A well-compensated, well-respected, thoughtful political consultant with a proven track record of success would probably call it “bad optics.”
Fortunately for Gov. Bill Haslam, his chief political consultant, Tom Ingram, is well-compensated, well-respected, thoughtful and has a proven track record of success. Unfortunately for the governor, the latest bit of bad optics for his administration was caused by Ingram himself.
In a series of emails revealed as part of an investigation by WTVF-Channel 5, Ingram’s eponymous consulting firm is shown to have high-level access to top people in the administration.
A couple who run a company cited for lying to state investigators hired The Ingram Group and subsequently were present at a bill signing. The governor’s chief of staff later wrote in an email he had spoken to the state insurance commissioner about the couple’s case.
Later, Randy Boyd, Haslam’s special adviser on education, met with a provider of online education for community colleges. The meeting was in The Ingram Group’s offices.
The governor insists he pays Ingram out of his prodigious personal fortune, and Ingram insists he is not a lobbyist, but a consultant, and thus doesn’t need to comply with the state’s rules on lobbyists.
While Ingram and the governor very well may be complying with the letter of the law, it doesn’t look good.
Were the circumstances different, a savvy operator like Ingram might advise Haslam on a strategy to separate himself from the situation.
In Haslam’s case, that would be par for the course, as much of his political rise and success as governor has come because he deftly distances himself from controversy. He triangulates in the legislature — maintaining the influence necessary to advance his agenda while not aligning with the fear-mongering conspiracists, Ayn Rand acolytes and anarcho-Christian fundamentalists who have managed to seize and corrupt the definition of “conservative” in Tennessee.
He’s locked his investments in a blind trust so as to defuse any accusations he’s profiting from companies that get state contracts. His Pilot stock isn’t included in that trust, but any troubles at his family’s company aren’t connected to him, because he’s hands-off, he says.
The governor who got through the first half of his term by frequently refusing to take stands — the man once soft-pedaled criticism of the screeching secessionists in the legislature by saying that he didn’t “think it was a valid option for Tennessee” — suddenly has found a handful of hills to die on.
His education commissioner, Kevin Huffman, is under fire for a new teacher pay plan — one that scraps a decades-old system that rewards advanced degrees and length of service with a performance-based model. Huffman and the state’s teachers have frequently been at loggerheads, and the pay change certainly didn’t alleviate the tension.
The old wait-and-see Haslam would have been in front of the media — all smiles and bromides — gushing about the dialogue Huffman started. New Haslam stands staunchly by his man, defending him as a reformer who has moved Tennessee forward on public education.
How one feels about his decision to defend Huffman breaks largely along party lines, but seeing Haslam take such a firm stand is a shock for both sides of the aisle.
Even more shocking is that Ingram — the man who crafted Haslam’s squishy strategy of separating himself from controversy — hasn’t advised the governor to break ties with the man whose connections are starting to looking curiouser and curiouser: Ingram himself.