His Journey to Public Service
You may have heard him give a speech, you may have seen him on C-SPAN, or you may just have run into him in one of our local restaurants. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker may be known nationally for his positions on fiscal issues or foreign policy, but here in his hometown, we know him first as the mayor who enacted a series of changes that transformed our city. Senator Corker has now spent over a decade in the limelight as a politician on both the local and national levels, and he’s certainly received his fair share of publicity. In our exclusive interview, we had the privilege of talking to our senator not only about his policies, but about his childhood here in Chattanooga and his journey to public service for our city, state, and country.
Interview By Laura Childers
CS: Can you describe a typical day in your childhood here in Chattanooga?
BC: Yeah, sure. We moved to Chattanooga from South Carolina the summer before my 7th grade year; I was 10 or 11. We moved to Signal Mountain and rented a home near the park. I loved to played baseball, and I got a job lining off the baseball fields and picking up trash every day.
CS: You went to middle school and high school here, then.
BC: I grew up on Signal Mountain and went to Signal Mountain Junior High School, which now doesn’t exist. I played baseball, football, and basketball. And then I went to City High School, which was just an outstanding high school, it really was. It is today too. Actually, I go over there sometimes for some of their events.
CS: Is it true that you were involved in student politics?
BC: Yeah, I ended up being president of the student body. We didn’t really have an election. The student council just voted one morning. So there was no campaign, no thought whatsoever of being in that job. But just one day I came to school and ended up being president of the student body.
CS: Did you do anything else outside of school?
BC: I had summer jobs all through summer and over Christmas break. I talked to you about picking up the trash, but you know, I worked down on 6th Street at Hill’s Florist, and I worked down at Western Auto some. I bagged ice out on South Creek Road for a gentleman named Mr. Jones at Tennessee Valley Ice. And when I was old enough to start doing construction work, I began working as a laborer out on construction sites. That’s what led to my interest, ultimately, in what I did career-wise.
CS: I feel like that is somewhat atypical for someone that age.
BC: You know, look, I grew up in a middle class family. My family was building a home a year later after moving here. My dad was an engineer out at Dupont. Work was just something that was enjoyable. I don’t remember my parents sitting around, encouraging me to do it or not do it. It’s just what I expected to do.
CS: So you chose to study industrial management at UTK. What was your thought process there?
BC: Actually, being from South Carolina, my parents really wanted me to go to Clemson University. My dad had gone there and my younger sister ended up going there and being a cheerleader. But by the time I made the decision to go to UT, it was six years into being in Tennessee. I had actually gone down to Clemson and gone to orientation, and I finally decided against it. I thought, “I’ve been here in Tennessee for six years and it’s been outstanding, sports-wise, work-wise, school-wise, family-wise.” And I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be in business or in engineering, and industrial management was a mix between the two.
CS: Someone once wrote that you are more of a “self-taught” man than an intellectual. Would you say that is accurate?
BC: Well, you know, I was a very average student. I did pretty well in high school, but when I got to UT I was average. I had to take 84 hours my last year at UT to graduate on time. I went to school from 7:50 in the morning until 9 at night and made great grades. I realized, you know, that going to class was really helpful.
CS: I didn’t know you could do 84 hours.
BC: I had to get special permission to do so in one 12-month period, but it was important that I graduate on time. But you’re right, through life, it’s been the experience of working hard and learning that way. I mean, even in my Senate job right now I get up at 5 or 5:15 in the mornings and the first thing I do is read the Wall Street Journal, portions of the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post. And you know, candidly, if I’m going to go to dinner with somebody I’m probably going to wear them out asking them questions about what they do. So yes, I think that I’ve been able to learn things by digging in deeply.
CS: Learn your material—kind of a good life principle, huh?
BC: What I tell graduating classes at UT and other places, going back to my own experience in construction, is that I learned how to build a building. Like really build a building. Not on paper. I’m talking, give me a roll of drawings and a telephone and we’ll build a mall. I tell young people all the time to master something. To make yourself indispensable. And you know, that’s the first step towards being totally independent in life. To be really, really good at something.
