In last year’s gubernatorial election campaign, his opponents dismissed Bill Haslam as an amiable featherbrain incapable of leadership. He seemed to play the role with TV ads revealing the candidate’s love of hard work, nice-guy politics, chocolate pie and very little else.
After the first six months of his governorship, Haslam’s public persona remains a work in progress — a topic of mystery to the media and state political watchers. As Republicans promoted an aggressively conservative agenda in this year’s legislative session, the governor tried to remain aloof, distancing himself from controversial proposals and refusing to take positions on much of what his own party’s leadership was doing.
Is Haslam a closet moderate who might block the more extreme of his party’s ideas? Or is he a conservative going out of his way not to offend fence-sitting centrist voters for the good of his own political fortunes and for his party’s as a whole?
Democrats prefer a third option. They paint Haslam as a cipher in the governor’s office, a stereotypical politician waffling indecisively while conservative cowboys in the legislature shoot up the saloon.
“True leaders don’t sit back and hope things work out as unemployment rises and our children fall further behind,” Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester said in issuing a failing report card for Haslam’s first half-year in office. “Leadership means knowing when to step back and when to step up to make sure the system works for Tennesseans and their families.”
According to the Democratic talking points, Ron Ramsey — who finished third in the GOP gubernatorial primary last summer — is running state government by default. The Senate speaker, for his part, has stopped openly criticizing Haslam but seems unable to give the governor much better than backhanded compliments. In a speech to Sumner County Republicans this summer, Ramsey praised Haslam mainly for his
willingness to admit it when he’s clueless.
“I want to tell you something, folks. Bill Haslam is the real deal,” Ramsey said. “He may not be as conservative as I am on certain issues. He is a good Christian man, a good family man. I’ve never heard him say one bad word about anything.
“In any kind of leadership, if you don’t know something, say you don’t know something. Just say I don’t know. Time after time after time, he came to us and said, ‘I’m new on the job, I don’t know this,’ and it worked out well every time.”
In an interview with The City Paper, Haslam gave a vigorous defense of his leadership as governor and blamed the news media for the perception of himself as hollow.
“You see a governor’s role being a lot different than I do,” he said. “I think you see a governor’s role as being one that’s about positions and influencing legislation. I see that as a piece but only a piece of the job. My much bigger job is helping drive a 43,000-employee organization and doing everything from taking care of folks with mental health issues to educating 4-year-olds and Ph.D. students and building roads and working hard to bring jobs to Tennessee and working hard to drag us out of the bottom when it comes to education. I see what happens on Capitol Hill as being a relatively small percentage of what I’m doing. It would be in my top five, but it’s not one, two or three.”
The governor complained that the media paid little attention to the appointment of the first superintendent of the Tennessee’s Achievement Student District, an attempt to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools. At the same time, reporters closely watched the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to ban the mention of homosexuality before the ninth grade in Tennessee’s public schools.
“The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill didn’t pass and probably is never going to pass. At the same time, we hired Chris Barbic to run the Achievement School District, which is a huge deal. That got this much attention,” the governor said, holding his fingers an inch apart. “ ‘Don’t Say Gay’ got 100 articles. Well, something’s wrong with that picture.
“ ‘Don’t Say Gay’ is real sexy and yada yada yada. It’s not going anywhere. Who runs the Student Achievement District is huge. But you’d be lucky to find two paragraphs on that.
“I say we’ve got a product to deliver, and I’m going to focus a lot of my time on delivering that product. People say, ‘Well, you weren’t 100 percent engaged on the session.’ That’s fair in one way. I probably will be more engaged going forward. But I’ve also got a job to do.”
Haslam said he is focused working behind the scenes to improve public schools and the state’s economy and to cut costs in the operation of the government.
“Those are real problems,” he said. “If we’re not working on them, they are not going to be addressed or it’s going to cost us money or our kids aren’t going to have as much opportunity. I don’t think that by focusing on that I’m ducking issues.”