Looking at the big issues facing Nashville and Tennessee at large, there is hardly a single one on which Phil Bredesen cannot speak from personal experience. In two terms as mayor and two as governor, he spent 16 years immersed in the policy and politics of state and local government.
Throughout his time in office, whether at the Metro Courthouse or on Capitol Hill, Bredesen grappled with health care, education and tax incentives and economic development. And as it happens, those are perhaps the biggest challenges currently facing the city and the state, a relationship on which he also has a unique perspective.
In an extensive interview with City Paper editors, Bredesen shared that perspective, discussing how he dealt with those issues as a public official then, and what he thinks about them now as a private citizen. He also obliged in a discussion of the state’s political landscape, a view that’s quite different from when had Tennessee’s top job.
Bredesen has recently been active on the national scene as a spokesman for the Fix the Debt campaign, and is currently working on his second book, which will focus on the national debt and health care.
If you were governor today, dealing with Obamacare, would you let the federal government handle it? You’ve been somewhat critical in the past about, you know, calling it the “mother of all unfunded mandates.”
That’s the Medicaid piece? I’ve talked with Bill Haslam multiple times about it — in his asking, not my lobbying him on the subject — I just think, especially if you’re a conservative, why would you want to turn a third of your state’s budget to the federal government? I think that people sometimes get confused. They need to separate their feelings about the Affordable Care Act from the analysis about what’s best for the state.
Having lived with Medicaid for a long time, having the federal government to be involved in the stuff you do here in Tennessee is not necessarily a good thing or an efficient thing. So I just say, the bottom line is separate the issues. Whatever you think about the Affordable Care Act, this is a different decision, and if you’re trying to show your distaste for the act by refusing to participate in this way, I think you’re kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
With your Fix the Debt work, do you talk with the Obama administration or with Obama himself?
No, not a lot. There are some Fix the Debt people who have had regular conversations with him, but it’s mostly been handled by Erskine Bowles I think, you know, who was a White House chief of staff, and has been in there. I’ve certainly got friends in the White House and talk with them
occasionally about that, but no.
I’m sure you saw that the comptroller had a report pointing a lot of fingers at TNInvestco [a Bredesen-created program designed to increase the flow of capital to companies in Tennessee].
The TNInvestco thing I think is ridiculous. The problem with TNInvestco was it has been that — tha t kind of program in a lot of states has been a very insider program where a bunch of people got wired for deals and all this kind of stuff, and I’d say in Matt [Kisber’s] defense he did a very square-corner attorney thing. They made the awards based on criteria. I really think there was no favoritism. I mean my former chief of staff [Stuart Brunson] was mad at me because he didn’t get an award. I mean he applied with a bunch of people, and I think, but it wasn’t — he didn’t win. And there were a few people that didn’t get awards that thought they should have, and they’ve been keeping [controversy] alive for, you know, a long time now. It was a sort of a venture capital program. I think it was well put together and run, and — and like everything, when you have winners and losers sometimes the losers don’t like it and — and they, you know, they’re agitated about it, but I don’t have any — I don’t have any concerns the way that program was run.
Speaking of incentives, the council passed a package of incentives for HCA [to build on West End]. Tennessee has spent about $1.5 billion per year on incentives of some kind or another.
I’ve talked about this for probably a decade-and-a-half now to say if there were some understanding or constitutional prohibition or something like that nationwide that cities couldn’t do that or states couldn’t, that would be great, OK. In the meantime, there isn’t.
So you sit there and face — I went through it with the football stadium over there, you know, people were saying, ‘Well why should you build a $300 million stadium for a billionaire in Texas?’ Legitimate question. And the answer is, if you want a football team here, that’s the price. It’s like, saying I don’t know whether a fair price for a new Mercedes is $90,000, or whatever they are, but I know if I want a new Mercedes, I’m going to have to write a check for $90,000. And, I can’t invest $90,000 in schools and hope that they’ll give me one.
My strategy was always to focus on — there were kind of two principles. Number one, I always fought the idea in the council and in the legislature of setting up broad programs that were the same for everybody.
