A month after he lost the primary for the governor's seat in August 2010, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., dialed up Chip Saltsman.
A campaign consultant, Saltsman was the senior political adviser for Chuck Fleischmann, the Republican nominee in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District race and the likely winner of Wamp's newly vacated seat in November's general election.
Saltsman was the man to call if, as Wamp said in a written statement, you were a departing eight-term congressman looking "to help the Republican nominee" politically, financially and logistically.
And one other thing, according to Saltsman.
"He wanted me to give Weston a job interview," he said. "I told him I would."
Zach Wamp's pattern of helping his son continues now that Weston Wamp is challenging Fleischmann for the 3rd District seat, from tapping his old donor network to knocking on voters' doors.
Now Fleischmann's chief of staff, Saltsman said Weston Wamp once viewed Fleischmann as a potential Capitol Hill employer, not part of "the status quo" he criticizes almost daily in his quest to win his father's old office.
Two sources confirmed Saltsman's account, but both Wamps challenged it.
In his statement -- delivered after he rebuffed multiple interview requests last week -- Wamp said Saltsman agreed to meet with his then-23-year-old son, "but not about a job."
A college graduate for 15 months, Weston Wamp had served as "e-communications director" for his father's gubernatorial bid, handling the campaign website, mass emailing and social media platforms, according to the Nashville Examiner.
His father did not employ him directly, but he worked for the public relations company AkinsCrisp, which received at least $127,000 from Zach Wamp's campaign for professional services, state records show.
Zach Wamp's fatherly support didn't stop with arranging a meeting with Saltsman:
• Federal records show Weston Wamp has raised $473,489 from 284 individual donors from October through March 31. More than 65 percent of those donors had contributed to Zach Wamp, giving a total of $985,312 during his last seven terms in Congress and his gubernatorial campaign, records show.
• If not for the 65 percent -- some of whom were nudged by a fundraising letter the elder Wamp wrote on behalf of his son -- Weston Wamp would have raised about $166,000 in eight months, less than half what Fleischmann challenger Scottie Mayfield raised in his first seven weeks. Altogether, 12 Zach Wamp loyalists who gave at least $200,000 to his campaigns have given $22,250 to Weston Wamp, records show.
Dan Johnson, chief of staff to Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, is one of those donors and Zach Wamp's former campaign treasurer. His son, Danny Johnson, now serves as Weston Wamp's campaign treasurer.
• Records also show Weston Wamp raised at least $330,000 at two fundraisers -- a March 26 birthday bash headlined by country music star John Rich and a December event hosted by Alexis and Barry Bogo.
Alexis Bogo is the daughter of Zan Guerry, the Chattem executive who has donated $13,800 to Zach Wamp's campaigns since 1997. Rich endorsed Zach Wamp for governor in 2010, appearing in ads and performing at campaign rallies.
Last weekend, father and son campaigned door to door in Roane County, which the elder Wamp represented for 16 years.
In an interview, Weston Wamp downplayed his father's role, saying he has raised the bulk of his money himself.
"He's my best friend -- it's important that people understand our relationship," he said. "But it's actually the first time I've invited him to go door-to-door with me. This is where he gets to be my dad, you know?"
Weston Wamp sometimes emphasizes his father's career in Congress. Other times he distances himself from it.
In campaign materials and interviews, he says he grew up "at the feet" of Congress and learned from his father "what public service means."
"Thank you so much for your commitment to our family and my Father as he served in Congress and ran for governor of Tennessee," he wrote in a March 30 fundraising email, "but please know that we are not done yet."
At other times he describes himself as "my own man," promising to bring "fresh blood and new ideas" to lawmakers beholden to "the status quo."
"This is not Zach's campaign," supporter John Healy recently told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Campaign finance data, staff hires, fundraising letters and donors tell another story.
Joseph Salvucci contributed $1,000 to Weston Wamp in March. A Pittsburgh businessman and prolific Republican donor, Salvucci described himself as a longtime friend of the elder Wamp.
"Zach sent an email to a bunch of his buddies, and he said something like, 'Can you help my son out?'" Salvucci said in an interview. "So I sent some money."
Salvucci said he met Weston Wamp once at a charity golf tournament "years ago" and hasn't spoken with him since. Asked if he's keeping an eye on the 3rd Congressional District Republican primary, Salvucci said, "Not at all."
Zach Wamp's influence is apparent in other ways. His former spokesman and campaign manager, Davis Lundy, now handles media relations for Weston Wamp. Bonnie Brezina, a paid campaign staffer when Zach Wamp ran for governor, now manages the younger Wamp's congressional campaign.
In April, Zach Wamp sent a fundraising letter on behalf of his son asking for "$250, $500, $1,000 or even the maximum of $2,500."
"This is not about being proud of our children," the elder Wamp wrote. "This is about the future of this country and whether or not the next generation of capable Americans is allowed to step into leadership."
As Saltsman remembers the 2010 meeting at Fleischmann's Chattanooga campaign headquarters, the younger Wamp didn't bring a resume and asked to be Fleischmann's press secretary.
"I went into it with an open mind -- Weston is well spoken and certainly does not lack in confidence," Saltsman said. "But his conversation was a lot more about him and his skill set as opposed to why he wanted to work for Chuck."
Weston Wamp denied that, saying he visited Saltsman to offer Fleischmann help on social media and online outreach -- duties normally handled by a congressional press secretary.
"There was nothing about a job," Weston Wamp said.
Saltsman said he decided against hiring Weston Wamp, adding that he called Zach Wamp to deliver the news.
"Zach did not agree with that decision," Saltsman said. "Obviously a father's going to lobby hard for his son."
Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said "the use of family connections" isn't unusual in Tennessee, where Harold Ford Jr., Al Gore, Mike McWherter and other famous political sons have run for office with varying degrees of success.
"If you weren't that fond of his father, and all you're getting is that in a younger version, it may not excite you," Oppenheimer said. "On the other hand, you might feel comfortable with that."
In his statement to the Times Free Press, Zach Wamp said his son reported back to him that Saltsman "was arrogant and profane, using the 'F' word multiple times."
"We decided from that day forward we would not support Chuck Fleischmann as long as he was joined at the hip with Chip Saltsman," Wamp wrote. "They are both so desperate in this campaign they are willing to say or do anything to hold power."
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6610.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...
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