Corker ends a chapter of Tennessee politics

Robert Houk • Dec 23, 2018 at 12:00 AM

After a political career that reads somewhat like a Horatio Alger story, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker is calling it quits.

The former Chattanooga mayor and finance commissioner under former Gov. Don Sundquist is returning to the private sector in the new year.

One of the junior’s senator’s last official events in Tennessee before leaving office was to deliver the commencement address at East Tennessee State University. Corker advised graduates to make themselves “indispensable” and “master something,” as he did in learning how to build shopping centers.

I’ve heard Corker tell the story on the campaign trail of how he made his bones during his student days at the University of Tennessee carrying cinder blocks at construction sites.

You might disagree with his politics, but it’s hard to dispute his work ethic. I recall seeing Corker at a busy cafe in downtown Nashville during his time in Sundquist’s Cabinet in the mid-1990s.

The restaurant was packed with the lunch crowd when Corker and other officials in the governor’s office were seated at a table with dirty dishes.

Corker took on the duties of busboy —  clearing the plates and wiping down the table. He even poured the iced tea for his colleagues.

Corker was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 by beating his Democratic opponent, Harold Ford Jr. That race is best remembered for an ad produced by the Republican National Committee that pundits said was the most race-baiting campaign commercial of the election year.

The ad featured a blonde woman telling viewers she had hung out with Ford (who was vying to become the first black candidate to be elected to a statewide office in Tennessee) at a Playboy party. The spot ended with the same woman breathlessly imploring Ford to “call me.”

The tone of the 2006 campaign wasn’t all that surprising. Corker had already slugged it out in an equally rough Republican Primary, where his two opponents — Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary — charged that he was not conservative enough to represent Tennessee in the Senate.

Before his speech at ETSU on Dec. 15, Corker asked me if I remembered “the Six-Pack,” a reference to the crowded GOP field of his first bid for the U.S. Senate back in 1994. Indeed, I did.

Corker was then the new face in state politics. He was a successful commercial developer who used his wit and tenacity to give the eventual winner Dr. Bill Frist (another well-to-do Republican who would go on to unseat the longtime Democratic incumbent, Jim Sasser, in the the fall midterms) all that he could handle in the Republican Primary.

Frist would later conclude his own political career as Senate majority leader.

I recall Corker was coy about his re-election plans when he stopped by this newspaper in June 2017. As the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Corker said he communicated daily with President Donald Trump on key issues.

Despite Trump being a Yankee from New York City and Corker a Southern boy from Chattanooga, the senator said he and the president were of the same mind on many issues.

Even so, his relationship with Trump began to unravel when Corker noted to reporters that the administration was in a “downward spiral” as a result of insider leaks at the White House. Although his comment was praised by Trump’s critics, Corker said his statement was not meant to be “destructive, but rather constructive.”

The ensuing Corker/Trump feud baffled many political pundits. Corker was one of the first of Tennessee’s top-ranking politicians to get behind Trump’s presidential bid. While Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander were keeping a safe distance from Trump, Corker was encouraging his fellow Republicans in 2016 to give Trump a chance.

Now, Corker is preparing to leave office after 12 years in Washington, D.C. His successor, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn — a staunch Trump loyalist — will become to the first woman to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate when she takes office on Jan. 3.

Corker is looking forward to the next chapter of his Horatio Alger story.

“I will miss my staff and the people I’ve dealt with across this state, but I’m excited about the future,” he said.

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