And my approach would always say go for anchors. One of the reasons we worked so hard for Volkswagen was not just the jobs. I’m not denigrating the jobs that Volkswagen produce, but it’s an anchor. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on around that, and we figure for every job in a Volkswagen assembly plant, there’s probably five more out there in the suppliers to it and the transportation of logistics and so on. Plus the fact that a Volkswagen has an impact in terms of the prestige of the city of Chattanooga, in this case, as a place to do business, somewhere that far outweighs the impact of five companies investing the same amount of money taken together or 10.
When I first became mayor, downtown development was a big issue, and the first thing I tried to do was to get a university campus downtown. It’s not well-known, obviously, but that idea is looking for an anchor, and nothing ever came of that, and we came up finally with the idea of, “Well, we’re going to focus on entertainment.” And that’s where the arena kind of came from, saying “OK, you put that down there and that does, a lot for Lower Broad.” It brings people downtown.
If you remember, if any people were around at the time, but on the arena and on the stadium both, the big fight was not about building it. It was about where it was going. And there was a huge contingent that — seems true for the library too, come to think of it — wanted a stadium, but wanted it out at the intersection of I-24 and something else so they don’t have to come downtown and fight the traffic.
And my approach was just the opposite, which is say if you build an arena, people are going to come to it. Now, where in the city do you want them to come? I don’t see any benefit of having them drive to a parking lot at the corner of two interstates particularly. So we put this down here. We paid extra, probably $35 million extra, to be able to put the stadium here, but I absolutely think it’s exactly the right thing to do as opposed to being out in the country somewhere.
And the second concept that I always apply, and I know I applied it absolutely consistently as mayor, and, at least on the big projects when I was governor — when it comes to tax breaks and so on, it’s OK to take a decrease in revenue in the future as opposed to what it might have been if they come otherwise. It had to be a net plus to the city or the state.
But you know, the reality of the world is if you want to do these kinds of things, you got to talk about [tax breaks] and send those to the company. The big companies have all got these relocation firms when they start. And, you know, Volkswagen started with, I don’t know, 25 sites or something like that, and if you’re not being a little aggressive with the incentives, you don’t make the cuts for the relocation. You never even get to see Volkswagen.
You talk about anchors. Would you consider a new baseball stadium in Nashville an anchor?
I never went down that road. I think it potentially could be. I’m not sure down here with football and with the arena down here, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the stuff we’ve got now, I’m not really sure that a baseball — it might be a good thing to do, but I don’t think it would meet the test of being an anchor in my, you know, in — in my mind.
In the ’90s when I was mayor, you remember we went through this thing. We actually got the hockey and the NFL team here, and, um, there was a major league baseball team interested in coming, and I kind of put the squash on that and made a lot of people mad. It was kind of — kind of behind the scenes, but just on the basis that we are barely big enough to think about having two pro sports teams here, and I’d rather have two successful ones than three that were all struggling and all trying to get the same advertisers and so on. I think we have the right number.
What team was talking about coming here?
No. No. But I mean it’s — it’s —
The statute has run out on protecting that.
[Laughs] In a way it was a nice measure for me of how much the city had changed during the ’90s in that when I first came in and proposed the arena over here, I said we were going to build it to pro sports specifications, which actually meant a little smaller. They want 17.5 [thousand seats] or something, not 22,000, making room for suites basically, and meant not giving up all the revenues from everything else that you particularly do to build it for that.
And one of the columnists in The Tennessean just took me apart. I mean, you know, “if that mayor thinks that we’re ever going to have a major league sports team here in Nashville, Tennessee, he must be smoking something.” And, you know, five years later we had two of them, and one of them was an NFL team.
And the measure is I say that towards the end of my time when we did that thing with the baseball team, and I didn’t do it, I had people that were furious with me. And I really saw that as a nice thing, because it was such a change in the sense of Nashvillians as to what the city is and what’s possible.
Let’s shift topic a little bit to politics. For Democrats it was a pretty good election this last time around, but in the state of Tennessee, not so much.
How do you feel about the state of the party right now?
I think it’s struggling right now, and it’s not just Tennessee. It’s struggling all across the South. I mean there’s been a huge change in the past 20 years, you know, in the South about the party. The old alignment of the South was with Democrats, because it was the Republicans who sent the federal troops here. That’s sort of fallen apart and the inherent kind of conservatism in the South and so on has found an attractive home in especially the current Republican Party. I mean, those are big long-term demographics, yes.
