JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — One of the most revered behind-the-scenes players in Tennessee politics is concerned.
Tom Ingram knows a thing or two about the high-stress world of politics. Since the mid-1970’s, he’s spent many a tense election night waiting to find out if his strategies paid off and his candidates got elected. (By the way, most of them did.)
But this is a different kind of concern. A big-picture kind of concern beyond campaigns and high-profile corporate clients. A “we need to fix this or else” kind of concern.
“Our politics have become so dysfunctional,” he said in an interview with News Channel 11 after giving a speech to the East Tennessee Republican Club in Johnson City this week. “And the future of the country could be at stake.”
“We have Republicans who won’t speak to Republicans, and Democrats who won’t speak to Democrats,” Ingram told the packed room at the Carnegie Hotel in a speech he titled “Make Politics Great Again,” a nod to one of the most successful campaign mottos in American political history. But it’s clear when you speak to Ingram, he doesn’t mean it as a compliment to the former president who used the slogan to win the White House.
“We’ve yielded our politics to the extreme on the left and the extreme on the right,” Ingram said. “And there is a frustrated majority in the middle, most of them just laying out of it.”
Ingram says he believes that “middle” could be the key to restoring a commitment to cooperation and good government, the same commitment he says characterized an earlier cohort of Tennessee political leaders, many of whom he helped elect.
In 1978, Ingram ran Lamar Alexander’s legendary campaign for Tennessee governor. He was by his side when Alexander wore his soon-to-be iconic red plaid flannel shirt and walked across the state, widely considered a political master-stroke that helped the Republican ascend to power even while Democrats held a massive majority in General Assembly.
Ingram said Alexander and the Democratic majority avoided political gridlock through compromise, bringing the automobile industry to Tennessee and passing historic reforms in education, transportation and corrections.
“Most of them overcame their obvious differences when elected and found a way to work together,” he said.
Ingram later served as Alexander’s chief of staff in the U.S. Senate, establishing himself as a powerbroker in Washington. Back home in Tennessee, he helped Fred Thompson win a come-from-behind 1994 campaign for Senate, helped elect Bob Corker to the Senate in 2006, and helped elect Bill Haslam as governor in 2010 and 2014.
Now, Ingram runs The Ingram Group, a crisis communication and strategic consulting firm he founded.
While his most well-known political clients have been Republicans, he told the conservative crowd who gathered to hear him speak in Johnson City that he’s an Independent with deep respect for Democrats like the late Gov. Ned McWherter and the late state Sen. Anna Belle Clement O’Brien, both of whom he considered to be good friends.
“We’re defining our friends and enemies by those who agree with us on specific issues,” he said. “We have lost our sense of comradery and collaboration and the ability to work together regardless of our politics, and I think that’s threatening our democracy, our politics and even our two-party system.”
Ingram warned against what he called hyperpartisanship. “We’ve got to be able to work together and agree, to find common ground and meet there rather than getting further and further apart,” he said.
And he cautioned the East Tennessee Republican Club against relying on news sources that reflect only what they already believe. “We’re thinking very narrowly based on very narrow information, most of which agrees with us already,” he said. “We dig in, and if you agree with us, you’re our friend. If you disagree with us, you’re our enemy.”
Ingram railed against what he considers to be the contaminating influence of third-party money pouring into political campaigns from companies, unions, and political action committees. He slammed the Supreme Court for its decision in Citizens United v. FEC that lifted restrictions on campaign contributions to political campaigns. He thinks states should amend their constitutions to ban outside campaign contributions.
“I think it’s the antidote to much of our political problem,” he said.
Political polarization has made predicting election outcomes harder than ever, Ingram said. He said no issue is more polarizing ahead of the November mid-term election than abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
“It’s mobilizing the Democratic base like it may never before have been motivated,” he said. “Republicans already are talking about half as many seats as anticipated, and they’re already conceding the Senate will be close to even if not remain Democrat.”
Another polarizing issue: Donald Trump. Ingram says he doesn’t personally know the former president, but he knows people who do, and he says they’re convinced. “Everyone I know who knows him believes he wants to and intends to.”
Despite his dire assessment of the current state of politics, the son of a Tennessee preacher said he isn’t without hope.
“The middle needs to engage again,” he said, referring to what he believes is the quiet majority of Americans who’ve unplugged from politics out of frustration. “If the middle is engaged, we’ll start electing candidates again who care about the whole, who care more about government than party, and who care more about serving at the local, state and federal level than they do about making their point on a political issue.”
“Fight like dogs and cats in the campaign, but then come together,” he said. “Stand for your principals. You won’t agree on everything. You’re not expected to. But find the things that matter to most Tennesseans, and get them done.”