Last week, Gov. Bill Haslam announced he was creating and filling a new job in state government: chief operating officer.
That the “CEO Governor” would hire a COO seems appropriate — scripted even. It’s the next logical step in both the Corporatification of Tennessee and the Coronation of Bill Haslam: the smiling, slick star of the squishy, palatable center of the Tennessee Republican Party.
If Haslam wasn’t managed so perfectly, the news that longtime adviser and GOP kingmaker Tom Ingram was being shifted from his role in the governor’s office to his more familiar role as manager of the governor’s campaign efforts would have been mere coincidence.
Hardly anything, though, Team Haslam does is mere coincidence. Nothing is unplanned. Nothing is off-book.
Both moves are the latest incarnation of the secret of Haslam’s dazzling success: his ability to be insulated from even the slightest nuisance or controversy.
The new COO, former IBM executive Greg Adams, in the words of the Haslam messaging department — relayed pitch-perfectly by the man himself — will bring “a fresh perspective to the work we’re doing every day to serve Tennessee taxpayers in the most efficient and effective way.”
What the governor means is Adams will find more cuts to make in state government, more state workers to lay off, more services to privatize.
And — most importantly — he provides another level of protection between the messy business of running a state and the governor himself.
It’s a smart move, politically — it’s time to shift into re-election mode for the governor with the election 18 months away, thus the job shift for Ingram.
Team Haslam is lining up its ducks, erecting firewalls between the governor and any criticism, lest some flame-breathing archconservative get in the way of his apotheosis. Democrats, presumably, will find some poor sap to take on the wildly popular Republican governor in a seemingly ever-redder state — or maybe they won’t, and their candidate will be a conspiracy theorist again; at this point, the Haslam camp is as worried about a Democratic challenger as they are about an armed invasion from Kentucky.
Haslam’s great gift as a governor is that he works hard at making himself immune to criticism.
The fear-mongering nihilists in the state Senate pass their half-baked fever-dream-inspired legislation, and Haslam gets simpatico House Speaker Beth Harwell to quash it, so he doesn’t have to take a stand that may make him enemies on his party’s hard-right wing.
He takes a hands-off approach to state departments, and when problems creep up — or rush down like waters, as they have at DCS — he very seriously and sternly says changes will be made and brings in a fixer, as if the problems weren’t systemic ones allowed to metastasize by a laissez-faire approach.
He owns stock in a company hired by the state? He didn’t know! His family’s company is charged by the federal government with massive fraud? Never heard of it!
And now, instead of acting as chief operating officer himself — even though operating the state was at least part of the job to which Tennessee citizens elected him overwhelmingly — Haslam has hired outside help: a man who never has to face the voters, a bureaucrat of the highest order, placed in power by the leader of a state party that practically spits at the word bureaucrat.
The governor has created even more distance between himself and the actual governing of the state.
It’ll work like a charm in November 2014.