You had eight years in the governor’s chair, and certainly the party was stronger, at least on an electoral level, at that time.
Do you wish you’d left it in a little stronger shape?
I mean, remember the party apparatus is just not that big of a deal in electing people. You know, I illustrated that one day by saying, ‘Look I’m the sitting governor of a state. I just won my second re-election as governor, and I could not tell you to save my life who the party chair is in Davidson County or the party chair is in Robertson County or something like that.
It’s different today. During John Kennedy’s race in Massachusetts it was the first time where there really was a Kennedy organization, i.e. Democratic organization, he sort of pioneered that. And I think you’ll find that for me or for Bill Haslam or for such, there’s a Corker organization, and there was a Bredesen organization, which is a different thing than the party organization per, you know, per se.
And, uh, and I know friends of mind who are Republicans have told me they’ve seen a lot of the same issues at least on the Republican side. You’ve got this mechanism for voting for the party chairs in which you’re on a ballot in the county and stuff, and it tends to be sort of true believers, longtime party activists or something like that around those particular ballots. Every party, including the national parties, do a platform which has nothing to do with what the candidates for president or the candidates for governor support in the thing.
So I just the think the party organizations themselves, I mean, they can be valuable in the trenches, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be running totally crossways to the party, but the trick for Democrats in Tennessee I think has got to be to — I know it sounds terribly egotistical and I apologize for that — but you’ve got to do what I did, which is define what it is you want to do without grounding everything in other traditional Democratic views of this or that. I think you can continue to win doing that, but if you just, say I don’t know, let Nancy Pelosi decide what my view of the world is, it just can’t work that way. And I’m not alone. Believe me, I’m not alone in feeling like that at all.
And when I’ve gotten criticized for that in the past for doing that, I’ve always said look, you know, I’m a Democratic governor of a state. I’ve been elected and re-elected, and re-elected overwhelmingly in the state. I think I’ve got as much right to say what it means to be a Democrat as anybody else does.
These last few years were a little frustrating for the party because I think the party ought to be about electing Democratic people, and I think the party for the last two or three years has been about structuring a party apparatus, hiring people and doing — doing this kind of stuff. And less about “I’m going to zero in on here’s what it takes to elect people, and here’s the stuff that we contribute in the way of, you know, let’s get the voter list together.”
I think we’ve gone a little too far down that road and need to kind of come back to recruiting and electing Democratic candidates to the legislature, and frankly the other offices.
Do you think maybe as governor you could have — or even now that you could have done more for legislative candidates? There was a lot of bloodletting the last couple of elections.
Since I left office I’ve supported some legislative candidates and done lots of fundraisers and stuff, but I mean I have certainly not done as much as I did as governor, just because I’m not governor anymore. I’m just doing something else. And I certainly don’t believe in leaving an office and then sort of hanging around the side of the process for the next 10 years and doing that.
But when I was governor — you know, this is probably something you can criticize, but a lot of people told me that I spent an awful lot more time in the field doing fundraisers, doing appearances than anybody they’ve worked with before as governor. And so, you know, given the fact you’ve got a job to do, OK, I feel good about the calls we made about how much to do and how much not to do as in support of the candidates.
Speaking of candidates, you’ve been one.
Would you be a candidate again for anything?
I don’t think so. I mean, you know, I’ve learned if I ever said, “No, absolutely not” and did something 10 years from now, you’d pull it out of your records and hang it up here. [laughs] So I would never say “No, no, absolutely never under any circumstances. “ If you look at me, I’m not doing any of the things that someone who is thinking about being a candidate secretly down the road would be doing or something like that. I don’t really think so.
You ran for mayor and lost and ran for Congress and lost, then of course we know that you ended up winning the mayor’s race and the governor’s race. If you’ll not take this the wrong way, do you think part of the party’s problem is that everyone keeps asking you if you’re going to run again?
Yeah, I mean I think it’s natural. I always end up with nice numbers because in part you’re always more attractive when you’re not in office making anybody mad. A party organization ought to be thinking about, how do you develop young candidates? I mean look at Karl Dean. Karl, you know, I’d be thinking I hope someday about running for governor of the state. I mean being a Democrat gets harder and harder, I think, as the years go on, but you think about somebody like that, and presumably there are others like him around the state that you’d like to be, you know, you would like to be thinking about that.
