published Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

Wamp, Fleischmann relations delicate


by Chris Carroll
Zach Wamp is the former U.S. Representative for Tennessee's 3rd congressional district, serving from 1995 to 2011.
Zach Wamp is the former U.S. Representative for Tennessee's 3rd congressional district, serving from 1995 to 2011.
Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — Under the lights at Nationals Park here, Zach Wamp let himself grin; it was a big-league night for the former eight-term congressman from Chattanooga.

A lifelong Braves fan and onetime McCallie School athlete, Wamp was getting inducted into the Congressional Baseball Hall of Fame. Before he made a speech and threw the first pitch in the annual game among lawmakers, he shook hands with old buddies as House Speaker John Boehner gave him a "Zach!" and a slap on the back.

"I didn't expect this," said Wamp, a Republican who gave up his seat to run for governor in 2010. "I'm very, very honored."

Warming up near the first-base dugout, Wamp's successor, the orange-and-white-clad Chuck Fleischmann, had the distinction of being the only Tennessean on either congressional baseball team. Sixty-two members of Congress dotting the foul lines during introductions: 39 Republicans, 23 Democrats, one Vol -- an up-and-coming GOP member of the Appropriations Committee in a conservative House that lauds itself for watching every penny.

"We've been practicing two months," Fleischmann said before the game. "It's awesome."

For once, it seemed, past and present representatives of Tennessee's 3rd District could peacefully coexist at a ballgame, free of the high drama that characterized last year's GOP primary battle featuring Fleischmann, Wamp's son Weston and Scottie Mayfield. But that would be too simple a read on the situation, which became clear as Wamp described Fleischmann as a bench player.

"Tonight I'll embrace the backup second baseman, Chuck Fleischmann," Wamp said outside the Republican dugout in an interview before the game. "He's right there, I'll go say hello to him. I'll root for him tonight, but if my son runs against him in two years, I won't root for him."

Wamp was right: Unlike himself, the newly enshrined hall-of-famer, Fleischmann hadn't cracked the Republican starting lineup (he entered in the fifth inning as a defensive replacement). Just like that, there it was: Chattanooga's strangest political feud.

"This is not Congressman Fleischmann's seat, and it wasn't my seat," Wamp continued. "It belongs to the people, and every two years they get to choose."

Another FleischWamp war around the bend in 2014? It isn't out of the question.

"It's a decision Shelby Wamp and I will make together," the newly married Weston Wamp, 26, said in a phone interview. "And that's a reality I'm excited about."

Told of the comments made by father and son, Fleischmann declined an interview request through a spokesman and issued a statement.

"Unemployment is nearly 8 percent across the nation, over-regulation is stifling business and Obamacare is driving up the price of health care," said Tyler Threadgill, an aide. "Congressman Fleischmann is addressing real issues and working daily to fight for the people of East Tennessee, as they elected him to do."

•••

Fresh off a Paris honeymoon, the younger Wamp is back in Chattanooga and back on the job as communications director at the venture incubator Lamp Post Group. But his mind is still on politics.

For the moment, Fleischmann is without challengers. Mayfield has said he won't run again, potentially giving Wamp a head-to-head matchup. But Mayfield, a political rookie, came out of nowhere six months before the GOP primary election. Some party insiders aren't ruling out another surprise candidate.

"I think after the 2012 election, most people realized if you want to beat an incumbent, a three-man race is not the way to do it," Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Tony Sanders said. "There can always be a challenger. You can't rule it out."

Weston Wamp finds himself in the exact same position he found himself on the Fourth of July in 2011, when the New York Times quoted him as a possible House challenger, and a unique one at that: The then-24-year-old son of the Fleischmann's immediate predecessor.

"I am taking a serious look," Wamp said at the time. "My experience through my dad was seeing the very best of what public service can mean."

Wamp announced four months later, eventually finishing third overall but winning Hamilton County by 101 votes.

While voters settled the election long ago, the feud still simmers.

The elder Wamp has occasionally blamed his successor for stalled funding at the stalled replacement lock at Chickamauga Dam, and Weston Wamp remains active on Twitter, taking the occasional shot at Fleischmann staffers. Meanwhile, it's well-known in political circles that Weston Wamp never called to congratulate Fleischmann after it became clear the latter won the primary. (Mayfield did call and regularly talks to Fleischmann, aides said.)

He said the passion that drove him to speak as an advocate for young people hasn't died off.

"I'm more passionate about those issues now than I was last year," Wamp said, "and a lot of people want me to run again in the 3rd. We'll see."

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.

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