By Erik Schelzig
The Associated Press
NASHVILLE - The Tennessee Tea Party drew sharp rebukes from Republicans on Wednesday for claiming Gov. Bill Haslam showed "socialistic" tendencies in his previous role as mayor of Knoxville.
The group is angry at Haslam for failing to support a Senate bill that would do away with teachers' collective bargaining rights. But Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, of Blountville, called the group's statement about the governor "absolutely ridiculous."
"You don't get anywhere by calling people names, or by insulting people," Ramsey said.
Haslam has endorsed the House version exempting several areas like merit pay and evaluations from negotiations, but stopping short of eliminating all union bargaining. He laughed off the tea party description in a news conference after a speech to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.
"I've said all along that I'm not going to get in the name-exchanging business with anybody," he said. "I don't know how to be more clear, but we've tried to focus on things that really matter. And I'll leave all that stuff to somebody else."
The tea party group in the newsletter sent out late Tuesday bases its appraisal of Haslam on his support for environmental sustainability programs while mayor of Knoxville.
"By all accounts he is a progressive who was able to leverage family fortunes towards a victory in gaining the Governor's seat," according to the Tea Party newsletter. "One only needs to look at his track record as mayor of Knoxville and his embrace of the socialistic principals such as sustainability and his Agenda 21 initiatives."
Agenda 21 is a United Nations environmental initiative that Haslam denied playing a role in during last year's campaign.
House Republicans have said the governor, who won in a landslide last year, deserves to have his education agenda placed on the front burner. Haslam's initiatives include making teacher tenure more difficult and lifting a cap on charter schools.
The tea party group disagrees with that approach.
"Frankly we don't care much about our governor's agenda. He is the executive of the State and the representative of such and not of the people," according to the newsletter. "Our House and Senate are the people's representatives and thus should serve our interests through thoughtful legislation."
Republican Sen. Jack Johnson, of Franklin, the sponsor of the Senate version of the collective bargaining bill, said he considers himself a member of the tea party. But he said the group has gone too far in comments about the governor.
"They've gone overboard, and I'm very disappointed they would use that characterization," he said.
Johnson said he's hoping the two versions of the bill can be reconciled to more closely match his original intent. He said he's working with House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Haslam to come to mutually acceptable solution.
"We do disagree at this point in terms of exactly what bill should say, but it's far too premature to be accusing the governor of being socialistic," Johnson said.
Haslam won last year's Republican gubernatorial nomination without major support among tea party activists, who largely endorsed Ramsey. Ramsey came in third in the primary. Tea partiers also largely opposed Harwell's election as House speaker.