Gov. Bill Haslam appears to have the same uncanny ability to avoid lasting political controversies as the Democratic president whose picture occupies a ledge inside his Nashville home.
A picture of a young Bill Clinton sits in the drawing room of the Tennessee Residence, likely a relic from his Democratic predecessor Phil Bredesen's decor hitting at tales of a past governor's bond with with former president.
While Haslam doesn't share the same party as Clinton, he's picked up the Teflon-like qualities of that president (whose approval ratings stayed high even after a Republican-led impeachment in the U.S. House).
Haslam has become a governor with an astronomical approval rating and what appears to be easy passage to a second term despite turbulence within his administration and other high-profile political struggles.
But none have tarnished his image over the past two-and-a-half years as governor.
Haslam, a Republican, benefits from a Tennessee economy on the uptick and a public short on political interest. His nonconfrontational style also makes him a difficult target, especially in a state without a Democrat showing serious signs of opposing him in the next election.
Last month, a survey found the governor enjoys a 63 percent approval rating, with more than three out of four Republicans favoring his performance. Democrats also support the governor; more than half of them approve of the work he’s doing, along with 62 percent of independents.
While the governor may embody a quality resistant to criticism, he’s not untouchable. He has been forced to maneuver through sometimes touchy intra-party politics, and he’s trying to strategically tap into part of the politically unpopular Affordable Care Act without infuriating Republicans on the right, all while dealing with a federal probe into the Haslam family business.
And the wrong move could jeopardize what has become Haslam’s comfortable seat as state CEO.
‘Timing has been good’
The economy was awful while Haslam walked the campaign trail from 2007 to 2009. The worst of the recession was ending as he took the helm in 2010, just in time to ride a slow wave of economic recovery.
His predecessor Bredesen was in much of the same position upon his election. When he entered the governor’s office in 2002, the country was on the tail end of the post-9/11 economic recession. But unlike Haslam (at least so far), Bredesen eventually faced a major cost-cutting decision — slashing 170,000 people from the state’s TennCare rolls.
“We’re not really out of the woods,” warned Will Pinkston, a former Bredesen political operative and current Metro Nashville school board member, about today’s current economy. “Things are still on the upswing.”
By the time Haslam took office in January 2011, the economy was beginning to show signs of improvement. When he first took office, nearly one out of 10 Tennesseans were out of work, with a seasonally adjusted 9.6 percent unemployment rate, compared to one in nine nationally. The unemployment rate has since dropped as low as 7.6 percent and now sits at 8 percent as of April, just above the national jobless rate.
Instead of running a government faced with draconian cuts to balance the budget like Bredesen did in the second half of his tenure, Haslam has been able to offer budgets that can afford to cut taxes on food, gifts and inheritances, while still growing the state’s bottom line.
“Let me say with a smile on my face, in American politics, timing is always very important,” said Zach Wamp, a former congressman who finished second to Haslam in the Republican primary race for governor.
Wamp said that while he himself “obviously picked the wrong time to run for governor,” the candidates in that race expected the next term would be easier economically.
“Timing I think has been good to the governor, but I also think everybody in the field on both sides of the aisle knew that things would improve just because of the cycles of the economy,” he said. “At the same time, that’s not to say he wouldn’t have served just as well with a more challenging environment. We don’t know.”
Voters decided 2 to 1 to invest their votes in Haslam and make him the next governor, but they also ushered in a slew of Republicans to give the legislature comfortable GOP majorities in both chambers. The legislature absorbed 15 new Republican seats that year, and another 12 two years later. The effect so far is two-and-a-half uninterrupted years of GOP rule in the legislative and executive branches, giving the governor allies across state government who are reluctant to stonewall him the way a throng of Democrats would.
With the help of Republicans, the governor has easily ushered in laws key to his agenda, like making teacher tenure harder to earn, enacting tort changes and restructuring how the state hires and fires civil service employees.
In return, the governor has supported most GOP legislation that’s crossed his desk, such as deflating the state’s largest teachers union and permitting gun owners to legally stow firearms in their parked cars.
