knows how to use humor to make important points. I wonder if that will help or hurt her on the campaign trail. Quite frankly, many voters don’t want to hear their candidates speak the truth. They would rather be peppered with platitudes and catchphrases from their politicians than hear honest positions on complicated issues.

“I was motivated to do this only because the Nashville Democrats kept asking me to, and then I began to worry that no one else would do it for the party,” Overall told me by email last week. “I felt somebody had to do it. Bob Corker is a corporate operative. I must do what I can to curtail this heinous and destructive movement.”

Her campaign platform is very simple.

“I am for unions, in a big way,” she told me. “I am for women and children in a big way. Veterans also have a very big place in my heart.”

Overall says she is worried about the future of the poor and the middle class of this nation, and plans to talk about that on the campaign trail, as well as other difficult things that candidates don’t normally like to discuss on the stump. That includes child abuse and women’s issues.

“Why is my womb attached to a transportation bill?,” she asked recently in a Jackson Day speech in Nashville.

She says she is not hearing “the truth” from political leaders in Washington or Nashville, and she vows to make her campaign about conversations, not confrontations.

“I feel the hate all around me, and I want to do what I can to stop it,” Overall said last week. “I hope to influence a more positive use of the language. A more civil and substantive discourse must be returned to us as a nation.”

I asked Overall if any of her actor friends from Hollywood will be stumping for her on the campaign trail. I recall former Sen. Fred Thompson wasn’t shy about asking Charlton Heston to speak for him.

Overall responded by email: “Anyone famous stumping for me? Yes, but only famous to me. Sorry about that.”

She also noted that she would not be able to compete with millionaire Corker’s fabulous $7.5 million campaign war chest. Instead, Overall said she will be “banking on the people, unions and the truth” to carry her message to voters.

“One Facebook friend sent me $5, once a month, for six months and I burst into tears,” Overall said. “What a lovely woman to do that for me.”

This is Overall’s first bid for office, and she is still learning the ropes. She believes her career in Hollywood has helped to prepare her for the campaign trail. And she says she feels the presence of her late parents (her father was a federal magistrate and her mother was an English professor) as she pursues her new career.

“I think they are enjoying my sense of humor on the campaign trail,” Overall said. “I actually feel them.”

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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