Facing doubts from women voters, Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen opens up about his wife's kidnapping

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·National Correspondent
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Phil Bredesen speaks to voters in Mountain City, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
Phil Bredesen speaks to voters in Mountain City, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. — On a December morning nearly thirty years ago, Phil Bredesen had just gotten to work at his office in downtown Nashville when his phone rang. On the other end of the line was a police officer. The call was purposely vague — the officer didn’t want the businessman to panic — but something had happened to Bredesen’s wife, Andrea Conte, and he told him to come to the hospital right away.

“I thought she had been mugged,” Bredesen, the former Tennessee governor who is now running for U.S. Senate, recalled in an interview last week. But it turned out to be far more serious.

At the hospital, Bredesen found his wife bloody and beaten. That morning, as she arrived to open her gourmet cooking store, a man had approached her with a gun. When he tried to force her into his vehicle, which was parked next to hers, Conte, a diminutive 5 foot 1, screamed and fought back.

Headlines from the Tennessean about the 1988 attack.
Headlines from the Tennessean about the 1988 attack.

The attacker beat her on the head and face with the butt of the gun, breaking a cheekbone and opening a gash on her scalp, injuries that later required surgery. He broke her hand to force her to release her grip on the steering wheel and dragged her into his car, where the front door locks were taped shut. As he drove off, she was able to reach over and shut the engine, giving her enough time to dive into the backseat and out an unlocked side door, leaping out of the still-moving car and into the street.

Her assailant sped away — he was eventually arrested nine months later after he shot and killed a woman during another attempted kidnapping in Nashville. He received a life sentence for that murder and 32 years for the kidnapping and attempted murder of Conte. The man told police he had hoped to get a ransom from Bredesen, a multimillionaire former health care executive who was in the headlines at the time for his political aspirations.

Conte, an intensely private woman who has played a quiet role in her husband’s political career, told reporters afterward that she didn’t want the episode to define her life. Though she has given occasional interviews on the subject, primarily in connection with her subsequent work founding a victims’ rights organization, “You Have the Power,” those who know her say she prefers not to speak about the attack. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) Likewise, her husband has spoken only sparingly about his wife’s experience during his subsequent political career, which includes two terms as mayor of Nashville and two terms in the governor’s office. Asked why, Bredesen replied, “It’s just kind of personal.”

A screengrab of Andrea Conte recounting her attack on PBS’s documentary series, “The Independent Lens.”
A screengrab of Andrea Conte recounting her attack on PBS’s documentary series, “The Independent Lens.”

But last week, Bredesen, a centrist Democrat who has strenuously avoided hot-button issues in favor of talking up his long history of working across the aisle on economic issues and other bipartisan projects, felt the need to say something personal. He has been facing attacks from his opponent, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, over his handling of sexual harassment cases as governor, and disappointment from some of his female supporters after he said he would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. So Bredesen brought up his wife’s kidnapping and her work with female victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, explaining that protecting women was an issue that was very personal to him, contrary to what his opponent had argued.

“The impediments that women have, and being taken seriously in their allegations and the stuff they go through in trying to report crime — this has been front and center for [my family] for a generation,” Bredesen said during a campaign swing through East Tennessee last week, where he interrupted his usual stump speech to make a specific appeal to women who are “troubled” by his stance on Kavanaugh and his handling of harassment cases. “It’s not a subject that I am obtuse to at all. It’s built into the DNA of our household,” he said. “And I don’t want anyone to ever doubt that I have zero tolerance for that kind of thing.”

Bredesen was largely pushing back against Blackburn — who, against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, has attacked his handling of sexual harassment cases as governor, suggesting he tried to cover up allegations against his aides. In at least two cases, interview notes taken by an investigator looking into harassment claims were shredded — a policy Bredesen has defended as a way to protect the identity of victims, because the notes were subject to the Open Records Act. But it was a policy he quickly ended, ordering his administration to preserve all records after he reached an informal agreement with local media to keep the names of accusers private. “Women aren’t going to come forward if it’s on the front page of the newspaper,” he said.

But Blackburn has pointed to news reports at the time which found investigations into harassment allegations against senior members of the Bredesen administration appeared to be handled more privately and with less paperwork than in lower-level government positions — a discrepancy that Bredesen said was based on different legal protections for civil service positions and his own executive staff.

“There was a path for friends of Phil where sexual harassment claims where handled, and there was also the path for everyone else, and what happened?” Blackburn said at last week’s debate in Knoxville. “The voices of those women were shredded. They died in that shredder.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn speaks during the 2018 Tennessee U.S. Senate Debate with Democratic candidate and former Gov. Phil Bredesen at the University of Tennessee on Oct. 10, 2018, in in Knoxville, Tenn. (Photo: Mark Humphrey, Pool/AP)
Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn speaks during the 2018 Tennessee U.S. Senate Debate with Democratic candidate and former Gov. Phil Bredesen at the University of Tennessee on Oct. 10, 2018, in in Knoxville, Tenn. (Photo: Mark Humphrey, Pool/AP)

Bredesen has called Blackburn’s statements “flat-out wrong.” A PolitiFact investigation into Blackburn’s claims found her statements “half true,” and said she had “embellished” some of the details and ignored Bredesen’s response at the time, including his demotion of a top aide and instituting changes in the handling of harassment charges.

