(WJHL) – James Mackler, a combat veteran and the best-funded Democrat in the race to succeed retiring Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, said he’s more in the bipartisan, problem-solving mold of traditional Tennessee senators, including Alexander, than potential opponent Bill Hagerty.
“Tennessee leads the nation in rural hospital closures per person,” Mackler told WJHL. “We have an opioid epidemic that’s being unaddressed and there’s not even talk of a national solution anymore. The trade war hurts Tennessee’s economy more than any other state, this continued economic uncertainty only makes matters worse, and the pandemic really has created a perfect storm with all of those issues.”
Mackler said those and other issues are more important to Tennessee’s future than strict party allegiance, and that he has the background and approach to help craft solutions.
Mackler, who had raised more than $1.6 million by April 1 despite eschewing corporate PAC money, said corporate money has played a role in “breaking” the political system. And he called Hagerty, who was ambassador to Japan from 2017 to 2019, a poster child for what he said is the lack of independent action that being beholden to corporate money creates.
Hagerty, Dr. Manny Sethi and Dr. George Flinn are the three main GOP primary contenders in the race, with Hagerty leading the fundraising by a wide margin.
“Our individual voices are being drowned out by floods of corporate cash,” Mackler said. “So I will continue to refuse to take corporate PAC money and I will only be accountable to the families of Tennessee.
“That’s really in stark contrast to my opponent Bill Hagerty … who is raking in corporate PAC contributions and serves on the president’s reopening committee as a so-called thought leader, and is the only person running for elected office serving on that committee with the very same people and corporations that are fueling his campaign. So it’s not difficult to ask, ‘who is Bill Hagerty going to be accountable to when those hard decisions are made about what businesses benefit from reopening and on what timeline.’”
Mackler, who got an age waiver and joined the military after 9-11, where he flew Blackhawk helicopters, said he would put Tennesseans’ needs above party directives if elected to serve in the Senate. He said the tradition of sending “moderate problem solvers” to Washington from the Volunteer state is one many former Tennessee senators have exemplified, including Alexander.
He pointed to a 2013 immigration reform that Alexander and fellow Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker both voted for, along with 12 other Republicans, as one example of the kind of bipartisan problem-solving he’d seek to emulate. Mackler also mentioned a health bill that Alexander teamed up on with Washington Democrat Patty Murray.
Neither piece of legislation became reality. The immigration bill wasn’t considered in the House, which had a Republican majority. Mackler said the health bill, which he said would have lowered health care costs and stabilized the insurance exchanges, was kept from a vote by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after Alexander “gave up” the vote to McConnell in exchange for a vote on tax reform and McConnell didn’t reciprocate.
“We need senators who are going to stand up for what’s right, work in a bipartisan way and then fight to make sure they’re serving the people of Tennessee rather than cowing to political leadership,” Mackler said.
On the issues
Mackler brought up the trade war, rural hospital closures and the opioid crisis more than once, saying they require problem solving based on evidence. A gun owner, Mackler said that on the issue of firearms he would be “laser-focused” on trying to help pass stricter background check requirements.
“I know we can protect the Second Amendment and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people – domestic abusers, the dangerously mentally ill, people on the terrorism watch list. I stand with 86 percent of Tennesseans who believe we need to expand background checks.”
Moving outside of that focus to include banning certain types of weapons, Mackler said, would play into the National Rifle Association’s “well worn playbook” by adding objectives with less widespread backing.
Mackler said he believes health care is a right, and that the right extends to women’s right to an abortion.
He called the issue of climate change an opportunity for bipartisan progress, and said the U.S. Department of Defense has labeled it a national security threat.
“It’s climate change deniers who are saying we have to choose between our economy and our environment,” Mackler said. “That is not true.” He cited work on clean energy being conducted at Tennessee’s own Oak Ridge National Laboratory as an example of the U.S. having “the resources and the wherewithal to tackle big problems. We just can’t do it when one party is denying the existence of the problem.”
Whether it’s climate change, health, immigration — he said economists warn of a U.S. labor shortage without comprehensive immigration reform — Mackler said he prefers to “surround myself with smart people” and would defer to the experts for evidence-based solutions.
He took particular aim at Hagerty over trade, though he gave President Donald Trump credit for challenging China, whom he called “a global adversary.” The problem, he said, is a unilateral approach and an unquestioning fealty to a party or, in Hagerty’s case according to Mackler, to President Trump.
“Our allies don’t know where we stand as we fight our common enemies and this trade war has hurt Tennessee’s economy more than any other state,” Mackler said. “Bill Hagerty has gone out of his way to unquestioningly support the way that this trade war is being conducted.”
(Most analyses of state-by-state impact of the trade war show Tennessee in the top 15 most affected, but not the top 5 and usually not the top 10. Mackler referred to a study of what percentage of states’ GDP is accounted for by imports, in which Tennessee did rank first. Tariffs in high-import states would tend to drive up consumer prices.)
With his background, which also included time as a JAG military attorney prosecuting sexual assaults and dealing with war crimes, Mackler said he’d like to serve on the armed services and judiciary committees, as well as the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the Tennessee Valley Authority. He remains a member of the Tennessee Air National Guard.
“I’d like to see TVA expand that mission and help expand rural broadband across Tennessee, but changes need to be made. We still haven’t recovered from the coal ash spill, those workers are still fighting to get health care, the TVA board ought to be representative of the ratepayers being served, hearings should be televised. So being part of that conversation is important to Tennessee.”
Appeal to swing voters
Mackler said he knows he faces an uphill battle. He began running in 2018 for Corker’s vacant seat but deferred to former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who ended up winning just under 44 percent of the vote against now-Senator Marsha Blackburn.
“At a time when things aren’t getting better in Tennessee, getting six points more above what Governor Bredesen got with me being an outsider and a veteran and a person of faith is well within reach as long as we seize the initiative,” Mackler said.
Mackler’s wife is a Jewish rabbi, and he said his own faith infuses his approach to politics. He referred to the traditional Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” the idea that people of faith bear responsibility for in essence “repairing the world.”
“Even if we know we can’t change everything we still have to take those first steps to change something. That’s very much how I feel about service in the United States Senate. Washington is broken, I know that. I’m not going to fix everything by myself. But in no way does that relieve me of the obligation to take those first steps to get to Washington and to begin to make the changes we need to represent Tennessee.”
Mackler said that approach is based in love, and that is a reason for potential swing voters to consider him should he win the primary.
“All of our faith communities have people who are builders who will work to build and reinforce the values we share,” he said. “All too often now our politics is driven by division because politicians unfortunately have learned that if they appeal to the extremes they often gain personal advantage.
“But that’s not what we need, we need to build this world with love, we need people to step up and do what’s right now.”
That will mean bucking his own party if it’s the right thing to do, Mackler said.
“We want someone who’s going to stand up for what’s right each and every time even when it’s difficult. So that means saying no to party leadership when what they want is wrong for Tennessee, and supporting party leadership when that helps Tennessee families. I will be an independent voice with a proven track record of service and integrity.”
Mackler has been campaigning virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic and said he is looking forward to visiting Northeast Tennessee again when evidence suggests it is safe. His campaign website is jamesmackler.com.