Former two-term governor and U.S. senator candidate Phil Bredesen discussed student issues with Bredesen Center graduate students over breakfast at the Oliver Royale restaurant Thursday morning.
Bredesen, who served as Tennessee governor from 2003-2011, declared his candidacy for the Senate after Republican Senator Bob Corker announced he would not run for re-election last year.
“Bob Corker said he wasn't going to run again, and I started getting calls from around the state saying, 'You ought to think about this,'” Bredesen said. “I’ve been concerned about the way things were happening — or not happening — in Washington. And that predates the Trump era, that's something that's been happening for a long time.”
Twelve students from the Bredesen Center, the interdisciplinary doctoral research institute named after the candidate, met with Bredesen to express their concerns and discuss their research. They raised questions about repairing the Veterans Health Administration, strengthening nuclear energy investment and viability, extending research grant lengths and increasing public outreach for the sciences.
“It was a really good opportunity. It was nice to get face time,” Anagha Iyengar, nuclear energy researcher, said. “I think he understands these are issues that we’re facing, but whether he can address them depends on what committees he's on.”
Bredesen had the idea for a research institute of that kind during his time as governor and helped see the project to fruition, according to Bredesen Center Director Lee Riedinger.
The Senate race is drawing national attention as Democrats see flipping the Tennessee seat in a red state as key to re-taking the legislature, currently of Republican majority. Bredesen, however, downplays that significance and said he hopes to bring a level of normalcy to the legislature.
“I think in terms of taking the Senate, I just think that's a distant prospect,” Bredesen said. “The focus is certainly to try to bring some type of process back into Washington where you can actually pass budgets and consider legislation.”
Bredesen, who has worked on healthcare in both the public and private sectors, said stabilizing healthcare would be another priority.
“I think this first step is to stabilize what we have,” Bredesen said. “Just as a moral matter, we’ve got many millions of Americans who have chosen (the Affordable Care Act) as the way to get their health insurance, so we owe them some stability.”
He was also open to the recent Democratic push for universal medicare, cautiously.
“I think there's a level of care that functionally is a right in this country,” Bredesen said. “I think a good starting point would be to rationalize that level of care. Part of the problem with the Medicare-for-all is you try to throw too many things into a mix. I believe, stepwise, you’ve got to have a baseline care that takes care of certain kinds things, and as time goes on you see what you want to add and what you want to subtract.”
When asked about why UT students specifically should support him, Bredesen cited the issues of student loans and net neutrality.
“I think what's being done with net neutrality is an existential threat to what's worked so well with the internet, and I hope people will respond to that,” Bredesen said. “I’m someone who went to school with student loans, but they were much lower interest than these student loans and (had) longer pay-out times. I don't what I would have done if I had the current student loan arrangements.”
Keith Britt, an energy science and engineering researcher and Army veteran, asked Bredesen how the Department of Veterans Affairs could better serve the expanding list of veterans who need health services.
“Do I think he addressed (my issues)? No,” Britt said. “Do I think he comprehended them, do I think he heard them, do I think he's concerned with them? Absolutely yes.”
Although Bredesen didn't explicitly respond to his question, Britt said he still plans to support Bredesen.
“I think he’s just a measured man,” Britt said. “He’s not going to over-promise, he's not going to bend to make himself look good in your eyes, and if he doesn't have a firm position on something he's not going to make one up on the spot.”