“One of the benefits of being surrounded by tea party Republicans is the legislature sucks up a lot of the bandwidth, a lot of the air in the room, so to speak,” said Brandon Puttbrese, spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, which is outnumbered on Capitol Hill 96 to 35. Haslam isn’t coated with Teflon, but more like an “oil slick,” he said.
“While Gov. Haslam is rubber-stamping this extreme agenda, he’s not necessarily getting blamed for it,” said Puttbrese.
While Haslam won the governor’s office with 65 percent of the vote, the number of people willing to express their opinions on politics and policy at the ballot box are still low.
The year voters elected Haslam, the state had one of the lowest turnout rates in the nation. Some 41 percent of citizens over 18 voted 2010, according to the Tennessee Secretary of State. In last year’s presidential election, almost 62 percent cast their ballots.
“There’s not a whole lot of people paying attention overall, and that has nothing to do with partisan politics,” said David Briley, who sits on the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee and independently litigates cases against the state.
“People don’t pay as much attention to politics as they once did. And when you combine that with the fact that there is one-party rule in our state right now, it’s really two factors that combine that make it seem like he is not someone who [faces] consequences for mistakes he makes,” he said.
“At some point, he may reach a decision that is contrary to that vocal right-wing cohort in the legislature, and then all of the sudden, he may not look so bulletproof,” he said.
Briley is now involved in a legal battle that singles out the governor and members of his administration for wrongly evicting dozens of Occupy Nashville protesters from the marble slab above Legislative Plaza in 2011. The lawsuit seeks damages for the arrested protesters and is expected to go to trial later this summer.
A recent public opinion poll suggests at least one of the controversies that have happened on Haslam’s watch has little effect on voter’s opinions of him.
Over the past nine months, news reports have highlighted internal problems within the state Department of Children’s Services, which is responsible for protecting at-risk children. The findings ranged from a flawed case-management system, calls reporting abuse going unanswered and difficulty tracking child deaths.
The fight eventually led to a battle over the department charging $55,000 to share case records with the public. The files were eventually released, and revealed systematic problems within the department, such as workers sometimes taking months to record or update details for a child’s record.
But voters who have read about the troubles at DCS don’t think any differently of Haslam, according to a poll by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Of the 813 registered voters polled in May, 63 percent who had heard or read about the investigations into DCS said they approved of the governor — an identical approval rating as those out of the loop on the agency’s issues.
“I think a lot of times, people in general don’t understand how really bad these issues are, and so it doesn’t change their minds,” said Sherry Jones, a state representative from southeast Nashville who has led the charge criticizing the agency handling child welfare.
Jones repeatedly called on the governor to fire DCS Commissioner Kathryn O’Day, who got the job after working in Knoxville while Haslam was mayor. But Haslam didn’t dismiss her; he accepted her resignation months into the controversy and insisted she had been driven out because of public pressure, not her performance.
Jones said she couldn’t explain why the governor’s approval rating wasn’t affected by the tribulations of DCS, except to say voters’ attention tends to be directed elsewhere.
“I know that people generally concentrate on local government — what they look at when they open up their door in the morning. The street, the barking dog, the grass cut, the lights — that’s what they’re centered on there.
“Federal government, they see that all the time in the paper. And they generally have a tendency to confuse federal legislators with state legislators,” she continued. “People are confused about what we do or they just care about looking out their door and what’s going on around them. And if you’re not personally touched by one of these issues, a lot of times you just don’t pay attention to it.”
‘He doesn’t anchor himself down’
Haslam, who spent time in upper management operating a chain of gas stations, looks at running government like a business. The method has apparently aided him in avoiding some political pitfalls that come with outright declaring support for one idea or another without fully vetting the position first.
“He doesn’t shoot from the hip very often,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, the governor’s most powerful legislative ally.
Haslam’s colleagues say he researches almost every decision he has to make and seeks out opinions from people in those fields before coming to a conclusion. But other times, those strategies open him up to criticism for being indecisive, lacking backbone or for testing the political waters before making a call.