CS: When you graduated you interviewed with three different construction companies—two large companies in Alabama, and one smaller company here. Why did you choose the one here?
BC: That’s right. I graduated in 1974 and I interviewed with three companies: one was Blunt Construction down in Alabama, one was Harbert Construction down in Alabama, and the last one was Independent Construction in Chattanooga. It’s now called EMJ Corporation. One of the pieces of advice that I got—and it was invaluable, and I have given the same to my daughters—is to go to work for a company that is professional enough that you really learn how to do things in the right way, but small enough that you learn the entire business. Especially if you have notions that you are going to maybe someday go into business yourself.
CS: Can you describe that first job?
BC: I worked for three months in the office, a coat and tie job. I had business cards and all that, but I didn’t know anything about construction. I was the first person in the office in the morning and the last person at night, but I didn’t really feel particularly productive. And every day, I would wear them out over sending me out to the field where I could actually learn how to build a project.
CS: Did you get your wish?
BC: So after about three or four months, they sent me as a “project engineer” to a strip center beside a mall in South Carolina. My job was to keep up with concrete tickets, and payroll, and all the paperwork. So, I did that job at night. And during the day I was out there laying out footing, shooting footing, tying rebar. I ended up climbing steel. I mean, I learned how to build a building. And by the way, I was drinking day old coffee, working in a trailer, shaving sometimes, not shaving sometimes. This was out on a muddy job site.
CS: But your big break came later.
BC: Yeah, I went down to Sarasota as an “assistant superintendent” and within about six months they sent the superintendent someplace else and I ended up being the superintendent in charge of building a regional mall. I was 23-years-old. After that, I ended up going to Columbia, South Carolina, to finish a mall. Then I went to Charlotte, North Carolina, to help another mall in a real bind. It was just an incredible experience.
CS: What next?
BC: So, by this time I was 25-years-old. I had saved 8,000 dollars. You know, we used to get bonuses for building a project on time and under budget. And so I moved back here to Chattanooga and went in business with another gentleman who had worked at the same company as an estimator. We formed a partnership called Bencor Corporation. But after 90 days, we realized we just had different objectives. So we split up very amicably—we are still friends to this day—and I started doing these really small projects.
CS: Like what?
BC: Small shops. We started following clients around. Gateway Books, Record Bar, some of these companies don’t even exist today. I got into a groove by doing Krystal drive-in windows, believe it or not. And the company grew at like 80% on average every year. About the time I was 28-29, I knew that I was going to be financially independent. I was living up at Cameron Hill, which is where BlueCross is right now. You know, I got so little sleep during those years.
CS: Tell us about that mission trip you took to Haiti with First Centenary Methodist in your late 20s.
BC: So, I’m sitting up there at Cameron Hill one Sunday, a dark gray day, wintertime. And I knew that financial success was occurring. And I went to First Centenary that day and I read in the church bulletin that they needed someone who knew something about construction to lead an effort down in Haiti. And so I called the church to inquire about it and ended up going up on a short-term mission trip that spring. And, it was just an incredible experience for me.
CS: What was so incredible about it?
BC: I think being around people in need that were so thankful and so appreciative when they had so little really touched me. I would get up really early in the mornings and go run through the city. We were in Cap-Haïtien, working in just incredible poverty. I would run by these scenes of people, little kids getting up in the morning, literally living on top of garbage dumps and going through the garbage to find things to eat. In the midst of all this, their joy really had an impact on me.
CS: So what changed when you came back?
BC: When I came back I knew I couldn’t be doing that kind of work with a company that was growing as rapidly as mine was, so I started working down on Read and Mitchell streets on the weekends. Somehow I bumped into some guys from a church that used to meet down at the old YMCA on Saturday mornings. We’d meet down there and just start going through the neighborhood helping elderly citizens. We’d clean up tires in people’s yards. Do repairs. We’d just do whatever needed to be done. And I realized that we had a ton of people in Chattanooga that just didn’t have decent housing.
CS: How did that become Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise?
