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Small town beginnings shape Phil Bredesen's politics

Kim Chaudoin | 615.966.6494  | 

Click here to view the interview.

As a young boy, Phil Bredesen had no idea how much growing up in Shortsville, N.Y — population 1,439 today — would shape his worldview.

Bredesen NTYAThe mill town became his hometown when he moved there at eight years of age with his mother, Norma, and his younger brother, Dean, to live with his maternal grandmother after his parents separated. The town and his experiences there had a profound impact on Bredesen’s political beliefs and his desire to pursue a political career as an adult.

Bredesen, who was elected mayor of Metropolitan Nashville & Davidson County from 1991 to 1999 and governor of Tennessee from 2003 to 2011, shared his story in a packed Shamblin Theatre for the March 4 edition of the interview presentation now that you ask… sponsored by Lipscomb University’s Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership.

“I enjoyed growing up in a small town,” said Bredesen. “I really liked going fishing as a kid and all of the other great things kids did back then. My greatest influence during those years was my grandmother. She had a fourth-grade education and worked very hard. She took in sewing to make money. I was around a lot of hardworking, down-to-earth people. I learned a lot about what life is really like and what’s really important in life in those years.”

Bredesen left Shortsville in 1961 to enroll at Harvard University. His experience as a “small town” boy at a large university also helped shape his political view in later years.

“One of the reasons I spent so much time on education while mayor and governor was because of my experience coming from a small town high school to an institution like Harvard,” said Bredesen.

Physics — not politics — is what drew Bredesen to Harvard. That may seem an unusual background to a career businessman and politician., but, Bredesen said it is a discipline that prepared him well for his career path.

“The practical application of physics is that you have a problem, and you have to figure out ways to solve it,” he said. “With science, you realize there are multiple steps to solving a problem. You can’t just reach for a solution. You have to go step-by-step to solve it.”

Bredesen said his interest in entering the political arena grew when he entered Harvard as he admired then-President John F. Kennedy.

“He was evidence that politics is something that ‘good’ people could do,” said Bredesen. “I enjoyed public policy. But I wanted to be active in public policy, not just a bystander. I wanted to do something to make a change. He helped me to see that someone like me could do just that.”

Bredesen launched his first political campaign in 1969, when he ran for the Massachusetts state senate. He lost to a popular incumbent. Bredesen then joined a pharmaceutical firm. In 1975, he and wife, Andrea Conte, moved to Nashville. Here, Bredesen founded HealthAmerica Corp., an insurance company that grew to 6,000 employees.

“I never thought I wanted a career in politics,” he admits. “I did a lot of other things before I was elected to office for the first time. I think it’s okay to do different things in life. I think that’s closer to what our founders intended us to do anyway.”

In 1991, he was elected mayor of Nashville Davidson County. During his two-term tenure, Bredesen was credited with revitalizing downtown Nashville, including recruiting major sports teams, rebuilding and expanding the library system and adding substantially to the park system. Under his administration, a new stadium and arena were built.

Trying to convince citizens they had the capacity to do more was a hallmark of Bredesen’s tenure.

“The city was ready to move in a different direction at the time, and I was someone who was ready to move it,” he recalls. “We couldn’t just be caretakers if we wanted Nashville to grow. To grow you need to find those who are willing to take some arrows and stand up to do something.”

Bredesen was elected governor for two terms spanning 2003 through 2011, during which time he made advancements in health care that included fixing an out-of-control Medicaid program and establishing children’s health insurance programs. He advanced education by improving teacher salaries and establishing a statewide pre-K program. He also led successful economic development initiatives in manufacturing operations and alternative energy.

The small-town upbringing had a profound impact on Bredesen’s political views.

“My politics are more small town instead of Democrat versus Republican. Real people have a much richer view of politics than people give them credit for,” said Bredesen, who ran on the Democratic ticket. “My philosophy is more that we are all in this together. I don’t always fall in the Democratic box. When you are sworn in as a mayor or governor you are mayor or governor of all the people even if they didn’t vote for you. And you have to realize that they have thought-out values even if they aren’t the same as yours.”

Bredesen said he is pleased with what he accomplished in office.

“Being able to do something for children was one of my proudest accomplishments,” he said. “The number one job of adults is to make life better for the next generation. We were able to make huge strides in improving K-12 education in the state.”

Today, Bredesen is a frequent speaker to national audiences on health care, political leadership and other topics. He recently published “Fresh Medicine: How to Fix Reform and Build a Sustainable Health Care System.” He is also an active hunter, fisherman, pilot and artist.

“But, being a grandfather is possibly the best thing ever,” he said.

He enjoys spending time with his three-year-old granddaughter, Parker, most of all.

For more information about the Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership, visit