“I’m sure a lot of people go, ‘Just make up your mind, buddy.’ Or, ‘You’re trying to wait to see where the wind blows,’ etc.,” Haslam told The City Paper.
“I don’t take this job lightly, in the sense I realize it does come with a lot of weight. Sometimes I have the very final say, but oftentimes I can carry a very influential point, and I want to make certain that I’ve thought through that well before we decide where we’re going to push,” he said.
Haslam often takes so much time to decide issues that the controversy has died down and a different issue is front and center, said Ben Cunningham, a spokesman for Tennessee Tax Revolt and an activist with the Nashville Tea Party. While members of his faction are happy with the governor cutting taxes like those on groceries, inheritances and investments, Cunningham said he would like to see the governor be more decisive on issues like opposing Medicaid expansion.
“It’s pretty difficult to really tie him down, because he doesn’t anchor himself down,” Cunningham said. “He does not really inspire great feelings one way or the other, because he doesn’t express great feelings one way or the other.”
This inherently nonconfrontational style is also important in another sense. While Haslam may be the governor, his power to strike down bills the legislature wants him to sign is very limited.
Tennessee gives its governor the weakest veto power in the nation. State senators and representatives need only a simple majority to override his veto. The risk of political embarrassment from the legislature overruling him translates to Haslam using his political capital sparingly, and taking time to explore where he stands on bills he might want to ax.
So far, Haslam has nixed only two bills, neither of which so far has come back to haunt him.
His first veto killed a bill in 2012 that would have required Vanderbilt University to recognize student clubs that actively discriminate in their membership, such as religious clubs that ban people who don’t share that faith. While the governor said he supports that measure in public colleges, he said he wouldn’t impose those requirements on private institutions.
This spring, he vetoed legislation that would have required anyone capturing video of abuse of livestock to share the images with local law enforcement within 48 hours. The issue became viral, attracting attention from entertainers like Carrie Underwood and Ellen DeGeneres, and the Humane Society of the United States, which argued the bill would crack down on long-term undercover investigations into animal abuse. The governor eventually vetoed the bill, citing an attorney general’s opinion that questioned the bill’s constitutionality.
“We have the weakest one you can have. So I think you use it judiciously,” Haslam said about his veto power. “You realize if you’re going to overturn a bill in the legislature, you better have a very persuasive argument.”
Lack of competition
Haslam might catch more political heat if someone else posed a clear risk to him keeping his job, political observers say.
With 15 months to go, Democrats have yet to line up a serious candidate willing to oppose Haslam in next year’s gubernatorial race. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh earlier this year flirted with the idea, but has yet to pound the pavement, launch a campaign or show serious signs of running.
“He’s very lucky there’s not a good, solid, viable gubernatorial candidate out there that would be raising these issues on a daily basis,” said Jerry Winters, a longtime lobbyist for teachers who fought the governor on implementing several reforms. “I’m not blaming anybody, but the Democratic bench is very shallow, and if you had someone out there daily raising these issues, his favorability ratings would not be what they are today.”
The Tennessee Democratic Party says it will be ready with a challenger who can put up a fight against Haslam. But the party was short on details over who would run against Haslam and when the race would officially start.
Even with 132 elected lawmakers pushing their own agendas in the state legislature, Democratic criticism of the governor is tempered. Instead of launching grenades at the state’s GOP leader, legislators who could take aim at Haslam pick their battles carefully — and constantly return to the mantra that Haslam is a fair man who they at times disagree with.
Teflon, but not invincible
While the governor has enjoyed fairly calm political waters, he still has some potential storms in the distance that could complicate his tenure.
Although he runs the state with the luxury of one-party rule, there is the potential to be sucked up into party politics. This spring, top Republicans in the state House and Senate took frustration over failed bills out on each other. What resulted was the untimely death of several initiatives for the year and the exposure of tension within the GOP majority.
While Haslam has remained largely on the sidelines, one of his own proposals died from intra-party bickering. The measure would have allowed low-income students at the state’s worst schools to attend private schools using taxpayer dollars. When a band of Republicans pushed hard to expand the program to more students, Haslam pulled his proposal, embarrassing legislators who’d promised some sort of voucher program this year.