So you’d say Karl Dean is a rising star in the Democratic Party?
Yeah. Not that Karl Dean is — I don’t know if he’s interested in rising or not. I think Karl Dean is, you know, I’m not sure I’d use — I don’t know quite what the word “star” means in all those contexts, but — but I would say Karl Dean is a Democrat. He’s been a successful office holder. He’s well-liked in the community here. If he has a hair to continue on in politics, I hope someday he would consider running for the Senate or running for governor or something like that. The Democratic Party needs a stable of people like that, you know, who at various times can step forward.
Anything you’d like to do over? You’ve had two good terms as a governor and two successful terms as mayor.
Oh, we can stay here all afternoon. When I think back on it, I think the big thing, which still bothers me, is I really think that in the TennCare thing, I think in the early stages of that I really misread the opposition. I ended up taking a much longer and much more painful course than I would have had to if I had been smarter in the beginning.
I mean, all my life I’ve dealt with lawyers who were representing somebody over here, and we all get in a room, and after enough sessions we’ll find some way to make this happen. And what I really didn’t realize was it’s not a legal issue. It’s a political issue. I mean it’s a matter of that group was not going to compromise on anything, because they weren’t. When I would say to them “I don’t understand why you’re opposing me cutting something in our Medicaid program that no other state even has” and the answer was “Well, this is something that needs to be in the program. We’ve got one state; 49 to go.”
And that, you know, I mean that’s a misjudgment on my part, and it cost the state a lot of money. It was just the delay that it took to get the stuff done. And it ended up because of that being a much more blunt-ax approach to the problem than it needed to be.
Given that Republicans gained such a majority and managed to take education reform very aggressively in the last two years, do you kind of look back at what you did in education, and think that if you didn’t go quite so far maybe Republicans wouldn’t have pushed so hard for the taking away collective bargaining rights for teachers or tenure?
No. I think that was going to happen whatever happened before. I mean, that stuff almost came out of a national playbook. It was not a Tennessee-specific kind of thing. No, I’m very pleased with that, and to be honest with you, I’m very pleased. I mean I’ve told him that, the way that Bill [Haslam] has it — I mean he’s going to put his own mark on things, which he ought to do and stuff, but I mean Tennessee is a state on a very straight path. Um, and in dramatic contrast to when I was in the mayor’s office.
In my last couple of years [as mayor], I put a lot of effort into this issue of core curriculum that we did here, and when Bill Purcell then came in, the core curriculum lasted about 60 days, I think. OK, And the reason for that was that it was much my program is, it was the “Bredesen” program. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to make sure the Tennessee stuff was not the “Bredesen” program. I mean it’s something I think that, you know, that — that Bill [Haslam] has and can sort of adopt and make his own without somebody saying, well you’re just taking the “Bredesen” program. I really think that I mean the way you get any big changes done and that’s you’ve got to keep going at it for 10 or 15 or 20 years. To do that, you’ve got to have a succession of governors who are willing to do it.
I was a little sorry to see the Republican stuff, especially on the collective bargaining, just because it really isn’t an issue in Tennessee. I mean, this is not New Jersey or New York, and the unions really had stepped up, a little reluctantly at times, but they really have been willing to play in a way you can’t even imagine happening in one of the Northeastern states. And so to kind of turn around and slap them down, you know, solving a problem that we really don’t have, I thought was a little bit misguided.
Where do you think about the voucher idea? That seems to be where it’s going now, to be a lot of vouchers to attend private schools with taxpayer dollars.
I guess charter schools is kind of a variation on that set of concepts. The role of the voucher obviously takes further you can do that. I’m a little hesitant. With charter schools, I always felt that — I mean I expanded them. I’m not saying that they’re bad at all. In the reform we did my last year, we made it easier to get charter schools going, but it’s more because I think they kind of help keep the public school system honest than it is that I think they’re a huge solution to the problem. You know, first of all, they’re not automatically better. There’s some good ones and some bad ones.
So I don’t think they’re automatically the solution to anything. This is a state of 95 counties, and there’s probably 85 of those that will never have a charter school just because if you’re in a rural county that’s got one high school and three middle schools and three elementary schools, there’s not much room for a charter school in that environment.
