Smooth road for Tennessee GOP? Not so fast say former governors
Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 9:04 pm
By ERIK SCHELZIG
NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Republicans now hold control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office for the first time since 1869. So nothing but a smooth road ahead for new Gov. Bill Haslam’s agenda, right?
Not so fast, say his predecessors.
“Just because the Legislature is of the same party as the governor doesn’t mean they’ll always agree,” said Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who was Tennessee governor from 1979 to 1987. “There are always problems between a governor and the Legislature, and I’m sure he’ll have his share.”
Haslam will have to conduct a delicate balancing act in the governor’s office in pushing his own priorities while trying to politely deflect the ones he objects to without offending his GOP colleagues in the Legislature.
“Governing is hard and messy and never works out quite the way you hope it will,” Alexander said. “But the big opportunity is there.”
Fellow Republican Don Sundquist, who was governor from 1995 to 2003, called the new GOP control of the Legislature “a great opportunity, but it comes with some burdens as well.”
Both Alexander and Sundquist forged strong working relationships with the leadership of what were then solid Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
“There’s different problems with your party in charge — but given a choice, I’d take that every time,” said Sundquist, who ultimately ran afoul of many in his own party for supporting failed efforts to impose a state income tax during his second term.
Democrat Ned McWher-ter made the unusual jump from state House speaker to governor in 1987 and served two terms. He said he quickly drew a line with former legislative colleagues who might have thought they could exert new influence in the executive branch.
“I let everybody know who was boss,” said McWherter, who held the governorship until 1995. “You never use power until you have to use it. And then when you do, you use it as strong as you know how. That’s always been my philosophy.
“If I’m responsible for running state government, then that’s what I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll try to work everything out, compromise and get along with everybody. But if you have to drop that gavel or that hammer, you do it.”
Fellow Democrat Phil Bredesen came into office in 2003 following several years of legislative battles and street protests over the income tax proposals.
“The Legislature was so beaten down that they were much more willing to take direction at that point than they would at the end,” said Bredesen.
Bredesen said his biggest early challenge was that his goals did not always overlap with the traditional aims of his Democratic colleagues in the Legislature, such as the changes he won in the workers’ compensation program.
Republican gains in Bredesen’s second term created a different sort of assertiveness in the Legislature, this time forcing Bredesen to take a more defensive stance against proposals he disagreed with, like allowing people with handgun carry permits to be armed in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol or requiring all driver’s license tests to be conducted in English.
“The issue of a Legislature exerting more and more control over things is very real,” Bredesen said.
Bredesen said he resisted the strategy of simply setting himself up against the Legislature, especially when he first came into office.
“It would have been a good time to play against them because their popularity was at like 6 percent,” he said. “It’s a pretty easy thing to do, because you can always be a lot more focused about things than any legislative body is going to be.”
Haslam acknowledges the difference between his dealings with the nine-member Knoxville City Council with when he was mayor there compared with the increasingly acrimonious 132-member General Assembly. That increased scope will make it impossible to allow every member individual input into all key issues.
“You can’t have 132 cooks,” Haslam said. “If you do, it’s hard to get the meal out on time.”
But Haslam said close contacts with lawmakers can also make difficult decisions — like the pending budget cuts — easier to achieve.
“I’ve always found that as mayor, the more City Council knew about the budget, the better it went for us because they recognized the same difficulties that we saw,” he said.
Haslam stands to benefit from the election of Rep. Beth Harwell, a Nashville Republican who is one of his stronger allies in the Legislature, as speaker of the House. But even Harwell cautioned that there will be differences along the way.
“I’m very supportive of Gov. Haslam, I want to see him successful,” she said. “I want to help him, but I understand the role of the Legislature, I understand legislative debate.”
“The founding fathers had three distinct branches of government for a reason,” she said. “We have a job to do.”
Published in The Messenger 1.18.11