How Sen. Henry made me a political hypocrite

It was a sweltering August day seven summers ago when my loyalty and allegiance to esteemed state Sen. Douglas Henry (a friend of four decades and a marvelous mentor to many), momentarily turned me from a person of steadfast conviction into a bit of a political hypocrite.

This story actually began in early 2009 when I made an appointment to meet with then-Mayor Bill Haslam of Knoxville to encourage him to consider a run for governor in 2010. Because his dad and I, “Big Jim” Haslam, had known each other and worked together on many bi-partisan community efforts over the years, I took a keen interest in seeing Bill’s political career evolve. I was impressed with the job that he had done as mayor, and as we got to know each other, came to appreciate his vision, intelligence and integrity.

He said he was considering it, though he did have several significant projects in Knoxville that he wanted to see to fruition. I believed that Bill would be the best person to be our next governor long before any others had announced their intentions and encouraged him to give the idea more serious consideration. I was pleased when he decided to move forward, though I knew our meeting didn’t really impact his final decision.

After consulting with Bill’s top advisors (Tom Ingram and campaign manager Mark Cate), I invited two dozen Democratic friends to meet Bill that February. As a volunteer in the campaign, I encouraged my Democratic friends to vote in the Republican primary to ensure that candidate Haslam ultimately became the nominee…many of us felt it was crucial to the future of our state.

However, as primary voting day loomed, I was receiving unsettling reports that my friend Doug had an unusually serious primary challenge on his hands. As I crossed the street from my home to cast my vote at West End Middle School, I was genuinely torn between which primary to choose. At the last minute, I became a hypocrite and voted in the Democratic primary. I knew then that I had to support my hero, Sen. Henry, in the final race of his political career. I told no one about my decision.

Later that night I attended the Haslam election event in downtown Nashville, where the victory came early. I then headed to Sen. Henry’s Green Hills headquarters, arriving just as the final results were announced: He won by a single vote.(A recount would swell the good Senator’s final margin to 17 votes. Of course, we didn’t know that then).

That momentous evening will be forever etched in my mind. The joyous celebration had concluded and almost everyone had departed when Sen. Henry’s trusted colleague asked if I would see him to his car. During our brief journey, he said: “Well, Bo, I guess one vote is as good as a thousand,” an assessment with which I heartily concurred. He noted that he was going home “to kiss Miss Lolly, have a glass of whiskey and a cigar and sit on my front porch and relax a bit.” He explained that he never imbibed before completing all of his obligations.

Several times following Sen. Henry’s retirement four years later, we shared a glass of whiskey together on that very porch, as we mulled the issues of the day. My final visit with him was Thursday evening before he passed away. I shared with him then my three-word summation that I had been thinking about all afternoon: I told him he was “Tennessee’s Best Friend.”

He loved the Volunteer State unconditionally, without hesitation or reservation. And, his state returned that admiration wholeheartedly.

I believe that Gov. Haslam, knowing how much he, too, came to respect Sen. Doug Henry, will forgive me for my one political transgression.