The Wamps: Like father, like son

Weston Wamp talks about Congress like it’s a member of his family. As a kid, he would look forward to visits to Capitol Hill during school breaks, when he would shadow his dad, former Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), and make new friends. 

“[I] grew up kind of running around the House floor, and at different times I knew most members of Congress by name,” Weston says. “I’ve seen Congress on its best and worst days. I grew up very close to the institution.”

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Weston’s older now, 24, and he would like to give Congress some tough love. He has decided he wants to return to Washington, this time as a reform-minded lawmaker representing the young Americans he predicts will bear the brunt of the country’s debt crisis.

Weston announced his candidacy for his father’s old congressional seat — Tennessee’s 3rd district — last fall and has already put his family’s political know-how to use. One of his talking points stems from his experience as the son of a member of Congress.

“I think it helps to go to Washington knowing what you’re getting into, and I think that’s the unique advantage that I have,” Weston says during a phone interview from Chattanooga.

Once he turns 25 in March — and of course he’s celebrating his birthday by throwing a fundraiser — Weston will meet the age requirement for serving in the House. After that, his main obstacle will be Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R), the freshman incumbent who survived a nasty 2010 primary against 10 opponents and who counts campaign veteran Chip Saltsman, an architect of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) 2008 presidential campaign, as a top aide. 

“The election is still over six months away, and Chuck has made it clear that his focus is doing the job that he was elected to do,” Fleischmann spokesman Jordan Powell said. “If he does that, he thinks the politics will take care of itself.”

Weston has confronted another challenge for new candidates — money — with energy. He set a district record in December for raising $250,000 in one night. But he knows that sum will not sustain his effort to defeat Fleischmann, who, as the incumbent, has more institutional support. National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswomen Andrea Bozek said that, though it usually stays out of primary races, “we are a member-driven organization, so in this case we’d be supporting the congressman.”

Powell said Fleischmann expects to report “well over $550,000 cash on hand” as of the end of 2011.

Weston intends to maintain the high bar he set in December.

“Moving forward we’ll continue to raise money aggressively,” he says. “I’m going to get out there to make my case to the people.”

Wamp dynasty?

Weston was 7 when his dad was elected to Congress. He and his younger sister, Coty, grew up in Chattanooga, and he says his parents did a good job creating a normal life for their family.

“My dad was one of the guys who went out of his way to be in Chattanooga every weekend,” he says. “As soon as the gavel went down, he was on a flight back home.”

But they weren’t strangers to Washington. Coty interned for former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), one of Zach Wamp’s roommates, and Weston spent two summers interning in the front offices of the Washington Wizards and Washington Nationals.

The result, at least in Weston’s eyes: “I’ve got thicker skin than your average person based on growing up in the political arena,” he says, adding that he got used to hearing his dad get “attacked on talk radio every week.”

Weston says he didn’t feel destined to run for office, but that it wasn’t a total surprise, either. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, he started Wamp Strategy, his own public relations and marketing firm, which works with one of Chattanooga’s venture capital incubators. He also worked as the top surrogate for his dad’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, which he called the “ultimate father-son experience.” (They lost.)

Weston was always attracted to his dad’s sense of public service, but he says he didn’t see himself on any ballot “anytime soon, until the last year.” He says he could no longer stand to watch the government “borrow against my generation.” 

“As silly as politics can be at times,” Weston says, “you have to enter the political arena in order to change things.”

Age didn’t stop him. He says his family knows Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) and Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) — two former lawmakers who first ran for Congress, and won, as 26-year-olds.

“That affected my decisionmaking process — having seen young men in their 20s serve,” he says.

He also likes to campaign. He would help out on his dad’s congressional races — “just in a son role,” he says — and he admired his father’s “great touch with people.”

“I enjoyed the retail campaign side,” Weston says.

Zach Wamp says he and his wife wouldn’t have been surprised if either of their children decided to run for office.

“This is obviously earlier than most people would expect,” he said. “[But] Weston is a really knowledgeable guy. He’s like a student of things, and he’s been a student of Congress since he was a small boy.”

Was there any hesitation on Zach Wamp’s part when his son broke the news?

“I think my wife and I, if we were brutally candid, we’d say there’s always a hesitation if your children have the courage … to step out and do something bold,” he says. “You always have a little gut-check.

“But the last thing you want to do is hold back a young person in America that has what it takes,” he noted.

The former lawmaker now runs his own business-development consulting firm, but he plans to help his son’s campaign “where I’m needed.”

“In some cases it’s people that maybe don’t think he can win or may think that he’s too young, and I’ve had conversations with people to say, ‘I can assure you he will do very well and will be very effective — if we can just get him there,’ ” he says. 

Zach Wamp also is allowing some of his paternal instincts to kick in.

“My hope for my former colleagues and all my friends in Washington through the years [is] that they would let the people of east Tennessee determine who their nominee and who their representative is and not let this race be dictated by people in Washington, D.C.,” he says, acknowledging that it was “a little awkward” when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom the former lawmaker calls a “longtime friend and very close ally,” came to Chattanooga last fall for a fundraiser for Fleischmann.

His own path

If he wins, Weston would be yet another entry in a long list of familial connections in Congress, but he emphasizes that he wants to be his own lawmaker. He says he and his dad are pretty close ideologically, but he intentionally hasn’t reached out to any members of the Tennessee congressional delegation for support.

“The way to go to Washington and convince people that you’re serious about reform is to not surround yourself by politicians,” he says. “To go and be effective in Washington right now requires a steel backbone … the truth is, it’s very dangerous in politics to try to be all things to all people.”

As Weston gets busier with the campaign, he sees what little social life he has waning but says he sleeps well because, “I’m doing this for the right reasons, so I’m not consumed by it.

“It’s a great challenge for a young person,” he says.

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