But Blackburn’s attacks, combined with fallout over Kavanaugh, appear to have had a significant impact on Tennessee’s closely watched Senate race, long regarded as the Democrats’ best hope of regaining a foothold in red state America and in their push to win back majority control of the Senate. Until just a few weeks ago, Bredesen, one of the most popular public officials in state history, was giving Blackburn a run for her money in a race that, in theory, has always been hers to lose. Though Tennessee once had a long tradition of electing moderate lawmakers from both parties, the state has become more conservative in recent years, rendering Democratic officeholders nearly extinct.

Yet Bredesen, a folksy politician who spent years crisscrossing Tennessee holding chili dinners and doing other retail politics during his time in the governor’s office, had kept the race statistically tied for months. He is better known than Blackburn, an eight-term representative from the Nashville suburbs, and his approval rating — 61 percent among likely voters, according to an NBC/Marist poll released last month — was 15 points higher than hers.

But then came Kavanaugh. While Blackburn had endorsed his nomination almost as soon as it was announced over the summer, Bredesen held out, refusing to answer questions during the confirmation hearings and even after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which she accused Kavanaugh of assault.

On Oct. 5, just before the Senate voted to advance the nomination, Bredesen broke with many in his party and announced that he would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh. While he praised Ford as a “heroine,” he said evidence for the sexual assault allegations by Ford and others “didn’t rise to the level” of disqualifying Kavanaugh for the court. Some of Bredesen’s volunteers quit in protest. Blackburn accused Bredesen of waiting to gauge how the vote would ultimately go before announcing his decision.

Phil Bredesen campaigns in Johnson City, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
Phil Bredesen campaigns in Johnson City, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Bredesen’s public poll numbers have dropped significantly in the last two weeks. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted during final days of the Kavanaugh debate found Bredesen trailing Blackburn by eight points among likely voters. A New York Times/Sienna College poll out last week found Bredesen behind Blackburn by 14 points. While Bredesen once held an average 10- to 15-point advantage among likely female voters in the polls, the Times poll found Blackburn with a three-point lead among women over Bredesen, a result within the survey’s margin of error but worrying to Democrats.

Bredesen, who has described himself as an “equal offender” of both parties throughout his political career, acknowledged that his decision to speak out in support of Kavanaugh had likely cost him votes. And he acknowledged that his decision to speak out about his wife’s kidnapping and her subsequent work for victims’ rights was motivated by his desire to correct the perception that protecting women had not been an important issue to him. He said would have preferred to leave Conte out of the conversation because he still regarded the incident as a personal issue. “The only reason I am talking about it now is just the context of the debate,” he said.

Asked how his wife’s experience and her work had influenced his thinking on Kavanaugh, Bredesen said he tried to approach his decision in the way a senator should — by weighing what public facts were available, though he pointed out that he, like most people, did not have access to all of the facts. Unlike what some Republicans have argued, including President Trump, he said did not believe Ford was a “plant.”

“I believed her more than I didn’t believe her,” he said.

But he criticized the process, in which Democrats had sat on Ford’s information for months, and Republicans had allowed only a cursory FBI investigation. “I absolutely thought it was unconscionable not to do a serious investigation of the charges,” he said. “There was no excuse for that, and I can’t even imagine why anybody of either party would want to sweep it under the rug the way it was kind of done.”

Bredesen defended his decision to wait to announce his thinking on Kavanaugh, arguing it was what a responsible senator would do, but also acknowledging it was a personal issue. He talked to Conte. “We talked about it quite a bit,” he said. “There was a difference for me between what you emotionally feel, and how you exercise your responsibilities.”

Asked if Conte agreed with his decision to back Kavanaugh, Bredesen said there was “no domestic strife.” He said his wife was more “emotional” and sympathetic to Ford, but understood where he was coming from and was “fine with it” and “satisfied with the answer.”

A GOP protester heckles Phil Bredesen as he arrives at a campaign event in Johnson City, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
A GOP protester heckles Phil Bredesen as he arrives at a campaign event in Johnson City, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

But whether Bredesen can effectively make that case to women and other voters who were disillusioned by his stance is a big unknown. Arriving to a small house party in Johnson City, a major hub in mostly rural East Tennessee where polls show Blackburn has struggled to excite Republican voters, Bredesen was greeted by a young man believed to be working for an outside group backing Blackburn who carried two clear plastic trash bags full of shredded paper. “Shredesen!” the man yelled at the former governor, a nickname that Blackburn’s campaign has promoted in recent weeks, as another man filmed the encounter.

Inside the house, Bredesen, a mild-mannered politician who rarely becomes emotional on the stump, seemed slightly troubled as he broached his support for Kavanaugh. The crowd of 40 or so people, who had been clapping and cheering, grew serious as he spoke, and several women in the room, most in their 40s or older, exchanged glances. “I know there will be people in this room, particularly women, who are disappointed on the Kavanaugh subject,” Bredesen said. “I am asking you. … I do not think that was about, in my mind, the treatment of women or mistreatment. I thought it was about something else. And I ask you to try to understand what my position was. … And even if you are troubled by it, please compare me to who I am running against.”

The crowd laughed. And Bredesen moved on, eager for another subject.

“Politically speaking, there is no right answer. Whatever you say, 50 percent of people are gonna be mad at you, and 50 percent happy,” Bredesen said in an interview. “I hope that what women in the end will do is look at my record compared to Marsha’s. … I am hoping they say, I disagreed with him on this one, but that’s one out of 10.”

A volunteer wears a “Women United for Bredesen” shirt at an event in Kingsport, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
A volunteer wears a “Women United for Bredesen” shirt at an event in Kingsport, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

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