Flickr/Creative Commons photo by Christy Frink.
Phil Bredesen, who served two terms each as mayor of Nashville and governor of Tennessee, is running to represent the Volunteer State in the U.S. Senate.

A former mayor and governor, U.S. Senate candidate Phil Bredesen has a history of putting IBEW members to work. 

Former mayor of Nashville and governor of Tennessee Phil Bredesen

As Nashville’s mayor in the 1990s, Bredesen had a vision – one he’d articulated in his campaign – to turn his already world-famous city into the kind of place major sports franchises also could call home. And to build the stadiums to lure them, he turned to the skilled professionals of the IBEW.

Now, members of IBEW locals throughout Tennessee are returning faith and trust and working to help elect Bredesen to represent them in the Senate.

“Bredesen worked with us,” said Charles Rains, an international representative who serves as political coordinator for the Tenth District, which covers Tennessee as well as Arkansas and the Carolinas. “We didn’t always agree with everything he did as governor, but he’s always been a job creator.”

Bredesen moved to Tennessee in 1975 when his wife got a job with Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America. There, he started an insurance company called HealthAmerica; he sold his controlling interest in the multi-million-dollar firm in 1986 before seeking a career in public office.

In 1991, Bredesen was elected to the first of two terms as mayor of Tennessee’s largest city. Two years later, members of Nashville Local 429 helped Bredesen secure the public’s support for — and then worked on — construction of an arena that would become the home of the Predators, a National Hockey League expansion team.

A few years later, the local worked similarly to help the city finance and build a destination stadium for the Houston Oilers, the National Football League franchise that transformed into the Tennessee Titans once it moved to Nashville in 1998.

Nashville’s reputation as a metropolitan center helped boost the bona fides of the rest of the state. “It’s now one of the fastest-growing cities in the country,” Rains said. “About 85 people a day are moving into Nashville.”

Bredesen’s reputation blossomed as well, and Tennesseeans went on to elect him to two terms as the state’s governor from 2003 to 2011.

“He was a very effective and popular governor,” said Rains, who noted that Bredesen carried all 95 counties in the Volunteer State during his second gubernatorial campaign in 2006.

Rains also pointed out that Bredesen’s commissioner of labor and workforce development for both of his terms as governor was Jim Neeley, a longtime president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council. Bredesen tapped the council’s communications director, Alyssa Hansen, to handle his campaign’s media relations for his Senate run.

“Two IBEW organizers in Tennessee also have been released to work with the AFL-CIO’s get-out-the-vote campaign,” Rains said.

Seven years after leaving office, Bredesen still polls well enough to stay neck and neck with his opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who represents Tennessee’s Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Blackburn has a long history of voting against issues important to working people, which helps explain her dismal 4 percent showing on the AFL-CIO’s scorecard covering her 16 years in the House of Representatives. Bredesen has no score since he has not yet held office in Washington, although the state’s labor federation has officially endorsed his candidacy.

Most political observers consider Bredesen to be a moderate in the mold of Bob Corker, the senator he’s campaigning to replace. When Corker was elected in 2006, he pledged that he would serve a maximum of two terms. In September 2017, Corker made good on that promise, announcing that he would step down in December.

“I’ve got to rally Democrats. I’ve got to persuade a bunch of independents… [and] business[-minded] Republicans,” Bredesen told The Washington Post in October. “But I did it as governor, and I think quite successfully. The fact that this campaign is obviously very competitive right now is evidence to that.”

Corker’s retirement has created an opportunity for working people to gain Senate representation in a state that hasn’t seen a truly labor-friendly senator since Jim Sasser lost his fourth bid for reelection in 1994.

Part of the challenge in November will be getting Tennessee voters out to the polls. A Pew Charitable Trust survey for the November 2014 midterms placed Tennessee dead last in turnout, and figures show that less than a third of the state’s registered voters cast ballots in this past August’s primary.

The larger consideration, of course, is that the outcome of this year’s midterm elections will determine whether a labor-friendly party assumes majority control of the Senate. That’s one reason why millions of out-of-state dollars have been spent this year on political advertising across Tennessee.

“On every TV station anywhere in the state, two of three commercials are for one of the two candidates,” Rains said. The Nashville Tennessean reported recently that 10 of the top 11 outside groups spent at least $2 million each on Blackburn’s campaign.

What helps Bredesen — and where his election could have a positive impact on IBEW members — is in the area of high-speed internet service.

“Bredesen has really pushed for rural broadband built and managed by the TVA,” Rains said. “This could help put more of our members to work.”

A federally run development agency as well as the U.S.’s largest government-owned power provider, the Tennessee Valley Authority already employs about 2,500 IBEW members as permanent employees at worksites that include nuclear, oil and gas, hydroelectric and solar plants. Thousands more IBEW members do short-term work each year for TVA, upgrading infrastructure and performing regular maintenance.

In February, the TVA and its union workforce announced a historic partnership intended to strengthen shared values and inspire new levels of cooperation between labor and management, all based around the IBEW’s Code of Excellence.

Bredesen told Nashville Public Radio in August that the authority could provide internet infrastructure, too. “TVA seemed, to me, to be the perfect vehicle to do that,” he said. “It’s in its DNA.” 

Recognizing how many areas of Tennessee lack access to high-speed internet service, Blackburn supports broadband expansion as well, but she opposes running it through the TVA as a utility.

At this point, no one seems confident enough to predict who will win on Tuesday, Nov. 6, Rains said.

“It’s been a tight race, with the polls going back and forth,” he said, referring to some of the more trusted surveys conducted in Tennessee in recent weeks. “It’s pretty much a toss-up, two to four points either way.”

That’s closer than most observers expected, considering almost 60 percent of Tennessee’s voters cast ballots for President Donald Trump in 2016.

“Polls are meaningless unless people turn up to vote,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “We hope that IBEW members will show up and vote this year, and that they’ll consider the impact of this election on our jobs and our livelihood. In the end, working people win when we vote, and we have a chance to send a real friend of labor in Phil Bredesen to the Senate on Nov. 6.”