BC: I went to lunch one day with a guy named Rick Montague, who, at the time, was head of the Lyndhurst Foundation. I was telling him about working down on Read and Mitchell, and he says, “You gotta meet this guy named Jim Rouse—he has this thing called the Enterprise Foundation that’s all about alleviating sub-standard housing.” Less than five days later, I went up to Maryland for a meeting with Jim Rouse. To make a long story short, we engaged the Enterprise Foundation to do a study of Chattanooga. The City of Chattanooga, Lyndhurst, and myself split the cost: 1/3, 1/3, 1/3. They spent 1985-86 going around and looking at all the problems and came out with a report in the fall of 1986. I took it down to Mayor Roberts with Mai Bell Hurley and Rick Montague and we formed something called Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise. I became the founding chairman as a volunteer.
CS: But at that time you still weren’t involved in public service.
BC: Yeah, I had this company that was growing and Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise was taking off. Then in 1986, a guy named Ned Ray McWherter ran for governor and was looking to deal with low-income housing at the state level. So, he appointed me to a task force and I would go to Nashville. That was actually the beginning of any interest in the public arena. It was an evolution. In other words, I didn’t get involved in politics out of politics. I got involved in the public arena through public policy.
CS: So somewhere in there you must have met your wife. Is it true that the first time you asked her out on a date, she hesitated, and you said, “If I have time, you have time”?
BC: How’d you know that? Yeah, I met her on a blind date. She was doing interior decorating for a friend of mine in Knoxville. And, he called, and we were all going to go do something on a particular Thursday night and get dates to do it. And so I kept calling her and she kept saying, “Weeeellll, I don’t know, I don’t know.” And finally, she said, “Look, I just don’t have time.” And so, I paused and said, “Well look, we know if I have time, you have time.” I mean, during those days I was staying up the entire night to, you know, get memos out, look at financials. I knew she was busy, but she couldn’t be that busy! So, yeah, I think that there was pause on her end for sure. (laughs) But we ended up going out and ended up getting married.
CS: You once described your personalities like “oil and water.” Could you explain that?
BC: Oh, yeah! We were just the opposite. You know, when we were first dating I’d be getting up at four in the morning and she was probably going to bed at four o’clock in the morning. I was very focused, driven. She was very creative. Time, schedule—that just wasn’t her life. So yeah, I tell people all the time we were like oil and water. We’ve been married 27 years now, and I will say that we have grown together over time. It took a lot of getting used to on both ends. There is no one I would rather spend time with than Elizabeth.
CS: I’m going to fast-forward now to your Senate job today. How do you strike the balance between being a staunch fiscal conservative but also a pragmatist and a dealmaker?
BC: I think the greatest threat to our nation today is our inability to deal with our fiscal issues. I have proposed solutions and have followed all kinds of bipartisan proposals that have been put forth through think tanks and worked extensively with the White House and with people on the other side of the aisle to try to bring closure. I will say, I just don’t see right now in Washington a desire to do those things that require sacrifice to save our country, and it’s very disappointing. It’s probably the most disillusioning thing about serving up here. We continue to pile up debt. We have 17 trillion dollars in debt today. And it just seems that there’s not any sense of urgency with dealing with that issue. But look, I think around here you have to wake up every day, and if there’s a problem, try to find partners to solve that problem. And you know, on the one hand, that’s central to the legislative process, and on the other hand, it’s one of the most frustrating things that exists about the legislative process.
CS: You’ve visited 56 different countries now from being on the foreign relations committee. What have you learned about the world from your travels?
BC: I think one factor that just always ends up being front and center is that there is no question that the United States is the greatest nation on Earth. There is just nothing that compares to the values that we espouse, the efforts that we put forth. We make mistakes and there’s no question we get it wrong sometimes. But the world would be a very different place if it weren’t for the United States of America.
CS: What do you see as your greatest personal accomplishment since being elected to the Senate?
BC: Well first of all, the greatest public service to me that I had the privilege of participating in was being mayor of Chattanooga. By far. Much of what you do in Washington that is of importance is influencing outcomes. To be an independent, thoughtful voice in helping shape responses to what we are doing on foreign relations and banking and especially fiscal issues. In the Senate, you affect so many things with just a phone call.
CS: What about one of your biggest accomplishments here, then?
