Republican Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, a close ally to President Bush and the probable successor to Senator Trent Lott as the next Senate Republican leader, would ascend to the top Congressional post with his own history of race-related controversy.
Frist’s successful first run for public office in 1994 was marked by charges the campaign was built around racial divisions in a state where roughly 16 percent of the population is black.
In the years since, civil rights leaders in Tennessee—including former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks—say Frist has redeemed himself by keeping in contact with black leaders across the state.
Nonetheless, the past may haunt Frist as his national profile rises in the Republican Party, and in light of a renewed focus on issues of race occasioned by Lott’s remarks at Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party earlier this month. At the event, Lott praised Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat run for the presidency on a platform that included opposition to desegregation and federal anti-lynching laws.
Lott agreed to leave his post as Senate Majority Leader because of the firestorm of criticism his remarks unleashed.
A review of Frist’s background reveals blemishes on his Washington image.
Until the year he was elected to the Senate, Frist was a member of Nashville’s Belle Meade Country Club, which had excluded blacks.
Frist also enraged black clergy and others during the campaign with allegedly racist remarks made in the closing days of the contest against incumbent Senator Jim Sasser. The remarks surfaced after a November 1994 bus tour the Frist campaign took through a predominantly black neighborhood in Jackson, Tenn.
As the bus pulled into the community, a young campaign volunteer reportedly told passengers, “We’re getting deeper and deeper into the jungle here.”
Frist himself reportedly asked for some of his campaign’s pencils to give to children in the neighborhood. But, Frist allegedly wanted unsharpened pencils, fearing that he might be “stuck or stabbed.”
Campaign staffers also suggested playing rap music over the sound system as the bus pulled into the neighborhood.
The remarks from the bus trip were reported in the Knoxville News-Sentinel and the Commercial Appeal of Memphis.
Despite the criticism at the time, Frist denied there were racial implications to the remarks and refused to make a public apology. Frist’s campaign manager at the time, Tom Perdue, said the comments had been taken out of context.
Frist continued to draw criticism over language he used in his stump speeches during the campaign. Frist told supporters that incumbent Sasser was “sending Tennessee money to Washington, to Marion Barry,” the embattled black mayor convicted in a drug scandal.
Sasser and other charged the comments had “subtly” racial overtones.
One of the leading critics at the time was the Reverend Harold Middlebrook of Knoxville’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ and president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, who launched a massive get-out-the-vote effort to oppose Frist’s Senate aspirations.
“They didn’t make those statements in white communities, Middlebrook said at the time. They only made those statements in our community. When they make those comments in our community, it becomes racist.”
Nearly 10 years later, leading civil rights advocates in Tennessee say that Frist has “reached out” to the black communities, while still opposing key initiatives they support.
“Since he’s been a Senator, Bill has attempted to rectify what happened,” said Middlebrook in a telephone interview Friday. “He’s had one or two sessions with African American clergy since he has been in office. He may speak to others privately.”
Former national NAACP director Benjamin Hooks, who lives in Memphis, said he does not support Frist politically, but that the Senator was “fair and just.”
“I have no reason to have any negative comment about Senator Frist,” Hooks said.
Frist has risen rapidly in the GOP since 1994 when he became the first practicing physician to enter the Senate in decades. Frist founded and ran Vanderbilt University’s transplant center, and has the reputation as one of the Senate’s leading voices on health issues.
The Frist family fortune comes from one of the nation’s largest hospital chains. Frist’s father, Thomas, and brother, Thomas Jr., founded the Hospital Corporation of America, which went on to merge with Columbia Hospital Corp. in 1993.
Today known as HCA/The Healthcare Co., it is one of the nation’s largest private hospital companies, worth an estimated $20 billion. The chain recently agreed to pay $648 million to settle charges in a long-running federal investigation involving health care fraud.
The investigation grew out of lawsuits by former employees and focused on whether the company improperly billed Medicare for hundreds of millions of dollars. Including civil and criminal settlements reached in 2000, HCA has paid a total of about $1.7 billion in fines and other costs, according to the Justice Department.
Frist said on Thursday, December 19, 2002, that he would probably seek to replace Lott as Senate Republican leader if he determines that most of his colleagues would support him.
He said several senators had approached him and asked him to seek the job.