BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Dressed sharply in a dark suit, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., captured the attention of an overflowing ballroom at the General Morgan Inn on Friday.
There were plenty of indications, though, that, in their mind's eye, many of those at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner recalled the famous red-and-black plaid shirt that Alexander sported in his 1,000-mile campaign trek across the state in his successful campaign for the governorship in 1978.
The former governor, now Tennessee's senior U.S. Senator and an influential figure in the Senate, served as the keynote speaker during Friday evening's dinner, hosted by the Greene County Republican Women's Club.
His role as dinner speaker, he joked, was offered only because he was once the only politician to take eight days to walk all the way across the county.
"I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Greene County," he said.
Local and state officials, civic leaders and families surrounded linen-covered tables decorated with bright "Republican Red" for the annual event.
As part of the night's events, the large crowd donated more than $1,600 to the Hope Center, a local crisis pregnancy resource center.
While every official who spoke took the opportunity to compliment the senator, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey introduced the senator.
"What [Alexander] has done here in the State of Tennessee is second to no one, in my opinion," said Ramsey, a resident of Blountville and the Speaker of the Tennessee Senate.
"He is a voice of sanity in a place that has gone absolutely insane."
While comments expressing this low opinion of the current state of Washington, D.C., were prevalent among the elected officals who spoke at the dinner, the comments were mixed with high praise for the state's Republican leadership.
Ramsey spoke individually of the accomplishments being made by state Representatives David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville, and Jeremy Faison, R-11th, of Cosby, as well as by state Sen. Steve Southerland, R-1st, of Morristown.
"I do believe, from the bottom of my heart, that we are the best state in the nation," Ramsey said.
Alexander opened his speech by echoing this high praise of the Republican legislators in leadership for Tennessee.
"They are the best legislative team in this country," Alexander stated. "Washington, D.C., where I work, could learn a few lessons from Tennessee."
STRESSES THREE 'LESSONS'
Those "lessons" became the structure of Sen. Alexander's three-point speech:
* Lesson Number One: 'Stop spending money you don't have.'
In Washington, Congress is facing a looming deadline for sequestration -- massive, automatic budget cuts designed to reduce the growth of federal spending, Alexander noted.
In contrast, he highlighted Tennessee's "top-rated road system" and lack of road debt, due, he said, to a decision in the 1980s to spend only what the state could afford without borrowing.
Today, Alexander said Tennessee enjoys 100 miles of Interstate highway, a state-wide automotive industry, and a comparatively-low gasoline tax.
"We paid as we went. We didn't borrow a bit," he emphasized. "Every single Republican legislator voted to raise the money to build the roads because there was a reason to do it, and they didn't believe in debt.
"That's the background I come from, so you can imagine what I think when I go up to Washington and we're knocking off a trillion dollars of debt -- new debt -- every year.
"Imagine what I think when we borrow 42 cents out of every dollar we spend."
President Barack Obama, Alexander said, does not want to address the changes to entitlement programs that Alexander and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, of Chattanooga, believe are necessary to fix the debt.
"Everybody's talking about the real victims of sequestration," he said. "The real victims are senior Tennesseans.
"The Medicare Trustees said that, in 12 years, Medicare will not have enough money to pay hospital bills for seniors."
* Lesson Number Two: 'Move some decisions that are being made in Washington out of Washington, back to Tennessee.'
Alexander recalled his frustration as governor when expensive federal mandates cut into the state's funding for such items as education.
In response, he proposed to then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan that the federal government cover the expense of Medicaid and, in turn, the states be allowed to take on kindergarten-through-12th-grade education.
"He (President Reagan) liked the idea. He recommended it in his 1982 State of the Union Address, but it didn't go anywhere," Alexander said.
Today, Medicaid continues to increase in cost from 8 percent of the state budget to 26 percent -- cutting drastically into the tuition aid provided those seeking higher education, he said.
"We need to get more decisions out of Washington," the senator stressed. "I agree with [economist] Art Laffer when he says, 'The state has a right to be right, and the state has the right to be wrong.'"
* Lesson Number Three: 'We need to be talking about maximum wages instead of minimum wages.'
To explain this lesson, Alexander noted a hypothetical Greeneville-based restaurant that might have had 90 employees last year.
Now, after the increased costs for some businesses following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, that restaurant may have cut those jobs to 70 employees, with more employees working less than 30 hours a week.
"You add another mandate for minimum wages, you lose more jobs," he said.
"We ought to be finding ways for people to have more jobs instead of maintaining them in the jobs they have.
"The Democratic Party's goal seems to be to maintain people in the minimum wage. Our goal should be to create more and more opportunities to get on the economic ladder, and climb up, and having a maximum wage.
"That's what this county's about, that kind of opportunity."
In this, Alexander said he follows what his father once told him when he was just 10 years old: "Aim for the top -- there's more room up there."
With that advice, he presented a copy of "Lamar Alexander's Little Plaid Book" to two young men in the audience --10-year-old Ryan Thompson, and his namesake, 17-year-old Blake Alexander Kinser.