BC: Well, I’ll tell you one of our greatest accomplishments was our work with Volkswagen attracting them to Chattanooga. That would be one tangible thing. Earlier, we had been courting Toyota. They ended up deciding to go to Mississippi. And so, we made the first call to Volkswagen, which is based right outside of Washington in Northern Virginia and immediately fell in with David Geanacopoulos, who we still talk to often. You know, as a senator, I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing, but I would miss a couple votes and come down here to work on recruiting Volkswagen to Chattanooga.
CS: Is it true you had a series of dinners at your house for the VW officials?
BC: We had a big dinner at our home—about 110-115 people when we were first just showing them the community. We had a second dinner at my home with about 16 people to really get into the details. Governor Bredesen was there, Senator Lamar Alexander was there. And then, the third meeting was at the Chattanoogan and there were about six people there. And Governor Bredesen and I made the closing arguments, if you will. And that day, later, up at the Hunter Museum, I was standing there with the decision maker—by this time, the 21st Century Waterfront had been built while I was mayor. I remember looking out over the city with this German official and him saying, “Bob, I just had no idea that Chattanooga was like this.” That was when I knew we had them.
CS: One of the biggest things people think about when they think of you as mayor is the Waterfront. How did that happen?
BC: You know, I didn’t even campaign on the Waterfront piece. I was elected and sworn in in April and I go down to the Waterfront one day, and I thought, you know, we talk about our “waterfront” and yet, at the time it was like hot asphalt with paper blowing across it. We had the aquarium, but nothing else. Well interestingly, the thing that had really kept us from doing more was a four-lane highway down there that separated our community from the river. Well, because I had been commissioner of finance for the state, the department of transportation guy was still there from the days I was there. He was a great friend. And I called him up one day, and I said, “Hey, would you consider letting me create a different state route and we take over this as a local road?” And he said, “Yeah.” So I went to meet with him and we worked it out in no time and that freed us up. It had been like a 15 or 20-year issue for our community. Then we created the vision – with a lot of community input – that is the 21st Century Waterfront and raised the money. From vision to completion it happened in 35 months.
CS: What are some of your favorite things to do for fun in Chattanooga?
BC.In the area of fun, I will say the thing that I enjoy the most is riding bikes on the weekends with Elizabeth. You know, every single weekend that I’m not going to the Middle East or some other place, I go home to Tennessee. We ride our bikes during good weather from March through October. A lot of that we do on the Riverwalk.
CS: Riding around downtown, I guess you can see just how different our city is today.
BC: Oh yeah. If you look at where our community was then and where it is today, it is just truly incredible. Lizzie came down here from Knoxville in 1987 after we married. I don’t know if y’all remember, but there was Knoxville envy during those days. Anyway, you couldn’t get her out of here now. We live in North Chattanooga and so when we come into town we ride across the Veteran’s Bridge. A lot of times it’s sunset. And you know, it’s rare that we don’t remark at just how proud we are of our city and how glad we are we live here. I think we’re very, very fortunate to be in a community like Chattanooga that has the quality of life that it has—and the desire for it to be even better than it is.
CS: Tell us about your daughters.
BC: I am really so, so proud of them. Emily, my 25-year-old daughter, is working in New York as head of product development for a company called Feed Projects. I talked to her today as a matter of fact, stepped out of a foreign relations hearing. Julia is older, lives in Nashville, and is selling real estate. She married a person on our staff that she met up here while she was interning and working in the Senate for a while. We are so glad he is a part of our family. Our family has been very close. And sometimes, I think, even the distance draws us closer. But, I’m really proud of them, as I am Elizabeth, who allows me to do what I’m doing.
CS: Have you read any good books lately?
BC: I’m in the middle of John Meacham’s book about Andrew Jackson and it’s very good.
CS: Any aspirations for higher office at this time?
BC: You know, the question comes up. I don’t know. I will tell you that today, honestly, that’s not what we’re focused on. I watch what happens to people when they run for president, from the standpoint of how they comport themselves, and I guess that I really do relish the role that I play right now of being that independent, thoughtful person. At present, we are really focused on how we can make an even bigger difference in the Senate.