These are difficult times. Economic recovery seems to be curbed for the time being. Although some sectors are in the early stages of a rebound, national experts suggest it might be another decade before we could achieve a balanced federal budget. Meanwhile, Tennessee will lag in the coming years. Depending on whom you believe, the state will face a revenue shortfall of between $45 million and $1.5 billion (we tend to trust the former figure, which comes via the Bredesen administration) in 2011. The next governor will have to manage an already-tight budget at a time of exceedingly high unemployment and virtually no public interest in a tax increase of any sort.
Both nationally and locally, partisanship has rarely been so vicious and underhanded, and social issues seem to divide us more now than at any time in the recent past. During his ill-fated primary campaign, Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called Islam, the world’s second-largest religion, a “cult.” Democratic candidate McWherter said during a debate that mosques don’t belong in neighborhoods. At the same event, McWherter said public schools could teach a “blend” of science and religion.
Because Tennessee needs a fiscally conservative chief executive to calmly manage difficult shortfalls and inevitable cuts, and because the state needs a strong political moderate who can help mitigate the destructive efforts of an increasingly hostile and radical right taking control in the state legislature, we endorse Republican Bill Haslam for governor.
Although he has stuck to broad strokes during this campaign — with a weak opponent, Haslam has not been compelled to do much of anything except ride a Pollyanna message of positivity touting his own credentials and background — we believe the Knoxville mayor has the right ideas for reviving the state’s economy: work to broaden opportunities in rural Tennessee, audit state government to identify smart places to cut, regionalize the state’s economic and community development office so that coordination of services is simplified, and use technology to connect like businesses big and small.
Haslam is also a supporter of the pre-kindergarten program, which we believe is an important first step in combating illiteracy and poverty. He has said he favors expanding the program if money to do so is available; we encourage Haslam along in that regard. Haslam has been a proponent of a digital records system that allows teachers and principals to easily access student records so that they may work with each other, students and parents to achieve both better test scores and an improvement in broader education fields. Generally, Haslam has suggested reinvigorated teacher-recruitment programs, as well as new training for principals.
We disagree with Haslam on major points as well. When asked whether he would sign a harsh, Arizona-style immigration bill if the legislature passed it, he gave an unequivocal “Yes.” We tend to believe that such a law would lead to racial profiling, as well as interfere with future federal efforts at immigration reform. But we do agree with Haslam’s notion that enforcement of current laws that impose penalties on businesses for hiring illegal immigrants needs to be upgraded.
Last week, Haslam told a roomful of gun owners that he would sign legislation removing all restrictions on gun ownership, including permits. We are disheartened by Haslam’s position here. As mayor of Knoxville, he was part of a group organized by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York that attempted to curb gun violence in cities by adding certain restrictions on gun ownership. Unlike the more belligerent members of his party, we consider this a mark of distinction for Haslam, not dishonor. We urge him to reconsider this irresponsible position on a major public safety issue.
We also question Haslam’s bona fides when it comes to women’s rights. During an appearance last Monday at the Tennessee Women’s Economic Summit, Haslam said he opposes spending state dollars (actually federal money passed through the state health department) on Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide a vast array of free and low-cost family planning services to communities in Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville — as well as those who may travel to our cities seeking such assistance. According to the Tennessee Women’s Political Caucus, state-run family planning service operators are at capacity in urban areas. Cutting helpful nonprofits like Planned Parenthood from the mix would be a disservice to women and families.
In short, we trust that Haslam is as strident a pragmatist as he’s made himself out to be. We expect him to exert a moderate, reasonable, creative and logic-based influence in dealing with our legislators and citizenry. His Democratic opponent has not revealed himself to possess comparable qualities, nor has he energized his party’s base at a time when its standing in state government could be severely compromised. This calls into serious question his leadership ability.