NASHVILLE—Republican Bill Haslam swept the governor’s race last year but may be having a tougher battle against the hardline conservatives in his own party who are in charge of the Legislature.
“There’s been a historical divide in the Republican Party and anybody who thought after the election that was going to go away is wrong,” said Tennessee Conservative Union President Lloyd Daugherty. “It’s so embedded. It’s been there so long.”
Case in point: the GOP-controlled Senate’s push to strip the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, of its collective bargaining rights.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, whom Haslam trounced in the gubernatorial primary last year, has rallied support from conservative and tea party activists for a complete repeal of bargaining rights for teachers.
Just as he has on many other initiatives championed by conservatives, such as anti-illegal immigration bills, Haslam has sought to steer clear.
He said he preferred to focus on his own educational priorities — making it tougher for teachers to win and keep tenure and expanding charter schools.
However, when his ally, House Speaker Beth Harwell; House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga; and others patched together enough Republicans to support a scaled-back bargaining bill, Haslam quickly jumped in to support it. The House bill restricts but does not eliminate negotiations.
Some tea party activists, many of whom backed Ramsey in the GOP primary, have denounced Haslam as “weak” and “socialistic.” One compared him to mild-mannered Mr. Rogers, the late PBS children’s show host.
Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said Ramsey has been “clearly out there with a harder line.”
A number of Senate Republicans are backing Ramsey and pushing on legislation ranging from increased opportunities to carry handguns in public to crackdowns on illegal immigrants, he noted.
“That’s probably not where Haslam wants to go,” Oppenheimer said.
But Haslam may be creating his own problems by consistently refusing to take firm public stances on a number of bills, Oppenheimer suggested.
“I think that inadvertently he’s looked more passive than he might want to be and that invites people who have agendas to push them through the Legislature, to test that,” Oppenheimer said.
Ramsey rallied the right on the bargaining bill with an “Open Letter to Conservatives” on his Facebook page, asking them to “stand with me in this cause to make sure we as Republicans are who we say we are.”
Haslam later posted his own Facebook entry — an op/ed piece he wrote that appears in some newspapers. In it, he noted officials run in partisan elections but are asked afterward to work together.
Haslam also has complained that “Everybody in this field says, ‘Who’s on the right on this, who’s in the middle and who’s on the left?’ And I’m always going to be about, ‘What are the changes we want to see happening practically? ... What are the things that really make a difference?”
Smoothing the waters
Though “moderate” is practically a fighting word in the GOP, former House Speaker Kent Williams, a Republican who became an independent after letting Democrats elect him speaker in 2009, says it applies to both Haslam and Harwell.
“I believe Haslam is trying to smooth the waters. I think he’s trying to keep the Republican Party united, and I don’t think it is united,” Williams said.
The Tennessee Conservative Union’s Lloyd Daugherty said Republican legislative conservatives were excited when they completed their takeover the House, Senate and governor’s office last year.
“I know there’s been some talk that, you know, ‘We can show the rest of the country what Republicans being in charge can really be like.’ But I think with Haslam as governor, they’re going to be kind of hard put to make a huge contrast with the rest of the country.”
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, a Ramsey friend, said Republican senators are largely following up on legislation they passed in recent years that went nowhere in the House.
“I think clearly the Senate has been working on some things for a number of years,” said Watson, arguing there is now a “healthy dialogue” between the executive and legislative branches.
Dr. Rick Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the GOP success may be the root of Haslam’s problem.
“He’s dealing with a large majority and it is factionalizing,” Wilson said.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, noted Ramsey is experienced and has “been effective in taking the legislature where he wants it to go.
“Gov. Haslam is going to have trouble, you know, when he and Speaker Ramsey are headed in two different directions.”
We’re all elected
Ramsey has blamed the media for playing up the divide.
“I know there are some in the press who want to do everything they can to drive a wedge between the governor and me and Beth and me,” he said in an interview.
“That’s not going to happen. All of us feel like the [teachers’] union contracts need to be addressed. We’re in agreement on that. It’s just where we go within that.”
Ramsey said he considers Haslam a “personal friend,” but he noted “all of us were elected also, the last time I looked. And our Constitution has three branches of government on purpose. So I don’t think anyone in this state would want the legislature to just fall in line with the executive branch.”
The collective bargaining bill represents a “classic” philosophical argument over “whether labor unions are productive to education or actually a hindrance,” said Ramsey, who noted Haslam is relatively new on the job and “hasn’t lived through what I have lived through in my 19 years in the Legislature.”
Ramsey said there is no element of sour grapes involved regarding his third place finish in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. Haslam, who outspent his rivals, won the GOP primary with 47 percent of the vote. Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp had 29 percent and Ramsey had 22 percent.
“Let’s be honest,” Ramsey said, “when you get outspent $15 million to $3 million you lost the race. That doesn’t bother me the slightest bit.”
Williams, the former Speaker, said Haslam should be ready for a continuing challenge from the right.
He won’t be surprised if Haslam faces a hard-right GOP challenger in 2014.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if that opponent’s Ron Ramsey to be honest with you.”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...