Haslam counters critics, claims handling state lawmakers, legislation a minor part of job

Sunday, July 31, 2011 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara/SouthComm 

In last year’s gubernatorial election campaign, his opponents dismissed Bill Haslam as an amiable featherbrain incapable of leadership. He seemed to play the role with TV ads revealing the candidate’s love of hard work, nice-guy politics, chocolate pie and very little else. 

After the first six months of his governorship, Haslam’s public persona remains a work in progress — a topic of mystery to the media and state political watchers. As Republicans promoted an aggressively conservative agenda in this year’s legislative session, the governor tried to remain aloof, distancing himself from controversial proposals and refusing to take positions on much of what his own party’s leadership was doing. 

Is Haslam a closet moderate who might block the more extreme of his party’s ideas? Or is he a conservative going out of his way not to offend fence-sitting centrist voters for the good of his own political fortunes and for his party’s as a whole? 

Democrats prefer a third option. They paint Haslam as a cipher in the governor’s office, a stereotypical politician waffling indecisively while conservative cowboys in the legislature shoot up the saloon. 

“True leaders don’t sit back and hope things work out as unemployment rises and our children fall further behind,” Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester said in issuing a failing report card for Haslam’s first half-year in office. “Leadership means knowing when to step back and when to step up to make sure the system works for Tennesseans and their families.”

According to the Democratic talking points, Ron Ramsey — who finished third in the GOP gubernatorial primary last summer — is running state government by default. The Senate speaker, for his part, has stopped openly criticizing Haslam but seems unable to give the governor much better than backhanded compliments. In a speech to Sumner County Republicans this summer, Ramsey praised Haslam mainly for his
willingness to admit it when he’s clueless.

“I want to tell you something, folks. Bill Haslam is the real deal,” Ramsey said. “He may not be as conservative as I am on certain issues. He is a good Christian man, a good family man. I’ve never heard him say one bad word about anything.

“In any kind of leadership, if you don’t know something, say you don’t know something. Just say I don’t know. Time after time after time, he came to us and said, ‘I’m new on the job, I don’t know this,’ and it worked out well every time.”

In an interview with The City Paper, Haslam gave a vigorous defense of his leadership as governor and blamed the news media for the perception of himself as hollow. 

“You see a governor’s role being a lot different than I do,” he said. “I think you see a governor’s role as being one that’s about positions and influencing legislation. I see that as a piece but only a piece of the job. My much bigger job is helping drive a 43,000-employee organization and doing everything from taking care of folks with mental health issues to educating 4-year-olds and Ph.D. students and building roads and working hard to bring jobs to Tennessee and working hard to drag us out of the bottom when it comes to education. I see what happens on Capitol Hill as being a relatively small percentage of what I’m doing. It would be in my top five, but it’s not one, two or three.”

The governor complained that the media paid little attention to the appointment of the first superintendent of the Tennessee’s Achievement Student District, an attempt to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools. At the same time, reporters closely watched the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to ban the mention of homosexuality before the ninth grade in Tennessee’s public schools.

“The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill didn’t pass and probably is never going to pass. At the same time, we hired Chris Barbic to run the Achievement School District, which is a huge deal. That got this much attention,” the governor said, holding his fingers an inch apart. “ ‘Don’t Say Gay’ got 100 articles. Well, something’s wrong with that picture.

“ ‘Don’t Say Gay’ is real sexy and yada yada yada. It’s not going anywhere. Who runs the Student Achievement District is huge. But you’d be lucky to find two paragraphs on that.

“I say we’ve got a product to deliver, and I’m going to focus a lot of my time on delivering that product. People say, ‘Well, you weren’t 100 percent engaged on the session.’ That’s fair in one way. I probably will be more engaged going forward. But I’ve also got a job to do.”

Haslam said he is focused working behind the scenes to improve public schools and the state’s economy and to cut costs in the operation of the government.

“Those are real problems,” he said. “If we’re not working on them, they are not going to be addressed or it’s going to cost us money or our kids aren’t going to have  as much opportunity. I don’t think that by focusing on that I’m ducking issues.”  

12 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 8/1/11 at 5:54

Haslam's biggest problem with the press is that he's a Republican! No, he is
not a conservative, but a very moderate East Tn Republican like Alexander,
Corker, and their hero former Senator Baker. Social issues are swept aside by
the moderate wing in order to make sure Business whether hiring, over paying
executives by many percentage points and the Stock holders/owners have
as little say in consumer matters as possible.
The Governor does seem to know there are 3 separate branches of government
+ the lobbyist and press, of course, and knows he only operates one and a
half of these-Executive and Judicial. The 1/2 on Judicial is protect their status quo!