While Haslam wasn’t married to the idea of school vouchers in the first place, the tussle over the legislation foreshadows what can be tense negotiations with the legislature over other key bills the governor cares about, and can throw a wrench in Haslam’s plans to get things done.
One such issue is the question of expanding the state’s Medicaid program under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. After much consternation over whether to usher in key parts of so-called Obamacare, the governor ultimately punted earlier this year on what he called a difficult decision whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program, known as TennCare, to some 140,000 more poor people. Members of his party argued the costs for the program are too high for Tennessee, and others rejected the idea because of its link to the federal health care plan, which is unpopular in the state.
While the federal government pays for the expansion in full for three years before scaling down to paying 90 percent by 2020, Haslam begged off the expansion. He said that decision came in part because he didn’t want to give benefits only to take them away in three years when the federal government began handing Tennessee some of the costs.
But what he did do was announce he would seek out a third option — a way to use the federal dollars sitting on the table for Tennessee without expanding the TennCare program proper. Instead, he wants to use the money to buy private health insurance for some 175,000 poor people, including co-pays.
With three camps in the argument — on one end, tens of thousands of people who stand to benefit from a program that offers the poor access to health; fierce Obamacare foes on the other end; and frugal state spenders somewhere in the middle — the decision has the potential to backfire on the governor if his alternate plan fails or he can’t sell it to the legislature. That battle is “a huge uphill climb,” Haslam told The City Paper, “even bigger than I thought it was.”
While the governor continues with his day job, he also has family problems back home to distract him. His family’s truck stop company, Pilot Flying J, is the subject of a federal probe of sales employees allegedly defrauding trucking company customers to boost company sales and employee commissions.
The governor said he has faith the problems will be fixed at the $31 billion company, run by his older brother Jimmy. But the probe is still looming. And while Haslam last worked for at Pilot a decade ago, the investigation is far from over.
Allegations from federal court filings suggest Jimmy Haslam knew about the scheme and was a fan of it, but so far he’s denied he knew the practice was going on. Where the investigation will lead — or whether it will weave in the governor — are uncertain.
What the public thinks about Haslam, given the accusations about his family’s business shorting customers, is still unknown. The Vanderbilt poll conducted last month left that question out.
“It was such a new issue at the time, we didn’t know how to ask about Jimmy without getting people confused,” said John Geer, co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The next poll, which is conducted in the fall, may question registered voters about their thoughts on the Pilot investigation if it’s still ongoing, he said.
“I would caution anybody who tries to mix issues of the allegations against Pilot right now and the governor. That is a colossal stretch for anyone to try,” said Tom Ingram, a private political consultant for the governor, and also for Jimmy Haslam as he navigates the company through the FBI investigation.
“It energizes people who are looking for something to talk about,” he said. “I think the relevant point a challenger should look at is the governor’s popularity, is the governor’s record, and this governor’s ability, and issues as they specifically relate to this governor. That’s a pretty formidable set of assets going into a campaign.”
While the question of whether there is more than a tangential tie between the governor and the alleged wrongdoing at Pilot is still unanswered, the investigation is restarting debate about the governor’s refusal to reveal details about how much he has invested in his family’s company.
“I don’t think that Gov. Haslam has anything to do with, personally, the Pilot Oil problems,” said Wamp, who said he has no plans to run for the governor’s office again. “But at the same time, I think people want to know what their executive leaders are involved in financially.”
Haslam’s decision to withhold his income tax returns during his campaign, despite fervent calls from his opponents to show exactly how much he earns from Pilot, didn’t hurt his ability to take the governor’s seat. But Wamp said transparency is still an issue the public needs to think about. The Democratic Party is also beginning to call for the governor to reveal his Pilot-related income.
“In politics, you can overcome a lot of liabilities if you do a good job and if you’re straight with the people,” said Wamp. “I think we’d all like to see more transparency, but I think Gov. Haslam is a very honorable man who is serving our state well.”