Here comes Randy Boyd

Scott Frith
Government/Politics columnist

Last month, Randy Boyd, the former state commissioner of economic and community development, kicked off his campaign for governor. Boyd is best known for his philanthropy, ownership of the Tennessee Smokies baseball team, and as founder of PetSafe (the folks who make the invisible fence for your dog).

Media coverage is the lifeblood of any statewide campaign, and Boyd has proven skilled at getting it. While money can’t buy you love, money can certainly buy good publicity. Boyd has figured out that giving away a lot of money can bring a steady stream of positive media coverage for a nascent gubernatorial campaign.

For example, just last week Boyd announced a $223,000 donation to the South-Doyle High School library. (Boyd attended South-Doyle.) Last October, Boyd donated $5.5 million to UT track and field. (Boyd attended UT.) Last month, Boyd announced a $5 million gift to the Knoxville Zoo. (Boyd clearly likes animals.)

You get the idea.

It also helps to be friends with the governor. Randy Boyd is a longtime political ally of Gov. Bill Haslam. Haslam has openly praised Boyd. Expect their financial supporters to be indistinguishable.

This cozy relationship is almost certain to cause unease among conservative Republican primary voters. Just as Shirley MacLaine once said to never trust a man when he’s in love, drunk, or running for office, many conservatives will question whether Boyd is a conservative at all. In fact, Boyd appears to have anticipated this problem by bringing in Republican lifer and conservative stalwart Chip Saltsman to run his campaign.

Also, while Boyd may be a Haslam ally, Boyd won’t retrace Haslam’s path to Nashville. Haslam was elected mayor of Knoxville twice before being elected governor. Boyd has never run for office. (Even Bob Corker served as mayor of Chattanooga before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006.)

Boyd’s decision to skip local office reflects a new political reality. It’s a lot tougher for a Republican to get elected mayor than it used to be. For example, it’s no secret that Knoxville has been trending Democratic for years. In fact, in 2003, Bill Haslam only narrowly defeated Madeline Rogero with 52 percent of the vote.

Boyd would have a tough time getting elected mayor while also maintaining his viability as a candidate in a statewide Republican primary. The ideological gulf between the average voter in a Knoxville city election and the average voter in a statewide Republican primary would be a tough divide for even the most talented politician to cross. Boyd is wise to skip it entirely.

Of course, Randy Boyd is far from a sure bet to win. Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black may run. State House Speaker Beth Harwell is talking about it. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has announced that he’ll run as a Democrat.

It’s early. The election isn’t until 2018. But this is going to be a lot of fun to watch.

Scott Frith is a local attorney. You can visit his website at pleadthefrith.com.

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