I’d much rather work to make the public school system work than just figure out how to tear it apart piece by piece by piece.
It was an early discovery of mine for folks in the education that you look at some of the private schools in town and they’ve got these terrific records of kids that get in college and stuff, which, when you look at it, most of them they do a good job, but they get a lot of that record in the admissions office. You get a bunch of kids who are highly motivated and the parents are highly motivated for them to succeed, and they don’t have huge behavioral problems. That’s a little different world than the public school system has to deal with. So my fear about a voucher system is just don’t drive the system into this two-part system.
That’s the thing I also think: There’s a real value in diversity in a school. The public school I went to was a one-building school district. The entire [grades] 1 through 12 system was in one relatively small building, and that was the entire school district. And there were no private schools.
And it was not a racially diverse school [in upstate New York], but it was a very economically diverse school, and people who you would think of today as extremely special-needs kids were sitting right there in the classroom along with, you know, the others who went there, and I really think that’s a valuable lesson for everybody. There’s so many people that have got no idea what most of the world is like or what their hopes and fears are, and those kinds of things. I just think, you know, being forced to know a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different goals in life, um, is really, um, is really — is really important.
I’m a little rambling, but one of the things that I’ve always been very proud of is that — particularly — particularly as governor, is you take a poll about people’s opinions of me, OK, um, contrary to what you might think, I will do much better in the Waffle House in Lewisburg than I will on the Vanderbilt campus.
Because you really like Waffle House?
[Laughs] When I ran for governor, before it became really visible and heated up, I spent a year with Jeff Conyers in a van driving around Tennessee meeting with any six people who would meet with me. And I loved it, and I just felt it got me way, way back in touch with what people were really thinking about, and you get to be with a bunch of people and have a more detailed conversation than “I am a pollster, are you going to vote for Obama or Romney?” or, you know, those kinds of things.
And I did it for the purpose of campaigning because remember when I ran in ’94 and lost — well, it turned out in ’94 I wasn’t going to win anyway as a Democrat, but I didn’t know that until closer to the election — but when I lost that, probably the reason was it was real easy to pigeonhole me as “Well here’s this guy who doesn’t talk like us, he’s from the Northeast, he went to Harvard, he’s a big city mayor.” It’s just real easy to paint me in that box. And so I just said, well, first of all, that’s not who I am. And second of all, I just need to get out and get, you know, and get some insulation and learn.
I wanted to win an election is why I was doing it. But I honestly believe it made me a much better governor than I would have been otherwise, just because I was just much more connected to people at a different level than I would have been if you had been sitting with your pollsters and listening to the policy wonks at Vanderbilt.
You talked about Purcell a minute ago, and it’s been written a lot that y’all had clashed after you left office and such. Do you have a relationship with him now?
Not really. I mean we’re cordial, but I don’t — I don’t have a relationship with him.
Do you think that — that clashing has been overblown or is about right?
No, I think it’s real. I mean I don’t dislike him or have some distaste for him. He had a very different style than I did, and spent what I thought was an inordinate amount of time explaining how he did things so much better than the previous administration, although I think most people looked at my years as a reasonably successful time in the city. That was irritating. But, you know, we get along fine. I see him at things, and we do that, but I sort of got the picture. See, I can talk about things now that I’m not in office. I sort of got the picture when I really worked hard the end of my time as mayor, which I also did as governor, to make sure there was plenty of dry powder financially. The way the city works is, um, is the tax collection goes into a debt service fund, and that debt service fund, that has a balance that you can use for that. So in other words, in any given instance, you’ve got the ability legally to issue out of $110 million worth of debt, and that — the council decides how to use it and also the mayor, so decide how to use that. Different from the way the state does it with much more of a single-project kind of thing.
So I left them with a really healthy balance. Whereas, the usual thing in the past has been the mayor cleans the cupboard out on his way out the door. I left them a really healthy balance. And I think he had not been in office six months before they spent all the balance, and they were doing all these things because they were so much better at running things than the previous administration.
That was probably the beginning of the certain test during that period of time, but I would say Haslam has not — has absolutely not done that. He’s bent over backwards. I mean, I left him in really good shape, and he’s acknowledged that, and he’s continued on a very sensible course.
Interviewed by Steve Cavendish, Andrea Zelinski, Steven Hale and Ken Whitehouse.