Mid-way through Gov. Bill Haslam’s first legislative session, Speaker Beth Harwell met at a downtown hotel with a group of Republican lobbyists and Republican association types. At one point in the conversation she asked how everyone thought the office of the governor was performing. The response was nervous looks and general silence. Finally one participant spoke up and said: “It’s horrible. We can’t get a straight answer on anything from anyone.” Harwell then asked what individual or individuals within the administration were considered key contacts. “That’s just it,” said another lobbyist. “There isn’t anyone.” The others around the table all immediately nodded their heads. “There is no ‘go-to’ person who can make a decision and back it up.”
Harwell then asked “what about (then-deputy governor) Claude Ramsey?” Their response was Claude was a nice guy but was not engaged and was not like past deputy governors who were hired to “make the trains run on time.”
What about Mark Cate?” Harwell offered. That suggestion drew derisive guffaws and eye-rolls. At that point Harwell stopped her questions and pivoted to that week’s legislative agenda.
Now fast forward to Rep. Jonny Shaw’s comments before the Jackson Sun’s editorial board a couple of days ago. In an interview, Shaw said he believed the GOP legislative super-majority “did not trust their own governor.”
Shaw was close to accurate in his observation, but missed the mark. It’s not that many in the legislature do not trust Bill Haslam, Rep. Shaw. It’s that they do not respect him.
By “respect” we are not referring to Haslam’s personal character or his likeability. He genuinely seems like a nice guy. It’s the governor’s political ability that they do not respect. And when a governor’s political ability is brought into question, that is when the long knives come out. No legislative politician wants to fall on his or her sword on behalf of a governor who seems either politically or ideologically incapable of shooting straight or following through.
For the first three years of the Haslam administration, legislative leaders — particularly Speaker Harwell and Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, brow-beat those who sought to change or challenge the administration’s agenda with admonitions of “don’t embarass the governor.” During the last session, that tactic was steamrollered by legislators who had simply had enough of the attempts to force them to rubber-stamp the administration and they pushed backed hard on issues ranging from gun rights to vouchers, to charters to Common Core. And then, of course, there is the fiscal note fiascos (see Monday’s RTP story:”Let’s Get Fiscal) that created at seething resentment that is still palpable weeks after adjournment.
Shaw also inferred Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey did not like Haslam and was still mad about losing to him in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010. For those of us who see Ramsey in action nearly every day during session, it is obvious that is not true. Ramsey personally likes Haslam just fine. But it is equally obvious that Ron does not respect Bill as a political leader or as an ideologically consistent conservative. Never one to leave a vacuum unfilled, Ramsey has simply stepped in to oppose or tweak the administration pretty much whenever he feels like it. That impugnity and “lack of respect” by Ramsey is one that has been widely noticed and learned by the denizens of the LP.
What does this all mean? It means that Bill Haslam is about to endure the longest lame-duck tenure in Tennessee history. And the legislative rabble at the gate is getting restive and creative with how they will slice and dice the governor’s agenda in the future. And legislative leaders who insist on abusing their positions and the rules to do the administration’s bidding at the expense of their caucus may find their position is not one of lame ducks, but dead ducks.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to thee, Governor.