In his speech accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for governor Thursday night at the Downtown Hilton, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam said he’s the right leader for a state in need of a good one, intoning what has become a mantra in this campaign. Before about 700 people primed by a high-energy cover band whose repertoire included “Rocky Top,” Haslam cited his experience as president of Pilot Oil and the six-and-a-half years he’s been atop Knoxville’s chain of command as evidence of the claim.
Just about an hour before, Democratic nominee Mike McWherter took the stage at a 200-person soiree in the West Club Level of LP Field that was demonstrably lower-key than his opponent’s. Taking the stage to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got a Feeling,” McWherter said he, too, is the right leader for a beleaguered state. He cited his experience as owner and operator of Central Distributors as evidence of the claim.
Haslam mentioned jobs and economic recovery, education and small government, but he kept the policy positions vague.
McWherter mentioned jobs and economic recovery, education and slightly less-small government, but he kept the policy positions vague.
As the two men prepare for the general election in November, they will consider ways to define themselves comparatively. But examining what each has already said in interviews with The City Paper, at debates, on the campaign trail and via their websites reveals that they are, it would appear, surprisingly similar.
Both men descend from the Tennessee aristocracy: Haslam is the son of Pilot Oil founder “Big” Jim Haslam, and Mike McWherter is the son of former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter.
Both are eager for you to know of their experience atop corporate ladders, both have the aw-shucks countenance of a country boy down to a science, both have thin Second Amendment credentials, both are avowed Christians who believe in intelligent design — McWherter even said during the last primary debate that he would take no umbrage at a “blend” of science and religion in public schools.
Both have thus far preferred to discuss the budget, jobs and education on the campaign trail, while other candidates got wrapped up in social issues. Both have been vague about their solutions to complex and difficult policy issues, instead sticking to platitudes upon which everyone can agree: We like to learn, we like to work, we’d rather not be in debt.
Haslam and McWherter are each planted firmly in the moderate soils of their parties.
It’s “old money” versus the legacy. But between them, the two can claim little ideological, philosophical and even practical distance.
The economy and schools
When it comes to the budget, both candidates seem determined never to be tagged with the scarlet letters of a state income tax. That’s no surprise, since uttering those words while walking across Legislative Plaza is the quickest way to draw an angry mob.
In interviews with The City Paper and on the campaign trail, each has talked about how he would submit a balanced budget for the state to live on, although state law requires that every budget submitted be balanced. On that front, Haslam has repeatedly called for austerity, suggesting for months that — in the absence of one-time stimulus money received under Gov. Phil Bredesen — the state will stare down a $1.5 billion gap in the revenue stream. Haslam warned of diminished state resources without being specific, saying he would offer many small cuts rather than a few big ones.
McWherter, too, speaks frequently about a balanced budget. Like Haslam, he applauds Bredesen for fiscal responsibility. And although he challenged Haslam’s shortfall figure — saying stimulus funds were spent on one-time projects rather than reoccurring expenses in the general fund and, ergo, the rest of the house is basically in order — McWherter also suggested a revenue challenge could be imminent, invoking a similar call for austerity.
As for creating new jobs in a state where unemployment sits at more than 10 percent, both men talk about the need to assist economically distressed rural counties through corporate recruitment efforts, targeted tax incentives and continued low taxes. The language they use on the stump is similar in nature — and similarly short on details.
Haslam has said he would create a position called the “Director of Small Towns and Rural Development” to help kick-start rural economies. He has stopped short of offering tax breaks for small businesses.
McWherter wants to expand the state’s Rural Opportunity Initiative and Main Street Program. He told The City Paper he would offer small businesses tax breaks for creating new jobs, but not an across-the-board cut.
There is a shard of daylight between the two when it comes to education.
McWherter advocates the expansion to all 95 counties of the voluntary pre-K program founded by Bredesen. He said studies support his notion that children with such an early education do better in the long term.
Haslam is taking a wait-and-see approach to pre-K, saying he wouldn’t consider an expansion until more data is available on the effectiveness of the program — and until the state’s budget picture improves.
Speaking of data, both McWherter and Haslam are gung-ho about data-driven schooling. Both lament the fact that Tennessee doesn’t seem to use much of the data it collects on students in public schools. As well, the two seem eager to implement Tennessee’s $500 million Race to the Top programs, which will be the province of the next governor.
Haslam and McWherter also share a more dubious distinction among some in their parties: They’re too moderate. While Haslam was accused over and over of not being conservative enough during the primary, McWherter’s stances on what have been framed as social issues garnering national attention seem to contradict those of many in his party.
When it comes to health care, both Haslam and McWherter claim they would control the cost of TennCare and stamp out fraud and abuse. But the real fight will come over health care reform law — derisively called ObamaCare — and could be based largely on semantics.
McWherter has said the reform package passed by Congress is “the law of the land,” and as governor he would not join in lawsuits to fight the federal mandates to states. But he also said — in perhaps a strange countering of his own logic — he would work against “unfunded mandates.”
Haslam, meanwhile, has said essentially the same thing about mandates. He said he would “pursue every available option in order to prevent the damaging impact of federal health care legislation on our state,” stopping short of the wild rhetoric of some Republican counterparts.
Neither takes the party line on immigration.
The Republican primary — in which Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp succeeded intermittently in steering the conversation far rightward — may have conjured a retaliatory stance on immigration from Haslam, who, after prodding, acknowledged he would sign a far-reaching Arizona-style immigration bill into law but would not pursue one himself.
“As governor, I will enforce the laws on the books and will cut off the supply of jobs going to illegal immigrants by ensuring that only legal residents are being hired by Tennessee employers,” he said.
Asked whether he, too, would sign such a bill, McWherter demurred. Like Haslam, he said the first place he would look to crack down on illegal immigration would be in the workplace, rooting out businesses that hire undocumented workers.
In a race toward the political middle, both men seem stridently on pace.