By: joe41 on 8/1/11 at 6:06

He is still an ineffective leader.

By: Nashville_Edumi... on 8/1/11 at 7:39

Jeff Woods-
What is it that you personally have against Haslam?

You seem to keep trying to make him look like a goof, and he keep's one upping you with his responses.

He seems to be a pragmatic leader who looks at each issue as it comes up, without a preconceived ideological stance. I prefer that in government leaders.

Your article basically criticizes him for not fitting into your pre-conceived expectation of a right wing super conservo.

What's YOUR agenda here?

By: macjedi on 8/1/11 at 8:01

He IS a goof. He's like George W. Bush, but with a history of successful business, and not stupid. He's a smart man (now, I did NOT say "intelligent"... but smart) and he is a puppet for the right.

By: Kosh III on 8/1/11 at 8:26

"He seems to be a pragmatic leader who looks at each issue as it comes up, without a preconceived ideological stance."

nonsense. He took the predicitable right wing anti-freedom position on every social issue that came up.
Why do Republicans have such a hard time keeping out of the private affairs of people instead insisting that citizens conform to their own prejudices and religious opinion.

Why do they not support equality, which is one of the basic principles of our civic society? Opposing equality is downright un-American.

By: Radix on 8/1/11 at 9:12

Kosh you are loopy. Conservatives I know could care less what you do in your own house, and whole-heartedly support equality. Or maybe when you say 'equality' you actually mean something else? Its hard to tell these days the way people with an agenda misuse words and all...

By: Kosh III on 8/1/11 at 10:32

Equality as in freedom to marry the consenting human adult of your choice. Something that conservatives fiercely opposed even going so far as to dictate who people can and cannot marry or love.

Also the freedom to not be discriminated against because you do not conform to a particular religious opinion; using the coercive power of the state to compel conformity is an offense to freedom, to conscience and to the First Amendment of the US constitution.

I could list other ways that some citizens are unequal under the law but you get the point don't you?

How do you mean it?

By: pswindle on 8/1/11 at 12:23

Haslam is in over his head. He is running on everything that was left by Bredesen.
When he has to start his own agenda, better watch out. He is a puppet for the right-wing. He signed every bill that the GOP led Legislative put before him. He said that he would not push to remove Collective Bargaining from teachers, bu he could not sign the bill fast enought. He is two-faced without a clue.
The unemployment has already gone up under his watch. He acts like he is tring to hide from the issues and from the people of TN.

By: bfra on 8/1/11 at 3:16

I have a friend named "Gay", should I not speak her name in public?

By: Donna Locke on 8/1/11 at 5:45

"As Republicans promoted an aggressively conservative agenda in this year’s legislative session, the governor tried to remain aloof, distancing himself from controversial proposals and refusing to take positions on much of what his own party’s leadership was doing...."

No. Haslam wasn't aloof. He was quite involved and doing the bidding of his fellow corporate overlords.

By: SandyLusk on 8/2/11 at 5:04

Gov. Haslam should not boast about taking care of mental health issues. Right now, he is shutting down our special needs clinic - Team Center in Chattanooga. This place serves 2700 people, mostly children. Team has over 1800 patients on Tenn Care, what will happen to them? There is no other place in southeast Tennessee for them to go. Special needs people are shut out from services and therapy.
Haslam's cabinet commissioner for Department of Intellectual Disabilites, Jim Henry, has repeatedly lied to the families and media. First, he justified the closing by stating it was a duplication of services and they have to cut spending. This turned out to be blatantly false since Team services 2700 people on $774,000 and Henry took the money to put into a new group home in Greenville serving 290 people at $4,000,000. He is wasting tax dollars and harming the special needs population.
The duplication of services was suppose to be the school system. This shows an appalling lack of knowledge by Henry since Team is a medical facility and not educational. Henry then told us the grant said specifically for "early intervention" . Someone showed us the grant and it had nothing on it about early intervention. Team has been in place for 47 years and is shutting down on short notice.
Henry ,himself, told my friend and the Times Free Press they don't serve children. The T.C.A. spells out that they do serve children and children are a priority of the state.
How can Gov. Haslam keep this man who lies to families? He mislead the legislators into believing it was already funded? How can Gov. Haslam say he is working on mental health issues when his commissioner is a detriment to so many. This is so wrong.

If you are interested in seeing Team Center stay open, please join us on Facebook at "Keep Team Center Open". We put up letters, responses, stories and all the lies on the page. Thank you.

By: Kosh III on 8/3/11 at 5:56

Mentally handicapped children can not give huge campaign donations.